Nature blog: The insects of Heaven’s Hillside

This post originally appeared on April 15, 2012 on Nature Writing.

During my nature writing class at Chatham University’s MFA program, I had to keep a weekly nature blog. Each of us picked a place and spent thirty minutes in that place each week, and then wrote a blog post about it. I’ve just bought a house and moved away from this place, so I thought reposting these entries would be a good way to celebrate the time I’ve spent there. I’ll tag each one “natureblog2012.”

Sketch of some insects and bugsAt some point in the transition from childhood to adolescence, I stopped liking bugs and started being a little freaked out by their multiple body parts and jointed appendages. I used to relish the various bug collecting projects assigned to us in elementary school, the task of collecting enough species with my net, sticking them in jars along with rubbing alcohol-soaked cotton balls, waiting for them to die, and then carefully pinning them to a cardboard backing and labeling each one. To this day, the smell of rubbing alcohol reminds me of bug collecting.

Now, I’m learning to tolerate them again. The only bugs that ever really really freaked me out are thousand leggers, and only really when they’re near my bed. Stink bugs freak me out too–especially their soft white underbellies and the way they crunch when you squish them–, but I don’t mind them as much as thousand leggers. Thankfully, I’ve only seen one of them in three years of living in this house. We do have an abundance of spiders, and those I don’t mind at all. They eat mosquitoes (something I neglectfully left off my sketch). Aside from mosquitoes, we get a few types of moths that I’ve been unsuccessful in identifying. More annoyingly, we get yellow jackets in the summer. And stink bugs in the fall, of course.

Today, after yesterday’s wonderful soaking rainfall that we needed so much, I saw some earthworms moving about. I’m sure that made the robins happy. In addition to providing birds with food, earthworms have incredible soil benefits. Their physical presence and burrowing actions keep the soil open and prevent too much compaction, which is bad for root systems. They also help break up leaf and other dead organic matter through digestion, which improves the fertility of the soil. Some research suggests that good farmland supports up to 1,750,000 earthworms per acre, and that even in poor soil, up to 250,000 worms per acre may be present.

Rolly polley bugs, also known as pill bugs or potato bugs, is another creepy crawly that makes itself at home in my backyard and feeds on decaying plant matter. Rolly pollies are actually a type of woodlouse, and as the nickname suggests, rolls into a ball when touched. Some people apparently keep them as pets. They regulate their temperatures the same way as snakes: by sunbathing when it’s cold outside, and hiding in the shade when it’s hot. I’ve never found a rolly polley in my house, but I never have to look hard to find one outside. Apparently they can live for up to three years as pets. I’ve always thought they were vaguely cute, especially when they roll up into a little ball.

I’ve only ever seen one butterfly species in my neighborhood: the cabbage butterfly. I only ever see one or two at a time flying in my backyard. I enjoy watching them flap about the stinging nettle, especially now that the denser foliage makes bird watching much more difficult. The cabbage butterfly is named so because its caterpillars munch on that crop, causing lots of damage. The species hails from Europe and was introduced accidentally to North America, where it’s spread across the continent and become abundant. Although I enjoy the butterfly stage, I have found cabbage butterfly caterpillars on my petunias before, and I can’t say I enjoyed the holes they left in the flowers. Today, though, in the 70-degree weather, I saw only butterflies.

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