Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Helping my winter houseguests

It's early winter, climatologically speaking, in Vermont, which means I've been dealing with the stragglers from the autumn ladybug invasion. It's too cold for them to be safely relocated outside (they don't, after all, really want to be inside our dry, nearly foodless, excessively warm homes. They're just not very bright, and don't get it that burrowing deeper in some cases will get you worse, not better, winter digs). So, it's been the usual ladybug death watch here, watching them grow weaker and more desperate, and sweeping up the carcasses....

Until I realized it didn't have to be this way. Ladybugs are sold by the thousands to gardeners every year. That meant that someone, somewhere, was breeding these things. Which meant that somewhere out there, in the great body of information called the Internet, was information on how to care for ladybugs. And so I Googled.

What I learned was this: the species most often found in homes is the Asian lady beetle. Some find it a nuisance and consider it an invasive species. But since both I and my parrot are "invasive species" (this doesn't look like the horn of Africa, now does it?), we don't hold that against our mostly benign visitors. They are a very long lived species of ladybug, and can live for 2-3 years, occasionally reaching the ripe old age of 6.

Our homes kill them because they dry out -- they need a moist environment, and as everyone knows our homes in the winter are brutally dry. They prefer a good aphid, but they are omnivores and, in captivity, will thrive on a diet of raisins soaked in water till they are plump, then drained and chopped. Water should be provided in the form of a damp paper towel or cotton ball or a similar damp object, never as an open container of water, because our bug guests are not rocket scientists, and will drown.

Right now I have gathered 11 survivors in an old Lafeber's Nutriberry bird treat container. Peri had graciously agreed to empty the last of it for our guests, difficult a sacrifice as that was for my little glutton and food tosser ;) I ventilated the container with the sharp end of a compass, added a wet paper towel, and then added a helping of apparently delicious damp raisin (they were all over the raisin the moment I added it).

Most of my guests arrived in bad shape. For one, it was too late. The rest perked up after getting moisture and a bite to eat. I've noticed a pattern as I've added newcomers to my beetle bed and breakfast: after the initial shock, they go to the wet paper towel and bury their faces in it for a long, hydrating drink. Then, they head for the raisins, and replenish what must be an almost depleted fat reserve. And finally, the smaller males, now full of energy, chase the larger females around the container a few times before successfully mounting them and doing what comes naturally. Maslow would be proud.

I've also noticed that once I amassed a critical mass of bugs, the others still loose and lost in the house started seeking them out. One of my most recent additions I found running around the outside edge of the lid, apparently trying to figure out how all those members of her own species got in there. I of course opened the lid and demonstrated how it happens to my new guest.

I have not added, or even seen, a live ladybug wandering about the house for the last two days. In all probability I've gotten the last of them. Once they're all looking fit, I have a decision to make: refrigerate, or not? Normally, these bugs would go dormant during the winter, and successful dormancy would prolong their lives. But refrigerating these bugs is a tricky thing, given their tendency to dry out and that our refrigerators are designed to keep things stored in them dry. I've seen intelligent arguments both in favor of refrigeration and for leaving well enough alone.

So what does any of the above have to do with Hard Core Spirituality? We're obligated to care for each other -- even the lost little ones that others call "pests". This obligation is not theoretical, nor abstract, nor merely symbolic, and it is nontransferable (though efficiencies from division of labor still apply, and being honestly unable to help grants dispensation).

My houseguests are a reminder that a bite of wet raisin is often very much better than an uplifting lecture about how Spirit provides or a condescending lecture on how to responsibly overwinter in Vermont (trite sayings about teaching others to fish notwithstanding). If my "pests" survive, they will be a welcome gift to the community garden here in the spring. If they don't, they will at least have had a few more days of moisture and sweetness and running about mounting each other, and thus will have contributed a bug's worth of joy to a dessicated world thirsty for happiness.

What about 11 bugs in a bird treat tub isn't about Hard Core Spirituality?

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