Monday, July 12, 2010

Not for the Insect-o-phobic

Our first day on the Trent-Severn, a large female dragonfly rode with us for quite a while, using our antenna as a perching post.  We presume she’d read the name on the stern and figured we were friendly.

Later, at our first anchorage--in a quiet cove in Lost Channel, we shared breakfast with THIS friendly dragonfly.

If you don’t care for insects you wouldn’t like this trip.  We’re outdoors pretty much all day, so we interact with LOTS of different kinds of insects.  

The dragonflies are welcome visitors.  So are the bumblebees.  Each day it seems some bumblebee blunders offshore and finds our hanging basket of flowers, or our rooftop herb garden.  It's a comic domestic touch to be surrounded by nothin' but water, yet to be in the midst of this peaceful backyardish scene.  One bumblebee rested quite comfortably for close to half an hour in the sun on a leaf of basil. 

But not all our guests are so welcome. Inevitably, as the sun sinks, we get less-welcome guests: mosquitoes by the hundreds--no, the thousands.  No, the tens of thousands.

And no wonder we see mosquitoes: mosquito larvae hatch in shallow water . . . and . . . we dock each night in shallow water.  Each night, the Captain surveys our intended mooring spot and pronounces facetiously, “I’m SURE there are no mosquitoes HERE!”

He’s waging war as we speak: tonight he is laying duct-tape over the narrow slits where the metal doors at our stern meet, but don't quite seal, and he's building a flexible screen to cover the side door, so we can leave it open and catch a breeze. Up until now, he'd been stuffing the door cracks with damp  Kleenex each night--effective but unsightly and a bit wasteful (till we started saving the Kleenex strands and recycling them.)

The Captain's current theory:  “Mosquitoes find you by tracking the plume of CO2 gas you give off.  So, tiny holes and cracks probably concentrate the scent—they send it jetting out to the boat’s exterior where mosquitoes track it and find their way in.  Screens, on the other hand, diffuse the gas, so mosquitoes gather outside a window screen, but don’t actually find a way in.” 

The crew will report back on the results of this experiment tomorrow morning—hopefully without too many new red spots.

Besides mosquitoes, bumblebees and dragonflies, we have had lots of other insect visitors.  The night we spend in Pengallie Bay, there was a late hatch of mayflies.  Our window screens were dotted with dozens of these popeyed but graceful insects.  I have a special soft spot for mayflies--I studied their nymphs when I was in graduate school.  When Bill would come to visit, he'd stop at my research site, which was on his way, pick up a bucket of the little black nymphs (which I  used in my lab work) and present them like a bouquet of roses. (Yup, I was charmed!)  

Anyway, when an insect such as a mayfly has just emerged from the water and molted into its adult, winged form, it takes a while for its exoskeleton to harden, and meanwhile it can’t fly. So the mayflies clung to the  Dragonfly all day long as we traveled the 29 miles from Killbear Marina to Pointe au Baril.

And we've had other interesting insect visitors; Weeks ago, while we were making an open-water crossing of Lake Ontario from Cape St. Vincent to the Bay of Quinte, we noticed the roof of our boat had become an insect landing strip—hundreds and hundreds of little dark dots.  At first we thought our boat had accidentally motored into the path of a swarm.  Many of the insects were an odd sort of fly—very slender- bodied, and with smoke-gray wings, more like a moth than a fly. 

But as we looked closer, we realized there was a lot of insect diversity on our smooth, white-painted roof.  First of all, the slim, fly-like bugs came in different sizes, with different patterns to their wings.  Then, there were also tiny, transparent green insects the size of gnats, a hornet or two, a butterfly, and handful of lightning bugs.

We concluded that all these insects either were making trips out over the lake as part of their daily routine, or had been blown out over the water by the wind—and that our roof presented a kind of rest stop, a convenient mini-island.  

The insects traveled with us for several hours, and that made me think about how humans move species around.  Boats brought mosquitoes to the Hawaiian Islands, which before Europeans arrived must truly have been a paradise.  When we entered Canada and spoke with that customs agent, she questioned us closely about exactly what kinds of produce we had in our fridge.  The concern was that American apples could harbor a pest that would be deadly to Canadian orchards.  

Besides the mosquitoes, our boat has acquired quite a stable of resident spiders.  Each morning, I open the doors to the stern deck to see the work they have done in the night, draping lacy webs on all the spokes of Bill’s bike, decorating the crenellations of the canvas canopy,  and filling in the bend of the tiller.  These boat spiders eat well--most of the webs have a generous sprinkling of insect corpses.

It’s remarkable how many different KINDS of spiders have taken up residence with us—spiders of different colors, different sizes, long-legged and short legged, wide-bodied and slim.  I don’t think I have seen two of the same kind yet.  Are they blown in on the wind? Do they drop from trees?  Crawl from the docks along our mooring lines?

Whatever.  I try to evict them.  I go out each morning with a broom and sweep away the webs.  And if I see a spider on the canopy during the day, I make that varmint walk the plank (superstitions that killing spiders brings rain notwithstanding).  (We have had wonderful weather, by the way.)

But spiders are fast moving.  Some of them elude the broom, and I am sure many individuals have been riding along for days, because despite my efforts, it seems like I see the same spiders in the same places each morning.  What does a spider think, when it spins a web along the Erie Canal in upstate New York, and a month later finds itself swept onto a dock on the north shore of Lake Huron?  

I also think the spiders may be plotting revenge.  Yesterday morning I was particularly vigorous in my spider-eviction efforts.  When I went into the galley to cook dinner yesterday evening, I found that during the day a rather large, lichen-gray spider had spun quite an elaborate web right across the door to the pots and pans cabinet, which I needed to open. 

You could just see the Gary Larson cartoon-caption floating in a dialogue balloon over the spider’s head. 

“If I can pull this one off, I’ll eat for WEEKS!”


  1. To rid your boat of spiders [and many other insects] get some flea collars for cats or dogs , activate them as directed & put them strategically around the boat . Especially inside cabinets the head ,closets & other enclosed areas. This worked really well on both our boats, campers, mailboxes & weather instruments which of course were outside year round.

  2. Can't help but wonder if the spiders rode in on the backs of the bumble bees. They're both good insects so maybe they team up! ;-)

  3. First of all, I'm enjoying your posts when I remember to read them! Spiders are supposed to be the best thing for insect control, so maybe you shouldn't discourage them from spinning webs on the Dragonfly. Or maybe you need to get a bat house with a resident boat bat to eat up some of those pesky mosquitoes!

  4. I love reading your interesting and humorous travel blog. This is my personal read time before going to bed at the end of the day. I see a great book by the end of this trip "how we kept our boat and marriage a float".