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The year of the Mealy Bugs

Bill Meredith

The world is full of wondrous things
That I can look at, free;
Sometimes it makes me wonder if
They’re put here just for me.
… written in one of those moods

(8/2017) When you sit down to write something, the hardest part is getting started. That’s why I’ve always admired Garrison Keillor. He had a formula for starting; he always began with, "Well, it’s been a quiet week here in Lake Wobegon, my home town, up here in Minnesota at the edge of the prairie…" and then he rambled off in whatever direction he felt like, and we followed him because it felt comfortable and we knew wherever he went would be interesting. That was the amazing thing about him… he could make anything interesting. Just like nature, if you know what I mean.

Well, as Keillor might have said if he hadn’t lived somewhere else, it’s been a quiet summer here in Emmitsburg, my home town, here in Maryland at the edge of Catoctin Mountain. Last winter was mild, compared to how it used to be… not much snow, and the ground didn’t freeze very deep, so everything started growing early. My wife got after me back in March to get the garden started, but I reminded her that Mrs. Geesey warned us when we moved here back in ’57 that we might get frost as late as May, so I put it off. But nature and global warming were against me; we didn’t have any late frosts, and the rains fell gently on our fields just as the Irish Blessing said they should. By the time I finally got the main garden planted, it was the end of June, and the herb garden was still waiting… and that is where the story begins.

Two years ago, when Easter was over I gathered up all of the unclaimed Easter Lilies at church and planted them in our herb garden. They came up last summer but didn’t do much, and I assumed they were on their way to that Great Greenhouse in the Sky. But this year the mild winter must have given new hope to them, and they grew as if they were competing for the Comeback of the Year Award. I was preoccupied with the main garden, and the herb garden was choked with weeds, so

I didn’t notice the lilies at first; but one day in June they bloomed, all at once. It was spectacular. They were over three feet tall, and covered with blossoms of the purest white, bigger than the ones they had when they stood by the pulpit of our church two years ago. But something wasn’t right.

On every stem, just below the blossoms, there was a mass of cottony white material that looked like mold. I recognized it, not from years of reading biology books, but from childhood memories. I can still remember an afternoon when I was four or five years old, sitting in the yard waiting for my Dad to come home from work, when a tiny speck of cottony stuff floated down and lit on my arm. Naturally, I poked at it with my finger… a bit too roughly, for it was crushed… but among the residue I could make out parts of a tiny insect. Just then, the old Model A Ford hobbled into the driveway; the bug was forgotten, and I rushed to see if there were any cookies left in Dad’s lunch pail. But a few days later, when I was "helping" Grandma in her garden, I saw more of the cottony things floating around, and we found they were coming from masses of white, fluffy stuff that was growing on both vegetables and weeds. Grandma didn’t have a name for them, but she said there were a lot of them that year, while in other years there were none.

Several years later, when I took my first Zoology course, I learned that the cottony things are called "mealy bugs;" they belong to a category called Scale Insects, and there are several hundred different species of them. In the late spring, eggs that survived the winter hatch into tiny white nymphs. Their mouths consist of a delicate but very sharp tube, which they use to puncture the stem of a plant and suck out the sap, in the same manner as aphids. They can crawl around until they find a juicy stem in a sheltered part of the host plant; and there they puncture the stem and begin feeding. As they grow, they secrete a waxy material with the texture of cotton all over their bodies. Some textbooks claim this material protects them because it doesn’t taste good to predators… but I was not tempted to test it myself.

The female mealy bugs are very hard to see when they’re young; I suppose someone who didn’t have to wear bifocals could see them with the naked eye, but I can no longer see them without a magnifying glass. But they grow to nearly an eighth of an inch, so even without magnification you can see legs and tails on them, especially if you find them when the cottony wax has been rubbed off. This may happen when the plants they are feeding on are moved by wind or passing animals. The waxy stuff often floats away in the air when it is rubbed off; I often see globs of it floating in the air, and each morning the spider webs around the herb garden are full of it.

I feel a bit sorry for the males. After their first three molts, their bodies change shape; the little piercing tube that they use as a mouth drops off, so they can no longer eat. At the same time, they grow a pair of delicate, transparent wings, and fly away from their original colony to find another group, where they will mate; and then they die, with empty bellies. When they fly, some of the waxy material sticks to them, so if the air is moving at all they are carried wherever it takes them. No doubt the tiny cotton-ball that fell on my arm 80 years ago was such a wind-borne male.

The first day that I found the mealy bugs in my garden, I wondered where they came from. I don’t recall seeing them in this area before, and I knew they were notorious in some places as a greenhouse pest; so I wondered if they might have been on the original Easter lilies from the church. However, I have no cause to feel guilty; a few days later I found they were also growing on a golf course in Pennsylvania. So, apparently, this is just one of those years, as my Grandmother would have guessed. And there was a reason for feeling very good about science. Several years before I retired, the library at the Mount was getting rid of old, outdated books, and for fifty cents I got a copy of Comstock’s volume on Entomology. It was written in 1894, before they had microphotography; and the pictures of mealy bugs, drawn by hand, were as accurate as any on my computer screen. I may no longer be able to keep up with the flood of new information; but what I do know is based on a pretty solid foundation.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith