Fall’s Creepy Crawlies

There is a train of thought in Oklahoma that when an elderly person dies who tended to the trees on their property with great loving care during their mutual lifetimes, the trees tend to die shortly after the elderly person’s demise. And unfortunately, this has happened to people we’ve known and their big, beautiful trees in far greater frequency than what seems probable.


In one case, it sort of made sense with a couple of next door neighbors we had in Tulsa, Oklahoma who were quite the gardening enthusiasts – they had been active in the local garden societies for decades and were the best experts I knew to ask about any problems with trees and plants. When the husband died, an enormous elm tree in their back yard (which shaded a good portion of my backyard) died just a few months later. It was a sad day to watch the tree surgeons safely cut this giant stalwart of the neighborhood into chunks as they gradually took down the dead tree. These arborists felt that this tree died because the husband was always having them out to remove parts of the trees affected by the “Dutch Elm Disease” (a fungus carried by a type of bark beetle which has destroyed many beautiful elm trees throughout the state, as well as across North America and Europe). As the neighbor was ill and he was not able to attend to his trees as much as he once had been able to, the Dutch Elm Disease eventually took over the stately specimen to the point where it, too, died suddenly.


Sadly, there was another smaller elm tree in their front yard which died within a year of the demise of the wife (who outlived her husband by about 3 or 4 years). You guessed it – Dutch Elm Disease took over and killed this tree, too. People who were steeped in the local Native American traditions said that these trees were “mourning the loss of their owners” because they believed there was a lifelong bond between the trees and the people who planted them. It’s kind of a sweet, endearing thought that living plants can be that in-tuned to the people who cared for them the most, and I guess that’s why people still insist on this being true.


Bark-Devouring Beetles


Imagine my poor husband’s shock when recently, we went to his late-mother’s home (where she had lived for over 50 years) to do some work on the property, and we noticed piles of small branches from her pecan trees laying all around the yard. (Regular readers may recall that my mother-in-law passed away in early March this year.) There were two pecan trees badly affected, in particular, by my late-mother-in-law’s garage which her father had planted when my husband was a teenager. These were definitely the two progenitor trees to all the other pecan trees on their little parcel of land due to “the squirrels planting all the rest”. Since squirrels are known to gather the pecans; bury stashes of nuts in the ground in soft, moist areas – like along a creek bed; eventually, within a few years, a small grove of pecan trees sprouts from the squirrels’ underground caches. Lawn enthusiasts are always fighting these errantly sprouted saplings which they see as an invasive, undesired plant, but my in-laws only let the ones along the creek grow to help keep erosion in check. The results actually are very nice – that is, until the small limbs started falling off this month!


We haven’t exactly gone through the autumnal deciduous leaf-shedding this year, probably because it has been a very warm fall so far (although the trees’ annual leaf-drops are usually triggered by lessening the length of time during the day that they receive sunlight). And, it seemed strange that maybe ¼ of the foliage from these trees by the garage were laying on the ground still attached to sticks which broke off the trees in wind storms. Most of these foliated twig brushes had a very small, wooden diameter at the point where they had broken between ¼ to ½ an inch (roughly 0.5 cm to 1 cm diameters). And the breaks were very clean and precise (almost at right angles to the growth of the sticks) like some organisms chewed the bark off in perfect little circular bands all around the branch. I seemed to remember something about local insect pests that perform this behavior, but all I could think of was the common-nickname of cutworms. However, local cutworms affect garden vegetables like emerging tomatoes, beans, and corn plants – and not trees.


Not having a lot of time to research this (and I didn’t have my own computer with me to look this stuff up – only my husband’s work and personal computers which are both so heavy-laden with informational files that they don’t function well for little tasks like searching the Internet or posting my blogs for “The Jerusalem Post”), I grabbed a couple of the more freshly-fallen twig/leaf bunches and headed to a garden center in the next town over which is home to the state’s agricultural university. I thought I could find someone who could help diagnose the problem with the trees with all of the agricultural college graduates trained at this expert university (and pecans are considered an important cash crop in eastern Oklahoma).


The first place I stopped was run by a sweet Mennonite family. For those who never heard of this religious group, they are part of a branch of Christianity that led also to the Baptist and Amish movements. While they are very traditional and conservative, they occupy a niche that is like a compromise between the Amish and the Baptists – they are accepting of many advances in the modern world (like using airplanes for their missionaries to travel to missions’ locales around the world) but they try to live a simple, uncomplicated life where they have time to reflect on the ways of  G-d and to study the Bible. The best analogy of their lifestyle to institutions in the Jewish cultures of the world would be if members of a Haredi yeshiva were to live on highly-productive kibbutzim which provide way-above-average, high-quality produce and food products. (The Mennonites are also well-known for their equally high-quality, rugged, handcrafted furniture which stand the trials of growing families over time to become heirloom pieces.)


I like to support people of faith who believe in the  G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so I decided to ask their advice and if possible, to purchase what they recommended. I brought into their shop my two little twig bunches and explained how all the branches on the ground fell in a recent storm as it moved into the area. One gentleman examined the really clean cuts on the sticks and asked, “Did you do this?”


“What?”, I questioned. “You mean, did I cut the branches neatly like this? No, they broke off the tree this way.”


His first answer (as he handed the leafy twigs back) was, “Well, it must have been the wind!”


I replied, “Yes, I understand what you’re saying – it was the wind which knocked these off the trees. But it is like some insect. worm, or borer cut all of the bark and external tree tissue off of these first, and then they were vulnerable to break in the strong winds.”


He replied, “Well, what do you think did the bark damage?” If I really knew, I wouldn’t have been talking to him, but I stayed polite while conversing with him.


I explained about how cutworms did work like that in gardens, causing main stems of vegetable plants to break off, but that this probably wasn’t the same as garden cutworms. I heard on a local public television gardening program that there was some kind of insect that did that to nut trees on the littlest branches, but I couldn’t remember what it was. The light in his eyes suddenly turned on, as if we were finally in-tune to the same radio frequency, and he recommended a product which he said killed everything he knew of, including the hard to kill pine-bark borers which were wiping out the Southern Pine forests in the state. He said that this spray was a systemic treatment where the tree gradually absorbed the insecticide making the tree toxic to these little bugs that “want to chew up the trees”. Then he explained that the trees best absorb the chemical through their leaves.


I had never heard of a tree treatment absorbed through the leaves, but I had used systemic worm treatments which were absorbed through tree roots which had the same effect. I asked him if this was going to be effective if the trees were going to lose the rest of the leaves in the next few weeks, and he said he didn’t know. He had never heard about root systemic treatments though, but seemed pretty sure this would work in the same way. He thought out loud, “You can try it and see if it helps, though. It looks like these trees need some sort of treatment now or they will get sick and die. With this delivery system, you just attach to a hose and spray the chemical way up in the tree.” He reassured me that the delivery system would spray way up into the crown of the 50 to 60 feet tall trees (roughly 15 to 20 metres tall) and that I that I also try treating the roots like I did for other trees in the past.


“You won’t know for sure until you try! We don’t know what to use since we don’t know what kind of critter is harming your trees! But you can’t harvest the pecans for 2 to 3 years though since it is a systemic toxin. It is kind of a gamble, but if you want this year’s crop of nuts, don’t treat the trees now!”


I reassured him that my late-mother-in-law had been so infirm that she hadn’t harvested the pecans for a few years, leaving them to the squirrels and other local wildlife to consume. Since the local fauna were used to this food source, we would have to “taper into the amount annually to harvest for ourselves” over the next few years so the animals didn’t starve. He nodded in approval and cheerfully sold me several dispersal units to hook up to garden hoses to treat the trees.


Driving home, I kept seeing these ugly, mottled. gray-and-black, long-antennae-bearing beetles walking all over the interior of the pick-up truck I was driving. So, I kept rolling down the windows to “shoo” them outside of the truck (so I didn’t have to deal with “squashed bug-gut goo on the inside of the windows” later!) Little did I know, until I was able to access my own computers at my home that these beetles were the culprits of the tree damage!! They turned out to be Oncideres cingulata, or the “Twig girdling beetles” as they are more commonly known; these insects lay their eggs in the parts of the tree which subsequently break off in order to disseminate their offspring.. They are members of the long-horned beetle family, and they are distinct in that their antennae are usually longer than the lengths of their thoraces (i.e., bug bodies, singularly known as a thorax). Since the preparations which the nice Christian gentleman at the garden center sold me contained the generic chemical, “Imidacloprid”, which targets long-horned beetles, we had come up by “guesstimate” a pretty good treatment for these pecan trees. I also learned online that this product is also absorbed by the trees by means of the bark and roots (in addition to the leaves), so the trees could be treated anytime of the year – whether they have leaves or not!


While the spray really didn’t make it up to the crowns of these old pecan trees, they did make it up 15-30 feet on the tree (that is, only 1/3 to ½ of the way up into the tree) and killed a bunch of caterpillars known as “bag-worms” or “tent worms” on the lower branches. These worms usually don’t need an insecticide treatment because if the affected parts of the trees are trimmed and the limbs are burned, that is usually enough to kill this type of pest and keep them from returning. But it was nice to know this “spray that was supposed to kill anything” immediately worked on these worms.


Red Ant Stings


The next day after spraying the trees, my husband and I went to church with his sister-in-law who plays piano at her church (I have adopted her as “my sister” in an attempt to simplify explaining what our relationship is to each other, just like I have adopted his step-sister as “my sister”). This week, his sister-in-law had in tow her two youngest grandchildren, who are “our” great-niece and great-nephew, and these two can really be the sweetest kids on the planet (just like our older great-niece and great-nephew) or an unstoppable destructive force of nature (really, NOT like the older two!). My “sister” asked us to watch the two children as she performed, and we agreed. The great-nephew alarmed my husband by showing him a “bug bite” on his right elbow that was really bothering him, and asked if “Doctor Cathy” (meaning me – they already have another Aunt Kathy, so this is how they distinguish between their aunts with the same name) could look at it. It was itchy, red, swollen, and had a white center, and my husband was perplexed what it could be. It was kind of late in the season for mosquito bites, but the white, gooey-looking center made my husband concerned that it was infected.


My best guess is that it was either a red ant sting or a tick bite – both can evoke an inflammatory immune response where white blood cells (usually neutrophils but sometimes eosinophils, in an allergic-type reaction) invade the site of the sting or bite. The unusual thing about this "wet-ish", white core is that it is usually free from bacteria, or it is a “sterile pustule”, so it isn’t a true infection. There is some debate in the medical community whether these wounds should be lanced; most doctors (including all who trained me) say don’t break the skin over these because that could be a place to introduce bacteria where there were none before.


But when it comes to little kids who usually can’t stand the itching, they usually break open the raised area of skin over the bite by excessive scratching, and all the fluids leak out. Then, it feels a whole lot better to the children, and they completely forget to tell responsible caretaker adults about the whole thing for aftercare (then they get infected!). When I’ve seen these in the office, usually I explain to the families that the best thing is to leave them wounds alone, but little patients don’t tend to tolerate this very well.

Then, with the parents’ permission, I clean the area with alcohol, puncture the white dome of the site with a sterile needle (which the kids usually don’t feel since the whole site is so irritated), clean the area with hydrogen peroxide (the kids love it when it foams all over the place – they think it is cool!), apply an over-the-counter triple anti-bacterial ointment, then keep it covered with a small bandage (changed twice daily) until the area heals. Some children still have itchiness after sterile puncture of the sterile pustule and I tell the families it is okay to use a little over-the-counter 1% hydrocortisone cream or ointment under the triple-antibiotic ointment and bandage. (It will take a couple more days to heal, but the patients are more comfortable and everybody is happier!)


Spider Gliders


Driving back to our home all the way across the state, when we got to the area where the plains meet the semi-arid region known as the “Gloss Mountains”, I kept seeing spider webs flying through the air, especially after dark when our headlights really highlighted the floating gossamer strands reacting in response to the whims of the breezes. At first, I thought it was from lots of peoples’ fake spider web Halloween decorations – this fibrous stuff is usually sold in stores where the fibers are compactly compressed together in a clear plastic package, and then the Halloween decorator can pull the stuff apart to make creepy-looking webs for presumably huge spiders which inhabit haunted houses. But at the ends of each wispy strand dancing in the lights, there was a tear-drop shaped aggregation of web silk which on closer examination contained a tiny, baby spider inside.


My husband didn’t believe me at first – “Spiders can’t fly!”, he exclaimed. “They don’t have wings!” But I explained that these were gliding like kites on the wind with a long, single strand catching the wind and conveying along a balloon-like compartment on the end closest to the ground for containing spiderlings (yes – that is really a word!). “I’ve lived in this state most of my life, and I’ve never, ever seen gliding spiders! Are you sure you aren’t just making this up?” I replied no, and that when I traveled to Chicago a couple of years ago in the Spring, that the high-rise buildings and hotels were warning people to keep the windows shut to keep out these “spider kites”. Chicagoans were actively having problems then with strange invading spiders coming into dwellings and offices up to 50 to 70 stories above ground!


We had a long, heated discussion about how he didn’t think spiders had behavior like that because it was too energy-intensive to waste web material and the little spiders would probably die anyway when they impacted something substantial. I suggested that when we got home and looked up answers to the pecan tree pests at his mother’s house, we needed to look up on the Internet whether spiders migrated in such a manner. He agreed. And we found some species of spiders migrate or disperse like that to encourage genetic diversity in their hatching locales as well as to move newly-hatched spiders to areas where they have survival advantage by better hunting grounds. Some spiders have these little balloon-like attachments to single-strands of webbing and some spiders (especially in Texas) make bigger triangular-shaped “web kites”.  In the southern, central part of the US, the cooler autumnal temperatures stimulate the hatching of such spider species, whereas in the Upper Midwest of the US near the Great Lakes, the warming spring temperature cause these species of spiders to hatch from eggs.


However, he was right that larger, adult spiders would not survive migration by these means without getting smashed and killed. Therefore, only the light-weight, newly-hatched spiderlings would undertake such a hazardous journey. Only the smaller babies could make a teardrop or balloon-shaped container light enough to contain them and still be effectively transported via the winds.


It kind of reminded me of the reptiles like alligators or sea turtles which lay large repositories of eggs. Then when the hundreds of baby reptiles hatch from the nest, only a handful will survive to adulthood because most of the little ones will be devoured by predators. Only, in the little spiders’ cases, some have a rude, fatal “crash-landing” without any “travel insurance policies”!


Monarch Butterfly Migration


One of my favorite things about having a home organic garden is that the marigolds, nasturtiums, and zinnias I plant as deterrents to adverse insect pests actually act attract butterflies. This is especially true after late-August when the vibrantly colored, orange-and-black Monarch butterfly migration begins and lasts through the first frosts. This year, the migration has been exceptionally long, probably because our weather has been a lot warmer than usual. It always makes my heart soar and sing when I see these very welcome visitors make a “pit stop” to drink a little marigold nectar in my backyard. To encourage these winged wonders to visit, I’ve planted large banks and rows of yellow marigolds in strips between the rows of vegetables. Local pilots have said that these make gorgeous floral displays from the air in an area where we have few formal gardens!


The destination for these beautiful creature is a tropical forest in central Mexico where they spend the winters. Then when the rest of the Northern hemisphere warms in the Spring to temperatures the butterflies like, they begin a northerly migration to feed and reproduce. It is hard to imagine how such a delicate creature can withstand journeys like this over thousands of miles annually and still have the energy to reproduce. Yet, the species persists against the odds. It is just mind boggling to me!


But it helps me appreciate the diversity of the varieties of insects in nature such as twig-girdling beetles, red ants, and spiders. If we didn’t have these insects actively surviving and inhabiting the world’s biomes in balance with each other, then we probably wouldn’t have the inspiring species such as the stunning migrating Monarchs perched atop beautiful drifts of marigolds in a semi-arid area.