Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Missing Vermin

I feel like I'm courting disaster to even say it, but here it is:

Our new farm is mysteriously lacking in certain key pests.

When we were preparing to buy the property, I developed a game plan to deal with the critters from whom I expected trouble.

The cleft just below the house (what I like to think of as the plumber's buttcrack of our personal topography), where a perennial spring comes to the surface and begins a deeper ravine along the long axis of the property, features dense brush and perpetual damp. On the advice of my friend Janeen, I bought a butt-crack-kicking Echo weed-whacker, with the intention of clearing out most of it. It seemed like the kind of place where troublesome pests would set up home base for raids into the tamer areas of the farm.

The butt-crack. This is the top portion, the sort of plumber-butt segment at the top of the ravine, viewed from the back deck. It gets deeper, darker, moister and hairier as one goes downhill.

My plan to control garden-raiding groundhogs was simple: Let Pip free-range. This has worked precisely as expected.

And I also made plans to deal more directly with the Big Three arthropod pests. I'm averse to chemicals and lazy, so this mainly meant arranging for others to do the dirty work.

Bat houses and a purple martin house, to help control the West Nile and heartworm vector mosquitos that must surely swarm from the vicinity of the spring.

Hanging traps and the ever-popular husband with a can of politically incorrect wasp killer to take out the ground-nesting hornets and German yellowjackets that get nasty in late summer, and pose an immediate threat to my life due to an overly-enthusiastic immune system.

Guinea fowl to eat the vile, Satanic, Lyme-disease-carrying ticks from the eighth dimension.

We've been here all summer, in a house where the windows have either crummy screens or none at all. I may have suffered three mosquito bites. Seen a couple of yellowjackets (and squashed them, on the theory that eliminating the scouts may discourage the army). And found not one single tick among four dogs, three cats, and two humans.

I think the answer to these mysterious absences lie in the power of biodiversity.

The mystery of the missing mosquitos is solved every night, as we watch our resident barn swallows perform airs above the ground in the space between the house and barn. Several guano heaps in the barn and outbuildings is a small price to pay for their elegant presence and diligent attention to their appetites. There are also scores of species of other songbirds, some of which I have not yet identified, and have never seen in my life. And the dragonflies who join the swallows as my aerial escort when I mow. But I believe the swallows are the backbone.

We've been surprised to find that mosquito control is apparently accomplished entirely by the day shift workers here. I haven't seen any bats, despite the many bat-friendly structures and grandaddy trees here. We will try bat houses on the south-facing wall of the barn next year, just because we like these critters, and, as the cavers' t-shirts remind us, murcielagos necesitan amigos. I hope the swallows don't mind the competition.

The dearth of blood-sucking arachnids is the most complete, and most welcome, of our absent arthropods. The normal density of white-tailed deer frequent our acres; they bed in the hayfield and the eastern end of our larger pasture, travel through the woods to drink below the spring, help themselves to apples and crabapples in the overgrown trees, bulk up on acorns, and likely yard up in winter in the pines that mark our northern property line.

There should be ticks. This has been a bad tick year elsewhere. I've used Frontline on the dogs once -- after we all trained at a notoriously tick-ey state gameland, and found dozens of the monsters on each dog and on ourselves. (When are they going to sell me some Frontline For Peoples?) I had to tick-bomb my car after that outing.

Did I mention how much I hate ticks?

But in addition to deer, we have a healthy flock of wild turkeys. They have brush cover, acorns, berries, cherries, and bugs to eat here; apparently they like ticks best of all.

The day after we closed on the house, a big tom entertained me by performing his sexy dance thirty feet from my office window, while several more demure ladies eyed him from the brush.

And turkey guano is the Axxe body spray of the discriminating teenage farm dog. (Smells like burnt tractor tranny fluid and ass.)

Again, I'm willing to suck it up and apply shampoo in return for services rendered. Happily, even.

I got guineas anyway; just don't think I need them for tick-patrol.

The yellowjackets should have appeared in late summer, getting stoned on apple drops, guarding trash cans, dogging our barbeques, crawling into Coke cans and becoming pissy about the fact that they were soon to die.

But they're just not here.

What is here are honeybees, solitary bees, bumblebees, carpenter bees. Giant hornets, solitary wasps, colonial wasps -- big black ones with baroque waistlines, tiny parasitic ones. Scores of species of hymenoptera, and millions of individuals. The pastures, hayfield, fruit trees, mint patches, and the shaggy butt crack hum all day when the sun shines.

As an anaphylactic who is now a confirmed cross-reactor -- woo hoo! -- this would make me nervous if I didn't know three things:

-- If I leave them alone, they'll do their level best to leave me alone.

-- Harmony volunteer ambulance is a fast and professional ALS service with highly skilled paramedics. Don't ask me how I found this out.

-- Many of these wasps eat those nasty little yellow-striped communist bastards. That's where they all went. Into the bellies of monsters like this:

(Found already deceased in the dogs' water bucket; no predatory wasps were harmed in the making of this blog.)

A lot of things end up eaten by one of these, too:

The hayfield is swarming with them; Zorak here is eating a cricket, her salary for the photo shoot.

The diversity of bird and insect life here is a direct result of the diversity in the land. We have overgrown hayfield, pasture, woods with both old trees and young ones, brush and bramble, lawn, swamp, and stream. Because the multiple pastures are long and narrow, the edge habitat is maximized. And edges are where it all happens.

My fervor for shaving the hairy buttcrack of this farm with a string trimmer has dampened. The bramble, pokeweed, Joe Pye, lamb's quarters, goldenrod, fleabane -- everything except the burdock, which had a talk with the machete and the fire pit -- is wild and rank now. I hang laundry from my deck above and watch its edges, where it meets woods, pasture, barnyard, lawn and water. I never know what might happen next at the boundary.

1 comment:

  1. Hey - Glad to hear that the sexy trimmer with all the trimmings will be more lawn ornament than best friend!


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