Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bugs on the Brain: Wild life and insects in Panama

Toucan seen in Soberania National Park, Panama
Quick word: I have finished the website that showcases my house for rent and for sale here in El Valle de Anton, Panama. See it at

Now on to the wildlife:

One of the joys of life in the tropics is the incredible wealth of life, both plant life and animal life. Panama boasts more species of birds than any nation in the Americas. El Valle is a birder's mecca. People come here from all over the world to hike up into the hills and birdwatch. Within a few hours hike you can spot toucans, a huge variety of hummingbirds, herons, eagles, many species of quail, macaws, parrots, cuckoos, owls of all kinds... the list goes on.

In this house, I wake up to bird song. It's a lovely sound to be greeted by. Often when I walk in the evening, I pass horses grazing on the road in front of the house (it's a grass "street"). I see owls, bats, possums, armadillos, ñeques, and the occasional sloth. And I sleep to a symphony of frogs and crickets.

Speaking of crickets, however, that brings me to an aspect of life in the tropics that may annoy some people: the bugs.

Beetles are common in Panama
Anyone who is afraid of insects would need some therapy here. This is a tropical country, and bugs of all kinds are a fact of life. Right now it's beetle season. Every day I find several in the house, usually upside-down and waving their legs in slow motion, like a drunk trying to flag a taxi. They are beneficial insects, so I pick them up and take them outside.

By the way, did you know that there are more species of beetles than of any other animal in the world? There is a mind-boggling 350,000 known species of beetles in the world, which is 40% of all described insect species, and 25% of all life on earth!

Every now and then I'll find a large spider in some corner. They are gray, hairy spiders the size of my palm. Again, I scoop them up with a dustpan and toss them out.

There are at least four varieties of ants that are common here. One always has to be aware of food storage and disposal. Leave anything sweet or sugary out (even juice residue in a glass) and tiny sugar ants will be all over it within a half hour. Breakfast cereal, candy or sweets, and of course sugar must all be stored in the refrigerator. Leave anything with protein out, and black ants will march in to devour it. The same black ants will consume the beetles or other insects if they die in the house and remain on the floor too long. These blank ants bite, and if you accidentally step in their way they will be all over your leg before you know it, biting like Mike Tyson.

I have my own strategy for dealing with mosquitoes. I have gotten very good at killing them and can snatch one out of the air with one hand. The real problem comes at night, when one becomes an unconscious feast. What I do is, in the evening I keep the bedroom dark, and I turn a bright light on in some other part of the house to draw them out. When I go to sleep I shut the bedroom door so they can't get in. If I do get bitten, I've found that a brief application of ice to the bite will cure the inflammation and itch completely, if you don't scratch.

The mosquitoes and moths attract geckos, which can frequently be seen on the walls or ceiling. Again, I don't know how they get in, but they are beneficial and I leave them alone. In fact in Panama they call them "limpia casa", house cleaner. They have a distinctive call that sounds like a mocking laugh. Occasionally they time it just right, for example after I've said something silly or forgot what I was doing, and I have to say, "Yeah, very funny!"

Outdoors is another matter. There is a teeming variety of both beneficial and harmful insects, with the real pests being ants and noseeums (also called chiggers or sand flies). Leaf cutter ants are everywhere, and it's not a good idea to step in their path. Fortunately they are easy to spot, with their clear-cut trails through the grass, and their leaf pieces moving along as if by magic.

The noseeums fertilize cocoa trees, so I realize that they too have a purpose in God's plan, but their bites are maddening, much worse than mosquito bites. I never walk outdoors (even in the yard) barefoot or in slippers. I always wear shoes, socks and long pants.

Bees and wasps are common, and we have twice had to remove wasp nests from the eaves of the house.

With all that said, you get used to it. It's a part of life here and eventually you adjust. It's the price you pay for the fruits that drop from the trees right into your hand, the profusion of flowers, the hummingbirds that can be seen outside the window every day, the amazing variety of bird calls, and all the other wonderful aspects of life in the tropics.

No comments: