American Dagger Caterpillar, Cute—Not Cuddly

American dagger caterpillar

I grabbed my phone and dashed outside to take pictures.

I didn’t need to be quiet or stealthy or dressed in camouflage. My prey wasn’t a squirrel or bird or bunny, and it was still there after I ran around the back of the house and entered the front yard.

I’d spotted the neon-yellow, fuzzy caterpillar with four black spikes through my kitchen window, a gateway to what I think of as an urban wildlife reserve in my front yard.

The caterpillar was oblivious to me while I snapped pictures. Next, I opened an app on my phone that lets me submit a picture of an animal, insect, or plant then identifies my subject. (This kind of stuff reminds me of watching Star Trek in the 1960s.)

My app revealed that the neon-yellow critter would become an American dagger moth. The moth’s markings are pretty—a symmetrical combination of geometrics and zigzags, but its coloring—shades of black to pale gray—give a gloomy, mysterious vibe. Cloak and dagger, I thought, imagining a tiny dagger concealed under the cloak of each wing.

I wondered, Why the name dagger? and What did it eat? and What ate it?

James Baker, Professor Emeritus of North Carolina State, explains the name dagger comes from the patterns on its forewings, which look like tiny daggers “if you have a good imagination.” I don’t see it, but I still think I’ve got a good imagination—remember my fantasy about moths concealing tiny daggers.

My research revealed it’s not a good idea to touch or pick up these fluffy caterpillars because they can cause skin irritations. I never contemplated picking it up. Doesn’t matter how adorable an insect is, I don’t touch it.

American dagger caterpillars eat the leaves of hardwood trees like maple, and there are three mature maples my yard. I couldn’t find any information about what eats the caterpillar. But after reading about caterpillars that sting or cause skin irritations, I’m guessing nothing does. It’s bright color and black spines serve notice to predators—danger, danger, warning—do not eat. However, bats and birds and lots of other critters eat American dagger moths in both its larvae and adult stages.

Research suggested that if you want to get rid of dagger moth caterpillars, brush them away with a broom or step on them (warning—not barefooted!) or treat your yard with a landscape insecticide. Given that dagger moth caterpillars rarely travel in marauding herds, this sounded like shooting a fly with a cannon or lighting a candle with a blowtorch or grating cheese with a chainsaw. People tend to see only one or two of them at a time. I’ve only seen one all summer.

A better idea is to understand the importance larvae and moths (and benign caterpillars) have in the food chain. A better idea is to live together with nature. A better idea is to abandon the idea of perfect lawns and landscapes sponsored by too many chemicals.

COVID Times: When a Root Canal Becomes a Social Outing

Paddle the Island 2021, the sign-up board

I needed a root canal.

It took one hour and fifty-two minutes from the moment I sat in the dentist’s chair to the time I got out of it. Not bad. Although, in that time I could’ve paddle boarded almost twice around Barker’s Island.

At first my dentist said he’d do a temporary root canal because it could take one to two months for me to see an endodontist who would do a permanent root canal. “You can’t have a toothache that long,” he said. I admired his philosophy about toothaches. A week had already been too long.

He drilled through my crown, surveyed the roots, and declared, “I can do this. It’s an uncomplicated root canal, but I don’t know until I see the roots.”

Besides presenting with cooperative roots, my other contribution during this procedure was holding my mouth open for almost two hours. But during another wave of COVID-19, I decided my trip to the dentist’s office should also count a social event for me.

My dentist is friendly, so between his wizardry with the dental tools, we chatted. I’m infinitely curious about almost anything involving tools. My dentist was happy to explain the procedure as he went.

So, I have root canal highlights to share. (Go ahead and make your oxymoron jokes.)

I liked the sound made by a drill small enough for Tom Thumb to use. The tiny drill, used for drilling into roots, held a thread-thin bit curled in a perfect spiral. It sounded like the hand-powered drill I use for minor jobs around the house. Both the dentist and his assistant were amused that anyone would find the sound of a dental drill pleasing. I got their point because it was the first dental drill I’ve liked.

There’s a drill bit called the White Shark. I didn’t need that one. Good thing. I saw Jaws as a teenager, and decades later I still have no desire to swim, surf, or sail in ocean waters.

There’s a drill bit called the X Bit. Rarely used, it’s for drilling into the jaw of a patient who isn’t getting numb using the normal techniques. My dentist doesn’t like to call it the X Bit because he thinks it sounds scary. Instead, he calls it “the fun drill” when he asks the assistant for it. I wondered if some patients might interpret “the fun drill” as verbal irony when they hear him request it. I didn’t need that one either. Double good thing. I saw too many Frankenstein movies as a child.

“Your tooth only has three roots; some teeth have four,” he explained.

“My tooth isn’t like Venice if it only has three canals,” I said.

He asked why.

“Because Venice has four canals,” I said.

“Really? I’ve never been to Venice.” He believed my three-canal line.

I couldn’t string him along, so I told him, “I making this crap up,” and we laughed like we were sitting on a patio with friends and family, drinking beer, and sharing funny stories. (Venice has 177 canals. I looked it up when I got home.)

After my roots were drilled clean of all dead and dying matter, he said, “Now I use Smear Gear to clean out any leftover debris from the canals.” The name Smear Gear (its real name) cracked me up. In word-association mode, I thought about childhood games of smear the guy with the football where we mercilessly tackled the person with the ball. No protective gear was used.

Next, he told me he had to fill my canals with a rubber from South America. (Its funny-sounding name didn’t stick in my brain.) At first, I thought he was joking, getting back at me for my four-canals-in-Venice joke, but it turned out he was serious.

“Tell me you use a tiny caulk gun to insert the rubber in the root canals,” I said. “That would be adorable.”

“Actually,” he said, “It looks like a tiny glue gun, and it heats up the rubber.”

Sure enough, when he used the rubber gun, it sounded like when I pump the trigger on my glue gun.

After my roots were filled, the dentist capped the hole in my tooth, checked my bite, and asked if I had any questions. I didn’t. The assistant removed my bib, raised the back of the dental chair, and said to call if I had any concerns. I said I would. The three of us said goodbye and wished each other a nice day.

My social outing was over.

But I’m having my teeth cleaned in November, and if the COVID numbers don’t drop, that will be my next big social shindig.

Middle of the Ocean

September 6, 2021

I went paddle boarding on Superior Bay today because every day I get on the water before winter is a treasure.

Along the outside of Barker’s Island, northeasterly winds pushed against me and made the water choppy. To avoid becoming a human sail shoved in the wrong direction, I knelt, paddled fast, and kept the board moving forward.

After I rounded the tip of the island and entered the calm waters on the marina side, I stood up, slowed down, and looked around. The jubilant sky was azure blue with wispy clouds, as if Bob Ross had painted them with a wide brush, using bold, sweeping strokes of brilliant white paint, while cooing, “Let’s add happy clouds in the sky.”

It’s a tale of two sides of the island when the wind comes out of the northeast, and I could’ve made up for lost time. Instead, I paddled as if I were strolling through botanical gardens. White clouds lilted across the blue sky. Ducks swam on the water and took flight when I neared. Boats pulled out of slips, headed to open waters. Children ran on the sandy beach, then dipped their feet in the lake.

I glided by the marina and noticed my favorite boat—a 66-foot yacht named after a righteous Disney character—moored at its slip. Someone polished its gleaming white surface while listening to the song “Middle of the Ocean.” The soothing lyrics and lazy tune serenaded me, as I edged by the yacht, which could cross the ocean if it wanted to.

When winter comes, I wonder if my dream yacht will sail for warmer waters or enter winter storage.

I’ll deflate my paddle board and go snowshoeing—and hum the tune “Middle of the Ocean.”

Belt Safari

[Note: I wrote the rough draft for this essay last August. This August I dusted it off and polished it up because the event still makes me smile. And because sometimes, I procrastinate!]

I pull on my shorts and turn to grab the belt from the blue jeans I wore yesterday.

Empty belt loops stare at me.

I look on the floor, under the bed, and on the hook in the bathroom. No belt. I search the living room and my closet. No belt. I rummage through a load of clothes in the washing machine. No belt. I’m now looking in places I know I won’t find it, but I’m desperate. It’s my favorite belt, and it’s reversible—brown on one side, black on the other, an accessory with dual functionality.

I’m shocked that I can’t find it. It’s not one of those wide belts from the 1980s, resembling a four-lane highway, but it’s still forty inches long and three-quarters of an inch wide—bigger than the earring I lost for two months, then found in the bottom of the dishwasher. I don’t look for my belt in the dishwasher.

I wonder: Is my brain short-circuiting? Am I in a science-fiction movie? Did my grandkids put it somewhere?

I can’t blame my grandkids because I was wearing the belt yesterday when their mom picked them up. But I want to; it would be easier. When I was a child, anything my parents couldn’t find was blamed on my siblings and me. Convinced we usurped the item and lost it, they yelled, “Find it, right now.” While this was occasionally true about the kitchen scissors or pencils or the clean clothes we hid in my sister’s closet because we hadn’t folded them, it wasn’t true about some things my parents couldn’t find—like random pieces of mail from the stack by the phone. But unable to find my belt, which has vanished, I understand my parents’ belief that the unexplained disappearance of an object must involve children.

My grandsons, Evan, almost four, and, Charlie, almost two, arrive. The belt search must wait. I tell myself, Go about your day and the belt will reveal itself. I hope it doesn’t take two months like my earring. I’m still not looking in the dishwasher.

Distracted by busy toddlers, I forget about the belt, for the most part. Still, in brief interludes, I search where I’ve already searched. The absurdity of looking again and again on the floor, under the bed, and on the hook in the bathroom isn’t lost on me. I even look in the belt loops of pants I didn’t wear yesterday. There’s a line I won’t cross—I don’t look in the dishwasher. If I had time, I’d have a meltdown, but Evan and Charlie provide too many diversions.

“Look at this, Nana,” Evan says.

“Hi, Nana,” Charlie says.

“Can you read me a story?”

“Eat, eat.”

“Can you put new batteries in my train?”

“Di-dy.” Charlie’s pooped his diaper.

“Nana, I hafta go potty.”

“Outside?”

“Can I watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse?”

“Me thirsty.”

Variations of these conversations go on all morning and into the afternoon. When Charlie takes a nap, my work load is halved, and I wonder about my belt.

“Evan, help Nana look for her belt.”

“Okay, where is it?” he asks.

“It’s lost.”

“Why?”

“Because I can’t find it.”

“Why?”

Evan’s interested in finding the belt, but he’s asking why a lot more than he’s looking. I open my junk drawer, find a small pen flashlight, and turn it on.

“Evan, take the flashlight and look under the couch and behind the couch for my belt.” I know he won’t find it, but I hope to slow his jabbering, so I can concentrate on finding my belt.

He accepts the flashlight like he’s Luke Skywalker and I’m Obi Wan Kenobi, and I’ve handed him a light saber. (Flashlights fascinated my siblings and me when we were little, and thinking about it, I remember my parents looking for those too.) Evan wields the light in corners, under furniture, and in closets. He keeps asking, “Why did you lose your belt, Nana?” He’s looking for my belt in places where it won’t be found. But the belt has inexplicably vanished, so maybe it’ll turn up in a place that defies logic.

While Evan is brandishing the penlight, I retrace my steps from last night, hoping to jog my memory. Nothing comes to mind.

After fifteen minutes of looking everywhere but the family room where Charlie is sleeping, Evan’s fascination with his light saber wanes, and I can’t think of anywhere else to look. We pass the rest of his brother’s naptime with books, blocks, and Evan’s occasional, “Why did you lose your belt, Nana?”

When Charlie wakes up, he’s surly. The three of us go outside because fresh air improves Charlie’s mood. We walk across the deck, descend the stairs, and traipse across the grass on our way to get toys from the shed.

I spot a long, brown entity stretched out tip to tail in the grass, sunning itself under the warm afternoon July sky after last night’s cool rain.

“My belt,” I shout.

“Where, Nana?” Evan asks.

“There.” I point. “Sunning itself like a snake in the grass.”

Similar to video replay, it comes back to me, what I couldn’t conjure up earlier when I tried.

I dozed off last night while watching TV, and when I rose to go to bed, my dog decided she wanted to go potty. But I had to go first. When I finished, I pulled up my jeans but didn’t zip or button them or buckle my belt. I was tired and figured I’d just have to undo it again in a couple of minutes. I went outside with the dog, who piddled, then I went back inside to bed, but not before my belt slithered onto the grass.

“Why is it in the grass?” Evan asks.

“It fell out of my belt loops last night when I took the dog outside.”

“Why did it fall out?”

I explain.

“Nana, was your belt really a snake in the grass?” he asks.

“Yes, a sneaky snake sunning itself so it could dry off because it spent all night in the rain.”

“But was it really a snake?”

“No,” I say, “but do you think it’s fun to pretend it’s a snake?”

“Yes.” His face grins in all directions. He asks me to tell him the story again. He wants all the details. He’s sorting out what happened and why. I’m not sure what Evan learns from my experience, but he never laughs at me or asks me why I didn’t buckle my belt or zip and button my pants.

I learned I should buckle my belt when I leave the house. And, I maintained some dignity—I never looked in the dishwasher.

Flying Wally

The bird feeders are supposed to be for birds. The baffle keeps squirrels from accessing the feeders. They climb the pole, reach the baffle, try to climb over it, but slip when it tilts.

Then Wally, a grey squirrel, showed up last week. (He was nameless when he arrived.) I was washing dishes and looking out the window where I’m often entertained in turns by different birds, rabbits, and squirrels. Chickadees flit from the cedar tree, grab a sunflower seed, zoom back to the tree, eat, and repeat. Goldfinches and cardinals come with their mates and perch on the trays of the feeders. Juncos eat spilled seeds off the ground, and nuthatches hang upside down on the feeders, picking seeds through the mesh. Rabbits munch on dandelion leaves, clover, and grass, and squirrels also forage seeds from the ground.

Wally wanted a bigger share of the sunflower seeds. Winter is coming. He needs to prepare by storing fat, both for insulation against the cold and for energy reserves when food is scarce. He climbed the pole and tried to circumvent the baffle. He failed, but he didn’t give up. He climbed one shepherd’s hook and perched on the curve closest to the feeders hung on another shepherd’s hook. He looked, he calculated, he jumped. And he missed, landing gracelessly on the ground. He climbed the shepherd’s hook again, looked, calculated, jumped. And missed. He ran off, I assumed, humiliated—I would’ve been.

But Wally came back the next day. As I did dishes (again), I watched him climb the shepherd’s hook, look, calculate, and jump. I waited for him to fall to earth. But he stuck a perfect four-paw landing on top of the shepherd’s hook with the bird feeders. He paused for a moment, and I wondered if he was relishing his aerial triumph. Then he climbed onto a feeder, clutched the mesh, hung upside down, and noshed seed. The bird feeders are supposed to be for birds. I opened the kitchen window, and the noise sent him leaping to the ground and scrambling around the corner of the house.

I felt a twinge of guilt. It was only a three-foot jump, but it was precise, balanced, impressive. Squirrels are designed for jumping, and horizontal leaps of six to nine feet are routine. They have muscular, oversized hind legs, double-jointed ankles, and needle-sharp claws. Wally is designed for breaking into bird feeders.

I kept washing dishes, while, as it turns out, Wally was regrouping. In less than five minutes, he was back—his need to winterize overrode his fear of the noise I created. He climbed one shepherd’s hook and looked to the other one with the feeders. I thought, You can’t make the leap twice in a row. He jumped. I thought, You’re going to fall. He executed another perfect four-paw landing, climbed onto the mesh of the feeder, and continued eating while hanging upside down.

I admired Wally’s talent and tenacity. I didn’t open the kitchen window. I let him eat. I’ve lots of seed in the basement. The birds can share.

Because this squirrel keeps visiting the feeder, and hasn’t missed a jump since he mastered it, I named him Wally in honor of the Flying Wallendas.

Grey squirrels don’t hibernate, and I wonder, Does Wally have a prediction about the coming winter? If I leave the second shepherd’s hook up for the winter, maybe he’ll keep showing off his leaping skills, so he can stuff himself with sunflower seeds on cold days. And I’ll be entertained while doing the dishes.

Flowers in a Summer of Pandemic Lull and Surge

Lake Michigan

July 27, 2021. I left my home on the western shores of Lake Superior to visit my mom on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. It’s a nine-hour trip across northern Wisconsin, through the Upper Peninsula, and over the Mackinac Bridge.

The delta variant, snaking its way around the South, hadn’t seemed to arrive in the North.

My last trip to Mom’s was three weeks earlier. My next trip was supposed to be at Christmas when snow and ice bloom and high winds roar off the lake.

I decided to visit again because the pandemic canceled last year’s Christmas plans. And I’m not hopeful about this year’s plans.

I came by myself, leaving my husband and dogs at home. I wanted to spend time alone with Mom. We shared stories, ate Indian and Thai takeout, and walked her dog along Lake Michigan in warm, Technicolor evenings.

And I took pictures of flowers, lots of pictures. The characteristics of light in the Harbor Springs-Petoskey-Charlevoix area are different than the characteristics of light in the Duluth-Superior area. I wonder if it’s because the sky reflects the different colors of the two lakes. I wonder if it’s because the latitude of Petoskey is slightly over 43 degrees, and the latitude at the western tip of Lake Superior is about 46.6 degrees. Doesn’t sound like much, but that’s a difference of 207 miles. Whatever the reason, I get a Land-of-Oz feeling when the sun is shining at Mom’s.

Flowers are everywhere in Harbor Springs, Petoskey, and Charlevoix–in yards, in front of shops, along city streets, hanging from lamp posts. Flowers greet residents and welcome tourists with vibrant oranges, blues, reds, pinks, purples, yellows, whites, and greens.

Some gardeners plant only two or three colors together, but many mix all the the colors together and it works. If I tried to dress in the same array of colors, people might call me eccentric.

A friend and I once noticed how nature can toss together a salad of greens (lime, forest, army, olive, sage, emerald, fern, pea, mint) and throw them across the landscape and none of them will clash.

In the mornings, Mom and I ran her errands and went for rides. When she entered shops, I spent little time inside with her. I’d go back outside and take pictures of flowers, lots of pictures.

The vaccination rate for her county is about 61% for people who’ve had at least one shot. The recommendation has been for unvaccinated people to wear masks. Less than almost no one wore a mask. Statistically, about 39% of the people should’ve been wearing masks.

I know some math.

I provide daycare for my grandkids.

My grandkids are too young to get vaccinated.

I wore a mask and stayed away from people.

I ate takeout.

And I took pictures of flowers, lots of pictures.

Paddle Boarding in August

A calm day. A cloudless, blue sky.

Floatplanes, motorboats, yachts, fishing boats, kayaks, paddle boards.

As I paddled by the marina, so many boats pulled out of their slips. I thought about cars exiting a parking ramp at quitting time.

59 minutes around Barker’s Island, my best time yet.

The best moment—six ducks in the water, their twitching butts pointed toward the sky while they ate their lunch underwater.

Sunday Afternoon at Brighton Beach

Sunday, August 8, Duluth, Minnesota

I take my grandkids to Brighton Beach once or twice a summer. It’s one of the beaches we visit every year. Today I take them because it’s the last day Brighton Beach will be open to the public for a year, maybe two. The Lakewalk will be extended, Brighton Beach Road will be relocated, and the shoreline will be restored. I wonder how much it will change. I hope “restoring the shoreline” doesn’t mean depositing wide swaths of immense jagged rocks on the beach that become a barrier which hinders kids from pitching stones in the water and from gamboling on the ancient lava formations along the shore.

Charlie, who’s almost three, has never been to Brighton Beach. Evan, who’s almost five, says he’s never been there. I remind him that I took him last summer. When I turn on Brighton Beach Road, he says, “Oh yeah, I’ve been here.” Clara and Michael, ten and eight, are seasoned visitors.

It’s a grey, breezy day (code for sustained winds of 16 mph). But it’s 64 degrees, so we don’t have to worry about hypothermia.

After parking and unbuckling, the kids pour out of the van and run toward the shore. Before they disperse, I bark a request, “Everyone up on that smooth rock. I want a picture of you all together.” A few clicks later, they’re off in four different directions. I stick with Charlie. I don’t want him to fall off a bank of rock and into the water.

“Charlie,” I say, “let’s throw rocks in Lake Superior and fill it up.”

“We can’t fill that up,” he says. Sometimes my dry wit is too parched for him.

But Charlie tries. For forty minutes, he picks rocks, shoves them in his pockets, walks to the water’s edge, and with lopsided degrees of accuracy, throws them in the water. Normally, he smiles and laughs easily, but absorbed by this task, his face scrunches with seriousness the whole time.

Clara, Michael, and Evan run and leap from one smooth lava formation to another. I yell, “Not so close to the water” and “slow down.” The wind and roar of the waves hitting the shore make it difficult for them to hear me. They toss a few rocks, but they’ve outgrown the thrill of flinging rocks in the water.

Clara and Michael comb through rocks on the beach, looking for agates. Evan keeps walking on the rock formations. My head is on a swivel as I watch all three of them while watching Charlie throw rocks, making sure he doesn’t fall in the water with one of his tosses.

There are three kids at the beach, around seven to nine years old. Evan’s been watching them, following them while keeping some distance. The next time I look up to locate each grandkid, I see the three kids forming a follow-the-leader line. Evan watches and at the last moment, he joins in as the caboose. A few minutes later, he’s talking with one of the kids.

Later, before we leave, Evan says, “I was making friends.” He’s almost five and he misses friends. There are no kids his age in his neighborhood. He remembers daycare and having friends before the pandemic. “Yes, you made friends,” I say. “That’s nice.” But he’s forlorn. He knows the new friendships are fleeting.

Shortly before we leave, Clara and Michael return to the rocky outcroppings. Clara stands near the edge and flirts with the surf breaking on the rocky shore, letting the water spray her but scurrying backwards when bigger waves break.

Michael runs and leaps along the rugged terrain. I stuff the urge to yell at him to stop. I’ve already issued too many warnings: “Slow down! Don’t get too close to the edge! Stay out of that puddle of water—you’ll soak your feet!”

My admonishment about the deep puddle of water was given to Evan right after one of his new friends walked through it with his tennis shoes while his dad watched. That dad must’ve thought I was hampering my grandkid’s fun. But when you watch kids who aren’t your own, the stakes are higher.

After forty-five minutes at the beach, I gather up my mostly-dry grandkids and we get in the van. “I suppose you’re all too cold for ice cream,” I say. None of them are too cold for ice cream. It’s a delicious way to end the afternoon.

[For more information about the plans for Brighton Beach: WDIO News: Story about Brighton Beach closing.]

Shifting Perspectives

The bumble bee is working, flitting from flower to flower and slurping nectar. I’m drinking a cup of coffee and watching it work. You might say that makes me a supervisor, but the bumble bee knows what it’s doing and should never take direction from me. I’m not an apiarist, a botanist, a zoologist, a biologist, an entomologist. I’m not an -ist person. I’m an -er person, a reader, a writer, a photographer. So, I watch the bumble bee and take pictures because I’m going to write about it and my morning stroll around my gardens.

Finding the bumble bee on its nectar run delights me because I’ve stopped by the garden behind my shed to see what the rabbits noshed after I made my evening rounds yesterday. The rabbits like the leaves on my Asiatic lilies and have nibbled half of them back to the stalk. To a lesser extent, the rabbits also like my zinnias and dianthus. The lilies, pale yellow with dusky-red centers, bloomed profusely this year. I hope the lilies store enough energy through photosynthesis before the rabbits eat the rest of their leaves. (Yeah, I remember something from tenth-grade biology.)

Asiatic lilies before blooms faded and rabbits ate the leaves

I provide alternative food for the rabbits—my lawn is a mixture of grass, clover, wild strawberries, and dandelions, plus a few plants I’m unable to name. I’m thrilled when I see rabbits eating clover or dandelion leaves. But they still view my gardens as dessert trays.

Bees, butterflies, and other insects like clover and dandelions too. Dandelions are an import source of nectar to bees and other insects in the spring before flowers bloom. After learning how vital dandelions are to bees and other insects, I stopped digging them up.

Because bees and butterflies suffer from disappearing habitats, I plant flowers that provide nectar for them. Recently, I learned native plants are also important to caterpillars because they nibble on the leaves to store up the energy needed to become moths and butterflies. And, guess what? Birds need to eat those protein-rich caterpillars to store energy for laying eggs and raising their young. Now, when I notice my plant leaves have been gnawed, I see those “damaged” leaves as part of an important food chain.

While I’m planning more gardens for bees and butterflies, and begrudgingly, the rabbits, the bumble bee darts from yellow sundrops to flowering spearmint to tomato blossoms. I raise my coffee cup to the bumble bee and thank it for pollinating my tomatoes.

[For more about the importance of dandelions to the insect world, read “The War on Dandelions Is Killing Bees, But It Doesn’t Have To.” For more about the importance of caterpillars for birds, read “Singing Praise for Caterpillars.” To learn about the bird-larvae-caterpillar-moth-butterfly food chain and how it can limit pests in your garden, read “Birds Do Eat Butterflies.” If toxic insects and birds don’t worry you, it should. Read about Biomagnification, to understand how toxins used to kill weeds and insects impact animals and humans.]

Mayflies

My view of Mayflies before learning about them

What I knew about mayflies: They’re called mayflies and they molt. I could’ve put my knowledge in a thimble and had room for War and Peace.

What I thought about mayflies: They’re creepy looking, and the exoskeletons they shed are even creepier. I could’ve imagined them starring in a B movie titled, Return of the Giant Mayflies.

Then in June my almost-ten-year-old granddaughter asked, “Why are they called mayflies? I never see them until June.”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “We’re going to have to look that up.” (My standard refrain to cover up my embarrassment because I can’t answer one of her questions about the natural world around me.)

But I had a theory: If mayflies arrive in here in June, perhaps they appear in May in other parts of the Midwest. I live at the western tip of Lake Superior. Everything in spring arrives late because around here winter doesn’t like to pack its bags and leave.

It turned out my theory had holes. In the United States, mayflies hatch anywhere from May to September. Hatching usually starts near the end of May but peaks in June or July, depending on latitude and the current year’s weather. The name mayfly may be a misnomer. But I like the name, so even if they don’t appear around here until June, I’m not starting a movement to rename them juneflies. (Besides there are beetles called June bugs.) Depending on geography, mayflies are also called shadflies, sandflies, dayflies, fishflies, and drakes.

I learned more about mayflies than their aliases. They’re fascinating and useful insects. This shouldn’t have surprised me because our ecosystem is like an intricately woven tapestry of nature. Pull on one thread and the effect ripples through the whole landscape. I was ignorant to assume their only purpose was to gross me out every June.

After mayflies become adults, they molt once. Every year I’d see their exoskeletons stuck to my screen doors, siding, plants, and deck furniture, and I’d cringe. Filmy, cracked, and devoid of color, exoskeletons are eerie. But after learning about mayflies, I look at their abandoned outwear and think about their amazing lives.

Mayflies are adults for only one or two days, and on rare occasions three days, accounts vary. They begin life in the water as fertilized eggs. After they hatch they’re called nymphs and spend about a year (depending on the species) lounging at the bottom of riverbeds and lake bottoms. While not as beautiful as the water nymphs of Greek mythology known for protecting gods and humans who were in peril, the mayfly nymphs are important. They help clean water by eating algae and detritus. And scientists use the number of mayfly larvae present in a river or lake as a bioindicator to gauge the water’s health. So mayfly nymphs can protect humans by informing us if our water quality is in jeopardy–if we’re smart enough to listen.

Before mayflies leave their water homes, they shed their nymph skins, so they can take flight for the first time. At this point they’re called duns (or subimagos). After coming to the water’s surface, they rest and dry their wings. Waterfowl and fish dine on some of them. The duns that survive the predators fly away from the water and molt one last time, becoming adults called spinners (or imagos).

After emerging from the watery homes of their adolescence, mayflies have only one concern–to mate and produce eggs. They don’t have functioning mouths so they can’t eat. As adults they don’t have to worry about finding food or feeding their young. They don’t have to worry about a career path or a mortgage. They don’t have to worry about saving for retirement or signing up for Medicare. As adults they molt, mate, lay eggs if they’re female, and die, all in a day or two.

Of course, a mayfly’s adult life isn’t completely worry free. If spinners are to achieve their one adult ambition–reproduction–they must avoid becoming fresh meat for fish and birds. They also need to conserve energy for mating and laying eggs. This explains why the mayflies I see on my screen door or deck are so impervious to me: It’s risky for them to use up energy by fleeing from me.

After molting, adult males return to an imaginary dance floor above the water. Flying up and forward, then floating down, they beckon the female spinners to dance with them. The spinners pair up and mate in midair. All this looks nothing like my first seventh-grade dance, where boys and girls stood on opposite sides of the gym and gawked at each other. [Watch BBC’s Beautiful Video Clip About Mayflies to see the mayfly mating ritual.]

After the circle-of-life dance, the females descend to the water to lay fertilized eggs. Some females become food for fish before they deposit their eggs. In my research, I learned fly fishers use tied flies resembling duns then spinners during mayfly season. But many females do deposit their eggs, which drift to the bottom of a river or lake. Then most females die, but a few manage to mate again and lay another batch of eggs because they have extra energy reserves, most likely because of what they ate as larvae. (But I like to imagine they have extra energy because they danced a slow waltz instead of a hot-footed jig during their first tango with a male spinner.) Two weeks later the eggs hatch into nymphs.

My new view of mayflies: Lovely as flowers

Before my mayfly education, when I saw mayflies clinging to my door or siding or deck furniture, I left them alone. I didn’t touch them because they creeped me out. Now I can say I leave them alone because I understand they’re saving energy for their big dance. Now, I can appreciate mayflies for purifying rivers and lakes, for working as bioindicators, and for being part of the food chain. Now, I can answer my granddaughter’s question about why mayflies seem to be misnamed.

We need to cherish mayflies and protect them, and if their numbers decrease in our lakes and rivers, we need to figure out why.

[To read more about mayflies: Mayflies: National Wildlife Federation and Britannica: Mayfly. If you live where mayflies swarm, read How to Survive a Massive Mayfly Swarm by Leslie Mertz, Ph.D. Don’t worry it’s not as scary as my imaginary horror flick, Return of the Giant Mayflies.]