Insects and the Tropics
An odd thing about the weather checkerboard of Costa Rica is that, contrary to what one
might think, the more humid areas are not necessarily the most insect plagued. Of
course, bring your insect repellent, but I'm convinced that you need it less in most
places in Costa Rica than you do in the American Midwest or places in Canada. Along the
forested Pacific Coast and the Nicoya Peninsula - where the insect varieties are
amazingly abundant - mosquitoes and flies pester you far less than in the dry, almost
desertlike parts of Guanacaste. On the humid Caribbean Coast, where rain can fall almost
any time of the year and where bugs can get so large you'd think they've been taking
hormones, household cockroaches and flies are not nearly as plentiful as, I've seen in
Houston or New Orleans, (I've seen many kinds of beetles but surprisingly few ordinary
cockroaches in my Costa Rican travels).
In parts of Costa Rica, even in the most tropical locations, insects are so benign that
many natives don't bother with screens on their windows. Of course, the rainy season in
some areas will make a liar of me so best carry repellent. This is particularly
advisable when staying in one of the areas where dengue fever has been reported (mostly
around the outskirts of Puntarenas and near Liberia). There's a vigorous campaign under
way at present to eliminate the mosquito that spreads the flu like ailment.
That flies and mosquitoes are relatively scarce might seem puzzling. But I believe the
answer is that the physical environment in Costa Rica is largely intact. The natural
enemies of pests like flies and mosquitoes haven't been eliminated by pesticides,
chemicals, and other methods, as they have back home. By day, birds of all descriptions
flit back and forth, snacking on insects, keeping them in balance with nature. Many
birds consider houseflies to be special treats. By night, squadrons of bats keep up the
good work, finishing off mosquitoes before they get a chance to do much damage.
According to one naturalist, a small bat can catch about 600 mosquito?size insects per
hour, and a large colony of bats will consume thousands of pounds of insects every
night! (There are more than thirty species of bats in Costa Rica, thank you very much.)
Meanwhile, lizards, geckos, and chameleons patrol the walls and corners of houses,
cleaning up cockroaches and water bugs before they have a chance to infest the kitchen
or make a condominium out of your bathroom. The fearsome - looking praying mantis
sometimes prowls about the edges of rooms, snapping up bugs that the lizards miss. Ugly
as the mantis is, we love 'em!
Attack of the Army Ants: Folks living in the tropical lowlands have additional help in
keeping their homes bug ? free. From time to time army ants invade our Costa Rica house.
They march in broad formation up a concrete column to the veranda and spill over the
floors in a busy wave of housecleaning. They remove moths and other night?flying insects
that committed suicide against the porch lights the previous night, and they scour the
baseboards, corners, and ceilings in search of bugs, beetles, arid insect eggs.
Scorpions flee in terror; they have no defense against army ants?if they tarry, they are
dismantled and served as snacks. Even snakes fear the ants. We simply stay out of their
way or prop our feet out of range on a footstool while we read a novel, until their
twenty?minute cleaning expedition is finished. We say goodbye and thank them as they
charming. During the middle of the dry season in the coastal lowlands, an insect that
looks like a large winged termite (although it isn't that at all) hatches in profusion
all at once. They stick around for a week or so and then mysteriously disappear. These
critters only fly at night and are difficult to see, so you would never be aware of them
if the army ants didn't show up for the harvest. The insects are aware of their danger,
so they search out any crevice or crack to hide from predators during daylight. (Army
ants hunt by sight rather than Smell, So they don't work efficiently on the night
shift.) The swarming insects soon discover that the hollow space inside your wooden
walls makes a great hiding place, and they pack in by the millions.
When army ant scouts discover their hideouts, they send the news to the columns of
marching soldiers. They show up for dinner in droves. That's not so bad, but there are
so many insects hidden that it can take hours for the ants to clean them out. Afterward
they leave your floors littered with wings and cast-off body parts. The sight of this
battle is awe inspiring to us but totally disgusting to our maid. We can't decide which
is worse - the inconvenience of having our walls covered with army ants or the knowledge
that we have bugs in our walls. When the housekeeper's around we have no choice; it's
the spray can. Our contractor says its all our fault. "I told you that cement walls are
better than wood!" But we love our pochote redwood living room and figure it?s worth
having to deal with an occasional invasion.
Not that insects can't make one suffer. Some very small creatures made my last trip to
the Pacific beaches memorable for several weeks. These were the dreaded "no-see-ums," a
generic name given to any tiny bug that bites without your knowing you are being
attacked but makes you suffer afterward. In this case, they were probably some kind of
miniature sand flea because they got me on the ankles and lower legs. However, it was my
own fault; I should know better than to stroll along the beach at dusk without repellent
on my bare legs.
Now I'm going to reveal a personal discovery concerning these bites: It's a salve called
Panalog. This is an all-purpose antibiotic and fungicide that veterinarians routinely
prescribe when treating cats and dogs for infections, rashes, and general skin problems.
if you have a dog or cat, you'll probably have some of this medication at home. I've
found that a dab of Panalog on a mosquito or no-see-um bite not only stops my itching
but heals the puncture almost immediately. According to my brother, who is a
veterinarian, the only known side effects of Panalog are an occasional urge to chase
Pontiacs and a tendency to scratch behind your ear with your hind foot.
It's claimed that Costa Rica has more species of insects than anywhere else in the
world, and I believe it. Once in Cahuita - on the Caribbean Coast ? I was about to enter
my cabin when I encountered an enormous beetle. It was about the size of a large teacup,
shaped like a giant ladybug, and the color of an olive drab army helmet. Feeling brave,
I gingerly picked it up by its back, correctly figuring that its wicked-looking legs
couldn't reach around the shell. I carried it to a nearby restaurant and proudly
displayed my beetle to the people sitting at the bar, figuring that I'd raise a few
eyebrows. The bartender looked at my discovery with a bored expression as he
remarked, "Yes, those little ones are females." It turned out that I was holding a
rhinoceros beetle, possibly the largest bug of the entire insect world. They tell me the
male, which fortunately I never happened to confront grows to a length of 10 inches,
sports enormous horns, and is colored in brilliant metallic hues. Harmless, though.
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