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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