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Knot Pining: Insect visitor conjures infestations of the past

I probably did not adequately express to Jana the trauma I felt when we discovered a boxelder bug in the front window of the Pine Knot News office this week. I had just spent most of the morning talking to people about ash borers, and their official arrival in Cloquet.

The emerald ash borer is a real problem. Its infestation kills ash trees, threatening a large chunk of the hardwood tree canopy across southern and eastern Minnesota as of this week.

Boxelder bugs? Well, they say they are harmless. They munch on boxelder tree leaves all summer but not enough to kill them. They don’t bore into the trunk and debark the trees. Then again, who needs boxelder trees? They grow like weeds. They are soft, prone to easy felling by strong winds. They have a short life span before basically rotting away. And, worst of all, they bring the dreaded red-with-black-spots insect that tormented my childhood.

I have never before seen a boxelder bug in the north country. I’m not sure if I’ve ever identified a boxelder tree in these parts. My childhood farm in southern Minnesota was lousy with boxelders, and in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, boxelder bugs would cover every building side that had exposure to the sun. Come fall, they would crawl into every crevice and eventually get into the house.

My cats knew better. Apparently, boxelder bugs release an odor when crushed, meaning the cats I had trained to eat crickets wanted no part of boxelder bugs.

When we first moved to the farm, the grand elm trees there were already being devastated by Dutch elm disease. We were lucky to not have established any type of relationship with the trees, so their demise was easier to take. In the farmyard, we were relegated to those boxelders. One was third base as it took up much of our kickball field. It weathered several old-fashioned thunderstorms, losing a limb here and there. It was sort of like the children’s book, “The Giving Tree.” Once it had just a Y shape, with one branch dancing with the eave of the house, my mother had it taken down. I wrote about that afternoon, quite affectionately, actually, because that tree stood as a marker to a childhood long past.

There were the boxelders behind the barn, where we built a multilevel treehouse complete with an upstairs bathroom (don’t ask, but rubber hoses were involved), chaise lounge for reading, and carpet. While I was in my first week of college, the barn blew down and a bulldozer pushed all the pieces into a pile, right over the yawing boxelder that was still holding a now disused and moldering treehouse. Another marker gone.

So perhaps I am the forgiving sort. I can’t blame the trees for attracting the red pest. We can’t blame the ash trees, either, for this latest invasion.

I haven’t seen a boxelder bug on the farm for quite a while. I do wonder, often, how we survived there with the host of other insects that plagued us. Mosquitoes that fed all day and night. Horseflies with their horrific bite. The relentless deerflies, my God, the deerflies. All of those remain, and drive me indoors in my adulthood, especially after I moved north, where some of these menaces exist, but not nearly in the numbers in southern farm and swamp country.

Perhaps the boxelder bug found that it couldn’t compete with the Asian lady beetle, which for the past few decades has held sway in farm country, originally, supposedly, introduced to eat aphids that were hurting crop yields. As we learn each generation it seems, Godlike solutions such as introducing a new insect to the environment don’t always turn out.

We were preparing the old farmhouse for sale last year, deep-cleaning a room would reveal so many of what we still call ladybugs, though that’s an insult to them. I spent many a night there watching the invaders flit around a light source, the ceiling dotted with the stinky beetles. Watching them would bring me back to those boxelder bug days.

The giant Minnesota poet and essayist Bill Holm taught English where I first went to college, Southwest State in Marshall. He lived in nearby Minneota, which each year celebrates Boxelder Bug Days. I applaud Holm for seeing the bugs in his home and being inspired to meditate on the ways of the world around him in “Boxelder Bug Variations.”

“My boxelder bugs have odd preferences,” Holm wrote. “They love radio dials, phonograph speakers, amplifiers, pianos, and harpsichords. Some would argue that this is because of the warmth and vibrations, but I prefer to think it is because of their taste for Bach and Vivaldi.”

Perhaps I can come around on the curious little harmless invader. I was going to suggest to you the only way I’ve found to get rid of the pest, as I’ve been reading that homeowners in the Twin Cities area are bereft about what to do with an apparent irruption of boxelder bugs last fall and now this spring.

If you really want to know how to get rid of them, drop me a line. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt by not releasing my secret to the wide world.

I’m certainly hoping the one we saw in the office is an anomaly, perhaps a hitchhiker on some of the furniture from the farm that is now here at the Pine Knot. The ash borer is enough for now.

Mike is a reporter and page designer at the Pine Knot News. He can be reached at [email protected].