At first, I felt sorry for the little guy, a striped cucumber beetle who seemed to be all alone, without another striper in sight.
There were spotted cucumber beetles around, quite a few of them. They were busy munching away, turning the leaves of my Burpee Burpless vines into raggy shreds. But this solitary fellow had no friends of his own stripe; he was without the companionship his polka dot cousins were enjoying as they stripped my crop.
The same thing seemed true of the Mexican bean beetle I found a few days later wandering around on the leaves of my Kentucky blue plants. His case was a little different, in that I could see a few fuzzy yellow baby beetles around, too. This fellow had to have a partner around somewhere. Where was she — and where were the thousands of other bean beetles that should have been in the neighborhood that time of the year?
I was getting a little concerned, not only feeling bad for these lonesome guys, but also about what their solitude meant. I had read the news reports about crashing bug populations — about how scientists have found that the total worldwide biomass of insects is falling about 2.5 percent per year in an unprecedented collapse. Was I witnessing it right here on my vegetable farm in Hedgesville?
I had noted that harlequin bugs weren’t at full strength this season, either, that more of my broccoli was surviving unscathed than in past years. The squash vine borers were in the zucchini, the aphids were on the lettuce. But they weren’t doing the damage they usually did, presumably because there weren’t as many of them.
It was becoming clear that most of the kinds of insects and bugs that usually plague me seemed to be in decline.
There was just one exception, in mid-June, then into July and eventually on through August: the cabbage butterfly, a deceivingly attractive white air dancer with a single black dot on each wing. They were going strong, depositing eggs on my kale, collards and cabbage like they were delivering mail from AARP — every plant in the row got an envelope, over and over. These eggs would soon hatch and produce tiny green worms that would then turn into longer, mushy green worms that would chew away on my hopes for what would have been a good harvest.
I fought them off with repeated sprays of a benign, organic spray containing Bt, Bacillus thuringiensis, that killed them on contact but had no lasting residual effect. A couple of times a week, I treated some areas, and finally got the invasion down to manageable size. Only a hard freeze could put an end to them, but I reduced them to a level where they wouldn’t destroy my green dream.
I was feeling pretty good about life, about my chances to have one summer without a bug disaster. Grasshoppers came and went fairly quickly. Flea beetles didn’t stick around long. But then …
Then came the stink bug — the dreaded destroyer of all that is good and beautiful. The dumb, bumbling, can’t-fly-straight or land-softly invaders from the Far East. They didn’t number in the tens of thousands — nay, the hundreds of thousands — the way they did 10 or so years ago. But the 2019 horde became — and continues to be — the worst plague of them in a long, long time.
You pinch one of these perfumed pests at your own peril, but the temptation is irresistible. You want to squish and squash and stomp every one you see. Soon your hands and shoes are indelibly soaked with the fragrance of Eau de Halyomorpha halys. It takes a medical-grade scrubbing to get rid of the odor lingering around you, and even then the stench floats around in your brain.
I called around to see what brought this visitation upon us and was told that it was probably the result of prolonged hot, dry weather, and maybe one of the symptoms and warning signs of climate change. No one knew for sure, though, until I misdialed the number for Bug Busters and instead wound up talking to an economist at a big Wall Street brokerage firm.
“Blame it on Beijing,” he said without hesitation, obviously as familiar with bugs as with bucks. “It’s China’s secret weapon in the trade war.” That sounded far-fetched, too dastardly, too despicable to be true. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. A subversive, “hit ’em where it hurts” blow if there ever was one.
I called my congressman, Alex Moonglow. “Get this over with,” I pleaded.
“I support the president,” he answered.
I was thinking about mailing him a protest, an envelope full of stink bugs. “I’m sharing the wealth,” I’d write. “Here’s my contribution to your next campaign.”
But that wouldn’t be nice, and would likely leave a stinky stain on my reputation. I’ll mail it to the White House instead. There’s a lot of suspect fumes coming out of that place anyway — another stink bomb won’t hurt.