Having now witnessed one full cycle of seasons in the Vermont woods, I continue to be amazed at just how much LIFE there is all around us, all the time. I never saw life like this in the other places I’ve lived: the Northern Virginia suburbs, South-Eastern Connecticut, New York City, or the Bay Area. The contrast has made me realize what an unnatural environment we create when we chop, pave, and develop an area to within an inch of its life.
So, what kind of life have I seen in these woods? Any moose, the holy grail of Northern New England wildlife? No, not yet. (But I did eat some at a potluck: not bad). Bear? No, although there were rumors of one walking through the woods in our neighborhood last summer. Deer? Fewer than I can count on one hand. Fox, raccoons, weasels, skunk? Nope, nope, nope, nope. My tally of “big game” sightings is pretty low, probably because they still have such a large natural habitat to roam here; why should they bother coming into our yard?
Here’s what I have seen, in abundance: squirrels, chipmunks, toads, salamanders, birds of every variety (including two barred owls), and LOTS AND LOTS OF BUGS.
The bugs are so numerous, so varied, and so season-specific, that I’ve started to think of our family as charter members of the “Bug of the Month Club.”
We’ve now witnessed a full cycle of the Bugs of the Month. I’ll start with June, which is the month for CARPENTER ANTS. These are huge, black, slow-moving ants that like to build their nests in damp, dead wood. Since our entire house is made of wood, we don’t like to have these ants around, so we set out bait stations to kill them. Generally, those do the trick. Thankfully, these ants don’t march in endless army formations like California ants; they tend to travel alone, which makes them easier to catch. On some days, particularly after a rainstorm, I feel like a cold-blooded killer.
Summer is also the high season for MOSQUITOES, and we have plenty of them out here in the woods. Vermont mosquitoes are hardy, and they are vicious. This year, they started biting us in early April, and they’ll probably hang around, in diminishing numbers, through October. Unfortunately, Erick and the girls all have extreme reactions to mosquito bites, which leave them covered in grotesquely swollen red welts. The girls scratch these bites until they bleed, and because it’s summer and we’re all in shorts and t-shirts, there’s no way to conceal the dermatological nastiness that results. So I walk around all summer feeling like I should hold a sign above my bloodied, bumpy girls: “No, they aren’t contagious.”
Aside from the mosquitoes, the most irritating summer bugs are those that, around these parts, are called “NO-SEE-UMS.” The official name for these nuisances is “biting midges,” but “no-see-ums” is just as accurate. They’re teeny-tiny little specks, so you don’t see ‘um, you see? But you sure as heck can feel them. They seem to travel in packs of no less than 100, and swarm around your head whenever you stop moving.
I’ve already written about TICKS in detail, but they were out in force this summer. We’ve pulled three off of our family so far, and in late July I was treated for what my doctor suspected was either Lyme disease or another tick-borne bacteria. Fun times!
Rounding out the summer lineup are DEER FLIES and HORSE FLIES. We have plenty of both of these annoying, buzzy flies. They’re distinguishable because horse flies tend to be a little larger, and to have longer, thinner wings. The females of each type can give nasty bites.
Last year the horse flies seemed particularly prevalent in September, so I consider them a “carry-over” bug, if you will: a bug that transitions us from summer into fall.
You’d think there would be a respite from the bugs once September ends. After all, fall in Vermont turns quickly to winter: last year we had snow before Halloween. Given the notoriously long and bitter Vermont winters, you might expect that the “Bug of the Month Club” goes on hiatus — down to Florida, perhaps — for a few months.
But you’d be wrong, my friends, because all winter long we have:
Yes, that’s right! As all of nature goes to sleep for the winter, the stink bugs are just waking up in our house. Last year, we started noticing them around November, and they stuck around — or STUNK around — until May. There are thousands of varieties of stink bugs, but the variety we have is the “Leaf Footed Bug.” Beautiful name, but the stink is just as stinky: squash one of these insects, and the smell that emanates is like super-ripe, rotting fruit. By the end of last winter, Campbell was so fed up with these bugs that she was starting to crush them with her bare hands, which of course meant that she smelled like a stink bug.
It’s almost a relief when winter starts winding down, because at least you know you’ll be getting some variety apart from the stink bugs. ALMOST a relief, because when winter ends, that’s when the BLACK FLIES come out.
This part of New England is notorious for its black flies; so notorious that an entire season is named after these bugs. “Black fly season” usually encompasses a couple of weeks between May and July; some people say that it begins around Mother’s Day and ends by Father’s Day.
Black fly season may be short, but it can be horrible. Being bitten by a black fly is, according to a friend, “like being bitten with teeth.” One of our neighbors forewarned me that, for the two weeks when the black flies are at their height, “we just don’t go outside.” If you look up “black fly season” on Google, you’ll find entire message boards dedicated to the topic, with people trying to schedule their Vermont vacations around the black flies. Thankfully, perhaps because of the mild winter, black fly season seemed fairly tame this year.
And that brings us full-circle, because immediately following the black flies come the carpenter ants, and mosquitoes, and ticks.
You may have noticed one glaring omission in my Bug of the Month Club catalogue: SPIDERS. That’s because we have spiders all year round! Spiders weaving their webs in every corner of our house, across our windows, around our outdoor light fixtures, over anything that doesn’t move. Spiders everywhere! Of course, the spiders proliferate in the spring and summer. This past May, I saw the largest, most gorgeous spider I’ve ever seen outside of a zoo: it was an Orb Weaver, and it had woven an enormous web right over one of our sunroom windows. Orb Weavers aren’t harmful to humans, so we let it be, and it disappeared on its own.
So there you have it: the variety and excitement that come with being a member of the Bug of the Month Club. If you don’t have this kind of variety and excitement in your neck of the woods, we’d be happy to send you some of ours!
ADDENDUM: A friend pointed out, after reading this, that I’ve failed to mention the wonderful, lovely bugs that are also a part of Vermont life. She’s absolutely right, so let me set the record straight: I am NOT anti-bug. Around our house we have many delightful bugs: ladybugs, moths, butterflies, dragonflies, fireflies, and some enormous shiny beetles. I’m only opposed to the irritating bugs that want to munch on my house and my family.