Dispatch from the army worm front

This is my Sunday column for the June 23, 2013 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Dispatch from the army worm front
By Aaron J. Brown

The forest tent caterpillar is actually quite an attractive little critter if you happen to observe just one of them. Blue-green, speckled white and black, the caterpillar seems a friendly little chap — soft to the touch, without any inclination to bite you or suck your blood. As northern Minnesota insects go these are lovely attributes.

But the tent caterpillar has a nickname which explains its particular fault, the reason why so few people here mourn its squishy, gooey death: it is colloquially called the “army worm.”

Armies must possess great numbers to earn the name, and army worms are no exception. While army worms do not work as a team, nor are they any sort of worm, they function as one massive tree-stripping strike force.

Where I live in the woods north of the western Mesabi Iron Range the army worms have arrived. In some areas the sound of them eating and defecating is loud enough to be mistaken for wind. Once they have finished eating a stretch of tree leaves, they rappel back to the ground on a string of silk that has absolutely no market value. They then crawl up another tree, repeating this process until they are full.

Army worm infestations are cyclical. Out here we see army worms almost every year, but every decade or so their population explodes, turning summer back into early spring with bony trees reaching for the sun.

Recent memory includes years where the roads were stained a dull brown from all the army worms squished under the tires of passing cars. About 10 years ago, your tires would actually slip in some areas. They make a popping sound, like bubble wrap. If there’s one thing forest tent caterpillars do well, it’s die memorably and disgustingly.

This doesn’t appear to be one of those explosive years, though the population uptick this year suggests that the big one is coming. I imagine something eats forest tent caterpillars. I’ve just never seen anything eat a forest tent caterpillar. That is, unless you count my lawnmower.

The other day after mulching no fewer than 1,000 army worms back into the earth, I had a thought. Mowing my lawn might not have been a big deal, in the grand scheme of the universe, but I imagine for the army worms of my neighborhood such an event would leave a scar that would shape their cultural identity for generations. Their history would record the date for centuries, their folk songs singing the hum of my blades.

Then I realized that I was talking about a species that cocoons itself, liquefies, and gels back into the form of a short-lived moth. Still, I like to feel important.

I learned online that you can’t drown an army worm in water, because they can crawl across the surface tension. But they will drown in soapy water. The internet tells me the best time to go after them is at night, when they’re gorged on plants and collect in sheets on the sides of trees.

Meantime, the Minnesota DNR advises that army worms, which they really would rather you not call them, are a native insect and an important part of the eco-system.

I’ll try to remember that the next time I mow my lawn, or pick a forest tent caterpillar out of my beverage. The foliage will grow back in a couple weeks. But we’ll always remember the sweet song of the army worm: “mmchmmchmmch splatasplatasplata POP eeeeew.”

Aaron J. Brown is an author and instructor at Hibbing Community College. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org). The next show is this Saturday, June 29, at the Reif Center in Grand Rapids. Call 218-326-1234 for information on how to reserve free tickets.

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