Adventures While House Sitting


The biggest one yet!


I thought I would diverge from my usual travelogue and write about the amazing world of Guatemalan insects.

The most prominent insects are the ants or Hormigas in Spanish. My personal name for these aggressive pests, which is frequently exclaimed while on the run, is Poco Diablos or little devils.  Ants certainly rule the world of turf and every flower bed, rock wall, rock outcropping, walkway, and root system seems to be infested with a variety of ants.  I learned very quickly that they can make short work of any soft bodied creature that has the unfortunate experience of being still for too long and I commented to David that I hope I never pass out or break a leg and be forced to sit or lay still for very long as I don’t think there would be much of me left by the time I’m discovered.

Our first morning at the Casa revealed a brown six inch moth laying spread eagle on the porch.  The moth was not particularly attractive but its size was impressive and the ants were already moving in for the kill.  Later that day I swatted a two inch spider.  It lay on the porch for a short seven minutes before the ants swarmed it and in less than 15 minutes the only evidence that something had died were the legs; apparently they don’t have much meat on them. 

When we first arrived I kept hearing what sounded like someone blowing their nose…really hard.  At first I thought it was the property owner next store (we were living in the Casita which is a stone’s throw from the Casa), and then due to the frequency I thought it was some strange bird call.  The mystery wasn’t solved for two more weeks when I finally realized the sound was coming from the kitchen ceiling and had, over time, changed from the honking to a loud hum.  The hum would occur primarily in during the dark hours – beginning around dinner time and continue all night.  We finally decided it was some winged creature lodged and vibrating between the board ceiling and roof.  One night David sprayed ant killer into a crevice near the humming sound and hundreds of half inch fire ants began pouring out of the ceiling.  So, at what must have been around midnight, we did the ant dance, stomping on the ants as they hit the floor, we danced for about forty minutes and finally went back to bed.  No humming…at least not until early the next morning.  David sprayed again and another swarm of ants came out, but the numbers were diminished.  About that time the property owner left and we moved into the casa.  Nevertheless, every morning, when I check the casita, I find bits and pieces of bug remains in the kitchen cabinet, on the counter and on the floor.  The ants are still alive and apparently never sleep!

Having unwittingly stood on an ant farm while weeding, planting or reaching into a rock crevice to pull a fern out and suddenly finding that my toes, feet and legs or my hands and then my arms are on fire I cry “Little Diablos!”  And vigorously brush them off or stamp my feet and run, removing my sandals and banging away on them to flick the little devils off. 

The most horrifying experience was during a crab grass pulling session on a pile of lava boulders.  I pulled a large clump of grass from between a crevice and suddenly thousands of half inch fire ants were swarming me.  I had hit upon a nest of ants infiltrating an unidentified egg bed…I threw the grass and got off the boulder pile in a flash and ran down to the rock walkway.  Nicolas, the Mayan gardener, laughed and laughed.  Then he too hit an egg bed and decided to show off by picking up a handful of ants and eggs and give me a little Mayan language lesson about male, female and ant eggs while the ants bit him all over his arms and hands.  Meanwhile I am watching the ants I disrupted swarm down the boulders and head directly for me, I moved off trying to pay attention to my language lesson while keeping a wary eye on the Diablos.  Nickolas must have smelled my fear because he suddenly stopped and indicated the ants were in hot pursuit, calling my name over and over as they searched me out.

Gardening with ants has been a battle of wits.  Since they love to eat seeds and any decaying fruit or vegetable, I decided to outsmart them by planting my seeds in a bed of Diatomaceous earth, covering the seeds with dirt and sprinkling more Diatomaceous earth over the mound.  I then collected up wild marigolds and planted them all around the mounds to help ward off all insects.  I decided against using compost since it is infested with ants and instead make compost tea.  So far the squash, cukes and melons have made it, but the tomatoes are not showing up…I wonder if the little devils prefer tomato seeds.  When working in the garden or any other area, I am constantly scanning the ground careful as to where I put my hands and feet.  At first all seems well but the second you move dirt, they show up and force you to move on.  Bug dope doesn’t help, they bite right through it.  There are places I don’t go…it is ant territory and Nicolas is sent out to do battle.

I guess ants are particularly on my mind just now because I saw the most amazing and somewhat horrifying sight yesterday.  A twenty foot long half inch wide highway of ants was on the move.  They were marching at high speed in both directions. At any given moment a half inch section must have consisted of at least fifty one third inch long ants (which is something like a quarter million ants).  Presumably they were carting tiny bits of wild fruit from a local tree.  I watched them in mixed fascination and horror as they maneuvered the heavy two-way traffic.  For the most part they managed to avoid colliding but when a collision did occur the two colliding ants would rise up on their hind legs and box it out.  When the match was over they would drop to the ground and continue on with a single minded purpose.  These little guys are intimidating and I’m very glad they are not any bigger since they seem to be a smooth running and highly motivated numberless army.  As frustrating and intimidating as they are I recognize they are dedicated ground cleanup and transport crews.

Dealing with spiders is another predominate activity.  The question I have is, is it better to leave a spider web (inside the house) alone or to clean it out.  I figure that spiders left alone are probably best since they don’t seem to travel outside of their web.  However, there are spiders here that don’t weave webs and like to hunt at night….I also discovered they can jump.

Anytime I head outdoors and especially in the morning, I take a stick to clear away the spiders and webs they build overnight and sometimes rebuild as fast as I return.  I really dislike that stretching crinkly sound spider webs make when they wrap around your face and head…besides I know that web had a spider and now where is it…I feel like spiders creep around in my hair all day.

 One night while lying in bed reading, I caught a movement overhead and discovered a two and half inch spider on the ceiling directly overhead.  I then spotted another one and decided to watch and see what would happen when the two encounter one another.  The first spider “Blackie” was hunting the crevices in the tongue and groove ceiling boards.  He would sit very still and then suddenly jump forward, adhere his two back legs and use two or more front legs and feed on knats or some other little flying insects that were attracted to the rising heat and light from my bedside lamp.  Over and over Blackie performed the same trick as he hunted an area about twelve feet square.  I would occasionally get a bit nervous when Blackie seemed to get over excited and become so rambunctious I thought he might lose his sticking power and fall right onto our bed.  Meanwhile the other spider “Brownie” was hunting the boards on the other side of a 2x6 wooden beam.  I anxiously waited for them to come in contact hoping to see my first spider fight.  Blackie was just a bit larger then Brownie. 

I had been watching for about 25 minutes when I was suddenly tired and really just wanted to turn off the light and go to sleep…but I couldn’t.  Somehow the thought of spiders dropping down on me at night was not very restful. I began entertaining thoughts of how I could kill them without knocking them alive onto the bed.  The ceiling is about twelve feet high and getting an accurate swat on the spiders seemed a challenge to my sleepy mind.  So I lay there and watched. In a totally disappointing moment the two spiders suddenly became aware of each other and both took off at high speed in opposite directions.  So after about an hour of spying on the spiders the drama was over and while David slept peacefully I finally decided to move in for the kill.  First I switched off my bedside light hoping that the flying insects would move to the ceiling light and attract the spiders.  I flicked the light on (I also briefly wondered if bright lights momentarily blind spiders like a deer when caught in headlights…I thought I might be able to take advantage of that).

Sure enough Brownie moved off to the ceiling light, but Blackie was busy trying to fit his big body and long legs (by the way I figured out if you put his legs end to end they would equal about nine inches) into a tiny hole at the corner of a beam.  Eventually he gave up, but since Brownie was occupied I decided to go after Blackie. First, I had to arm myself with a weapon and something to stand on.  I went down stairs and grabbed an umbrella with a stout pointy end.  I then ran back upstairs and grabbed a chair.  Somehow I had to force Blackie to the wall where I could get a good jab. 

Fortunately when I returned Blackie was right next to the door as I passed through the narrow doorway while hauling the umbrella and chair awkwardly and trying to be quiet since David was deep asleep…But Blackie must of realized my motives and decided to surprise me….at least I think it was Blackie. The battle ensued as I stood precariously on a flimsy plastic chair trying to reach Blackie who had by now run up the wall and over the built-in closet.  I could barely reach. I would jab and miss as Blackie scurried off.  Again and again I jabbed and missed impaling the wall instead. Then I got him, but barely and when I pulled away he jumped right for me, I almost screamed and dropped the umbrella while trying to jump off the chair.  I was sure Blackie was running up my arm. With my heart racing I gently lay the umbrella on the floor as I scanned every square inch of my body, the floor, walls, bed and ceiling.  I finally decided he must be in the folds of the black umbrella.  I opened the bedroom door and scooted the umbrella across the hall and into the other bedroom with the tip of my flip flop, when I opened the veranda door Blackie suddenly ran out and lost the battle to my North Face flip flop. It was an unpleasant site.

I returned victorious to the bedroom and David’s even breathing.  I scanned the ceiling and light fixture but no Brownie.  I lay down and watched the ceiling for movement.  No Brownie.  Finally I turned off the light and pulled the covers over my head.  The next morning I asked David how he slept “Not so good…it sounded like something was going on”.

They next day Brownie and his twin were found lurking in the spare bedroom where they came face to face with the back of a book and then were quickly deposited outdoors to prevent the ant cleaning crew from marching in to fulfill their duties.

While I know these spiders are harmless, I can’t seem to get past the idea of an uninvited eight legged creature running around on my person.  I am not the only one that feels this way.  The property owner told me a story about a couple that came to visit.  The guy was big, well over six feet tall and was upstairs in the guest bedroom while Cynthia and her lady friend visited downstairs.  Suddenly they heard a piercing scream and ran upstairs to discover the big guy standing immobilized in the middle of the bedroom.  Brownie or one of his relatives was perched on the window sill glaring at the man.  Cynthia had to shoo the big spider out the window.

Another local critter that is a sheer nuisance is the fruit flies.  They hang in the kitchen and swarm everything.  Nothing is sacred and they are particularly interested in the coffee filters with used grounds.  Great just what we need wired fruit flies.

But, the one creature that forces me to be hyper vigilant is the large black scorpions.  I have done my homework and learned that none of the Guatemalan species is lethal.  Nicolas, the Mayan gardener, says a scorpion sting is a lot like a bee sting.  The online information says if you get stung take two Tylenol and put a cold pack on the sting.  So the reality is they are relatively harmless.  Nevertheless, if I were to respond to a scorpion sting like I do to Chigger bites, I would probably blow up and be sick for a week, so I use extreme caution.

My day goes like this…when I wake up I examine my sandals and the surrounding floor before putting my feet down.  When I enter the bathroom, I examine the toilet seat and surrounding floor and even the inside of the toilet paper tube before picking it up.  When I get dressed I pick up my clothing with two fingers and make sure nothing is lurking in the folds then vigorously shake.  Then I peer down the arms and legs and finally squeeze all down the arms, legs and pockets…which is actually quite silly because I doubt a Scorpion would lose its grasp and having had to kill several, they seem to be armor plated, so squeezing would probably just get their dander up. I then gingerly get dressed.  When I unroll my exercise mat I closely examine it and the floor. When I sit down to read and write I first check all the seat cushions, then all the papers on the desk and finally under my lap top. I also check the immediate area under the desk and scan the room top to bottom.  Sure enough a 4 inch black scorpion sits on the rock ledge of the fireplace right in front of my desk. It takes several hard hits and smashes to get it to stop running and bite the dust. When I go to take my evening shower I examine the shower, the shower curtain and flick the towel several times…and hope a scorpion doesn’t fly off and land on me.  When I go to bed I tear it apart and examine the layers of sheets, blankets and pillows and I never ever sleep with anything touching the wall. Scorpions love rock surfaces, bedding and paper, they seemed to feel safe in tight flat areas and when a particularly heavy rain occurs they dash inside and hide in the closets.

After David killed a scorpion last night I had fun spooking him about how they love to hide in papers and under books…he went through his night stand pile after he carefully examined the bed.

It is creepy to think that they, being nocturnal, are scurrying around the house hunting while we sleep and then hide themselves away during the day.  The house has multiple occupants living in shifts.

One of our late afternoon activities is to watch a flight show.  About fifteen identical rust colored dragonflies show up and feed on the swarm of knats that always hang on a warm air current in front of the porch.  The dragonflies fly back and forth eating up the knats until the swam is gone.  The next day the knats and dragonflies reappear and the whole process is repeated.

One of our favorite and educational activities occurs after dark.  We sit at the dining room table which is surrounded with three floor to ceiling windows.  We turn on the overhead light and watch the night flyers come in.  Thousands of knats land on the windows followed by a variety of moths and other unknown night flyers.  Last night we watched a variety of moths and then a praying mantis type creature showed up.  It was fluorescent green except for its head and body.  The body looked exactly like a white ear of corn.  This guy had six really long legs and two super long antennae.  He would methodically climb the window while stuffing knats in his mouth.  David said he was left handed and it was comical watching him since it was like watching someone popping popcorn kernels in their mouth.

I have dubbed one of the moths that shows up every night “The Angel” because is it looks exactly like the classic depiction of an angel; out spread arms, folded wings on both sides of its head and a gown flowing down. 

Having wondered why moths are attracted to light I did a bit or research and the theories are all about navigational skills in relation to the moon, so they are naturally attracted to any white light.

Chiggers…ugh, these unseen and highly irritating creatures are my nemesis.  A few days after our arrival I told David I don’t have time to do anything else because I was so busy itching and scratching.  Chiggers love me and consequently I have had to implement the following:  shower every night with dog flea and tick shampoo, all clothes changing is done in the spare bedroom and the used clothes are left there. I have to spray liberally with Mosquito spray at least twice a day (which is hard to find and expensive here).  My hair is braided and carefully hidden beneath a scarf.  At first I thought it was just me, but David said the same thing happens to him and that is when a new chigger bite shows up all the old bites (even those that are a month old now) start itching.  I sure hope I can adjust to these pests!

There is a giant tree right next to the house and currently it has masses of black fuzzy caterpillars stationed on it.  The caterpillars line up side to side and end to end to form a caterpillar mat.  They came out of now where and they move around the tree in mass to form these mats.  They seem to be resting motionless when all of a sudden a pulse will run through the group and they undulate one after another.  Then they are still again.  The garden told me to be careful because they fall off the tree and bite you. Eventually they will disappear.

Of course there is a plethora of brightly colored butterflies, scary looking caterpillars with horns, hard shelled beetles, florescent damselflies, flies including fire flies, and other creepy crawlies that entertain us and teach us valuable lessons as we watch the God given and God driven purposes for their little and often mysterious lives.

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