Posts Tagged ‘bugs’

Lining Up for The Smell of Death in D.C.

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017

By Bob Gaydos

People viewing -- and smelling -- the corpse flower (titan arum) in Washington, D.C.

People viewing — and smelling — the corpse flower (titan arum) in Washington, D.C.

There was a distinct stench of decay in the nation’s capital last week and thousands of visitors showed up to get a whiff — heck, a full, deep inhalation — of it. What’s that? No, no, this had nothing to do with the White House or Congress … stick with me. The odor emanated from, of all things, a flower.

The corpse flower. These large malodorous plants are not for sale at your local garden store. For one thing, they’re huge — this one is 8 feet tall — and bloom rarely. Unpredictably, really. And then for only two days at most. This makes such occasions an excuse for people to line up around the block, as they did at the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory, to look and smell.

A plant scientist who is public programs manager at the U.S. Botanic Garden, told the website LiveScience “… once you get into that room, it really hits you pretty hard. It reminded me of a dead deer on the side of the road in the Florida Everglades with a big pile of really soggy, moldy laundry next to it. It was really, really unpleasant.”

I think I know what the man is talking about. In my neck of the woods in upstate New York, about 75 miles from New York City, some farmers have taken to spreading what they say is fertilizer on their land, but which, to noses familiar and comfortable with normal fertilizer, smells like dead deer times ten. Death smell, we call it. Really unpleasant. The farmers never said it was the corpse flower, though. Duck eggs is the story they’re going with.

Unlike the corpse flower, no one around here lined up to take a good, deep whiff. You really only had to drive by to get it. A lot of people did complain to public officials, however, and that may have stopped the practice. Lately, it’s just been good, old-fashioned cow manure.

In Washington, though, Amorphophallus titanum was holding forth last week to no apparent purpose. While it rarely blooms and no one can say when one will bloom, the plant can be long-lived and botanists say the blooming has a specific purpose. Get this: The corpse plant uses its death smell to attract flesh-eating bugs such as beetles and flies that will carry its pollen to cross pollinate other corpse flowers.

So its purpose is simply to perpetuate itself apparently. Thank you, Mother Nature. One bloomed in the Bronx last August, but the plant is native to the rain forests of Sumatra and I suppose it makes sense in the ecological framework of western Indonesia. As for the D.C. transplant, I’m not certain.

This particular plant, which blossomed for the first time, is said to have grown from 4 feet tall to 8 feet tall just in the time it was put on display in the greenhouse — less than a week-and-a-half. It reeked of death for a couple of days then withered.

The folks at the Botanical Garden said this particular plant was the first corpse flower to bloom in Washington, D.C., since 2007. So for eight years — from 2008 to 2016 — there was no call to line up for the smell of death in the nation’s capital. This year — bloom!

Hmmm. Maybe I was wrong about the plant’s purpose. Maybe it’s trying to tell us something. Let’s see … what blooms big and garish without warning for no purpose other than to promote itself, attracts a crowd, appeals to flesh-eating bugs, stinks to hell for a brief period and then withers and goes away for a long time?

Maybe they’ll have a clue at the White House.


Bugs vs. Us: Guess Who Wins

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

adult mosquito

adult mosquito

By Gretchen Gibbs

One of the things I liked to do best as a young girl was to lie in the tall grass. I liked staring up at the clouds. I liked the sweet taste of the grasses when you pulled the grain awn out of its socket and sucked on the white stem. I liked to eat the buttercups and sorrel as well. The smell of red clover today is enough to make me gasp in remembrance of things past. There was the hum of insects, the song of birds in the distance, and the sense of escape from the world.

I liked lying in the grass as an adolescent as well. My boyfriend and I “didn’t have no place to go,” as Joni Mitchell put it. We went on endless walks through the local fields and forests. We tried various locales, but tall grasses were the best for keeping us hidden. The worst thing that ever happened to us was a bad case of poison ivy, which we had to keep secret from our parents because of the body parts involved. 

Nowadays I would no more dream of lying in the tall grass, especially without my clothes, than of entering a lion’s den. Ticks are everywhere, and even when I take precautions on a walk, I may find several on me when I return. My cat brings them into the house, so even there I am not completely safe. In addition to Lyme disease, there are now three or four additional kinds of illness carried by the deer tick, as well as others carried by the larger dog tick.

Both The New Yorker and The New York Times have recently published articles on chronic Lyme disease, and the difficulties in treating it. I have several friends who have had Lyme four or five times, and one friend who has the chronic variety, which she is treating with Chinese herbs. I had a patient who was referred for depression, and who turned out to have chronic Lyme, with any depression secondary to the illness.

Then of course there are mosquitoes, and what they carry: malaria, dengue fever, encephalitis, yellow fever, and other viruses, with West Nile being the most recent scare. The ubiquitous flea, with which my cat is covered despite how much toxic chemical from the vet I spread on him, also transmits many viruses dangerous to humans. These include, of course, plague, an outbreak of which occurred not long ago in the southwest.  

This year we have the 17-year cicada hordes, not disease causing, but certainly a nuisance. How about the current curse of bedbugs, such that many people are afraid to travel because they will have to open their suitcases in that hotel room frequented by who knows whom. Even libraries are having to take precautions against bedbugs. Some schools are reporting an epidemic of lice. On the other hand, our insect friends the fireflies, Monarch butterflies, and bees are on the decline.

What I am saying is that our relationship to nature has changed, and I think it is largely because of insects. It may be that we simply know more about insects – in the Middle Ages, nobody knew what caused the Black Plague. But I think it is the bugs themselves. They have existed for millions of years, adapting to whatever environment presented itself, and they seem to have got the hang of twenty first century civilization. (I am not even mentioning the insects of the Third World.) Insects have conquered us. They win. I have to stop writing now so I can put on long socks, covered by long pants, with rubber bands around the ankles, and a long sleeved shirt. I have to mow the lawn. Got to keep those grasses down.