Sunday, August 30, 2015

Respecting Nature

Rennie Sparks could not get rid of her ants.  They were attacking honey she had harvested from hives in her yard.  They were, in fact, marching right under the half-screwed-on lid of a honey jar.  Sparks, a lyricist, banjo player and author, shared her tale of woe in an op-ed piece for The New York Times.  She did everything she could to get rid of the ants, but nothing worked.

“After spraying the kitchen with vinegar, then withhot sauce, to no avail,” she said in The Times, “I finally called an exterminator.  She laid out baits filled with a poisoned sweet-syrup (it looked a lot like honey!) and also sprayed my kitchen and yard.

“ ‘Be careful,’ I pleaded as she spread her poison.  ‘Don’t hurt my bees!’ ” 

How the bees fared she did not report, but “alas, none of us travel more than briefly through this beautiful yard we call earth.  Regardless of how separate we may feel from other living creatures, we are all here together.  I suspect,” she said, “there will always be more things alive in my kitchen than I care to see.” 

Traditionally, beekeepers used lemon balm to attract bees to empty hives.  “The Essential Guide to Herbs,” edited by Lesley Bremness, also reported it can help fight infections. Such knowledge is not to be shunned.  But attracting ants is another topic.  Who cares?  They will come around with or without us.  It’s all about food.

Try something different, right?

Remember the ants?  When the little one stopped to climb a tree? Growing older we sometimes forget our childhood.... We forget we all belonged once.

If we take the time, many of us will remember we "talked" to some of the creatures as children.  A recent article in the Omaha World-Herald, for example, reported on a special zoo preschool at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha. One mother, Kristen Petersen, had reservations, and worried the program might be a glorified trip to the zoo. In truth, however, not only did her 3-year-old daughter learn to write her name, she became more nurturing.

Now, she avoids stepping on bugs, her mother said, and is quiet around the yard, careful not to "disturb this bunny's habitat."

It's true, many boys well remember trying to make rabbit snares.  But the creatures are not stupid. Even the ants.

A reporter scattered ants simply by coming home once, and discovered they will often disappear for good after being scattered, especially if it is combined with kitchen cleaning and better storage of food.  This has been confirmed, and it's as simple as turning on the lights, "banging" pots and pans, cooking food and allowing "the escapees" the freedom to return along their scent trail.

The insight went something like this: If the fear becomes associated with the food, escaping ants share their panic and pheromones.

Their pheromones shout: Stay away!

It's doubtful there will ever be an exterminator who clobbers ants with a Billy club.  But thinking outside the box might not be such a bad idea in the face of global extinction.  And, in fact, studies have shown, according to Discover, Science for the Curious, that this is true: ants might well learn the association.

The abstract of the study reads like a sociology text, but it seems to be saying that if you scare someone while they eat they lose interest in the food: The present research provides new insight on how emotional signals may be used to control impulsive responses toward palatable foods by the environment.

Of course, the ants can return, but with effort they do learn. There is not much online about this approach.  A recent search did find natural remedies.  Two of the best were Remedies, and Pest Kill, which both offered excellent approaches to eliminate an ant problem without using poison.

And there were many YouTube videos as well, but finding ways to encourage ants to look for food elsewhere was impossible without advice to kill them everywhere.  One sight did offered insight, Lotusland, but they are rare.

“Why go to war?  Many ant species are beneficial and should not be indiscriminately destroyed. They feed on organic substances and living insect pests and are one of nature’s most efficient ways of handling insects and smaller animals that die.”

A video is shared here and begs the question: Do we need to kill the entire colony?  Why not just put them to work in the garden? 

Christopher Solomon in a February op-ed, also had thoughts on this.  He wasn’t talking about the insect biosphere, per se, but about how we think about nature.  “When we think of injuring nature,” he said February 15, 2015 in The New York Times, “it is easy to point an accusing finger at mining companies and there strip mines or timber barons and their clear-cuts.  But could something as mellow as backcountry skiing or a Thoreauvian walk in the woods cause harm too?" 

He says yes, and calls for more concern.  (The video shared here is an exploration of how we damage the land without even walking around in it....)

“A century ago,” Solomon said, “nature had elbow room.  Now, there is a lot less of it ... recreational activities and nature tourism are growing in most parks, wilderness areas and other protected areas around the world.

“The National Park service has allowed marathons in parks, for instance, and the controversial push by mountain bikers to ride in federal wilderness areas is heating up again. …  The challenge is to find a nuanced balance between enjoying nature and protecting it, recognizing that recreation does not necessarily complement conservation or preservation.”

The op-ed hit hard.  Many stormed nature for fun and relaxation this last summer.  This is normal, and there is nothing wrong with this.  But advocates for sustainability worry.        

Harper’s voiced concern about nature conservation as well.  The sagebrush sea, an immense sea of sagebrush (once stretching 500,000 square miles across North America) is endangered.  It has been in the news a lot. 

In “The Great Republican Land Heist," for example (viewed here), Harper's said the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in 2007, closed portions of the sagebrush sea in Nevada.  Several parts of a canyon, Recapture Canyon, were closed to motorized traffic,but local residents were angry about it. The author, Christopher Ketcham, reported an event held in protest of this closing of public lands.  Area residents, riding all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), stormed into the canyon.  As the ATVs roared past, into the sagebrush, a crowd waved American flags.

They repeated the phrase ‘Thank you, sir!’ to each passing rider, some of whom cradled assault rifles,” Ketcham said.  “The only law enforcement on hand were some local sheriff’s deputies.  I asked one of the deputies whether he or his fellow lawmen had done anything to stop the incursion.  He laughed and said it wasn’t their job, it was the BLM’s.  I asked whether he had seen BLM officers.  ‘Not one,’ he said.  ‘Complete no-show.’”

Yes, respecting nature can help, but it doesn't look promising.

Back in the kitchen, the ants are gone.  Not forever, of course, but for now anyway: the ants have been a complete no-show for most of the summer.  They are not dead, they just changed their behavior.  Unlike so many of us, they learn in the face of danger. 


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