Planet of the Bugs

March 30, 1995

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the first Earth Day next month, the political pendulum in the United States seems to be swinging in Homo sapien's direction. The new powers-that-be in Congress mock the preservation of the spotted owl and tell a Maryland representative they would rather hear constituents' horror stories about efforts to protect endangered species than scientific testimony. On a state level, the opposition mounts against measures designed to limit air pollution and deforestation. Man is king, this thinking goes, and don't let Earth's other inhabitants forget it.

But lest Marylanders need a reminder that more significant powers than we preside over this planet, they may look no farther than their proverbial backyard. The 14th annual aerial spraying is about to begin to neutralize the gypsy moth, a creature that was introduced to New England from Europe in the 19th century to weave silk. But that Rumpelstiltskinesque fairy tale mutated into a forest-killing nightmare. The gypsy moth has munched 857,000 acres of forest in Maryland alone the past decade and a half. While we've become more sophisticated in curtailing the devastation, Porthtyria dispar will be with us a long time.

The Asian ladybug, as the name suggests, is not native to Chesapeake country either, but it made its presence known in a big way last winter. The species was originally brought to America at the beginning of this century as a predator for aphids and other agricultural pests, but more recently arrived by accident on a freighter from the Far East. It wasn't much noticed in Maryland until this year, when extension agents fielded many complaints from Garrett to Baltimore counties about the multi-colored beetle.

So besieged was the Sideling Hill geological museum on Interstate 68, for instance, that the bugs covered walls and went wading in any unobserved cup of coffee. Workers there were able to fill vacuum cleaner bags with the bugs every three days.

A movie now playing called "Outbreak" is about a killer virus transported from Africa to California through laboratory animals. The film is based loosely on a book about a real-life invasion of a ravaging disease, Ebola, brought to Reston, Va., six years ago through experimental monkeys. The virus was confined to a building there, recently slated for demolition. But the point is we have plenty of reminders in fact, not fiction, that when man gets too big for his britches, nature will show him his place.

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