Washington, D.C. Stories and Tips

Bareback Bughunting

The equitable equine companion Photo, Washington, D.C., United States


Most children go through a ‘bug’ phase, I suppose. I never seem to have gotten over mine. I can remember the contentment of summer evenings spent watching fireflies dancing over cornfields, the thrill of capturing a luminous luna moth, and the fascination of huge, yellow-backed garden spiders. For years as an adult I lived in cities, where the bug-hunting opportunities were few, but when I moved to rural Maryland, my appreciation for insects returned. Now, regardless of where I go or what I do, I take time to check out the bugs.

This is primarily an outdoor pursuit, although I find sometimes there is scope indoors as well. There’s a ‘no kill’ rule for spiders in our house, though the wasps that wander in from some attic crevice are a trickier business, necessitating a relocation method using a clear plastic cup and sheet of thin cardboard.

In the garden there are ample opportunities to observe insects, but there are just as many occasions to be annoyed with them. The predatory Chinese mantids might be fascinating, but the depredations their Asian kin, the Japanese beetles, are less amusing. After an early period of frenzied spraying – which did little to curb the ravages of thrips and other assorted villains – I gave myself over wholeheartedly to tending a ‘natural’ garden, though a less-flattering term I’ve heard for this practice is ‘lazy.’ But to my mind I have taken the horticultural high road, determined not to let any damage that insects inflict perturb me. The joy of observing butterflies and other insects is more than ample compensation.

By far the most satisfactory places to entomologize (if that is a word, and I think it should be) are meadows and forests. And, as luck would have it, I spend a lot of time wandering the countryside on horseback, which gives me plenty of opportunity to observe insects throughout the seasons. In fact, I’ve come to think there’s no better place to observe nature in all its forms than from the back of a horse.

For the past thirteen years, I’ve ridden a friend’s Morgan horse during the weekdays when he’s too busy to do so. Oakie’s thirty-one now, an age most horses never achieve, but Morgans are a tough, long-lived breed. We still take our thrice-weekly forays into the gently rolling Maryland countryside, though at a more stately pace these days, with a lot less trotting and cantering. Morgans, once the staple of the American cavalry, are ideal trail horses. You can keep your fine-boned Arabs, high-stepping Standardbreds, and flashy Thoroughbreds. Give me a horse that’s sound, safe, and simple; in short, give me a Morgan.


"Where to, boss?"

Over the years of mostly solitary hacks, Oakie and I have come to a near-perfect understanding of and tolerance for each other’s preferences and oddities. I know, for example, that while he is unfazed by almost everything that terrifies other horses, that large birds such as vultures, crows, or geese flying low overhead will startle him. He will shy at a hawk, but luckily I subliminally pick up on this fear and shy simultaneously in the same direction. This is probably the reason I’ve never fallen off (knock on wood), though if I did, I have every confidence that he’d stand apologetically and wait for me to get back on.

If we’re not going very far, I often ride bareback, a comfortable arrangement as I dislike keeping my feet in stirrups. Since I sometimes carry a camera with me and need both hands free for photography, Oakie has learned to respond to a set of idiosyncratic non-rein aids, with gentle thumps of my boots on his sides to guide him and a low downward humming sound to indicate he’s to stop altogether. On his part, Oakie has trained me to swat horseflies by coming to a dead stop the moment one lands on him. Our all-time horsefly record on a single hack is nine, though that’s nine kills and god knows how many misses. My amnesty towards spiders and wasps obviously does not extend to horseflies. Once bitten by one, it becomes abundantly clear why horses buck wildly to dislodge them.

During our travels, I’ve seen some odd entomological phenomena, but none stranger than the massive cloud of ladybugs that suddenly enveloped us one afternoon in a field. If any insect is universally liked, it’s the ladybug, but when there are thousands of them swirling in a cyclone pattern, it’s a bit unnerving. Oakie thought so, too, and trotted out of the insect swarm post haste, though for a mile or so afterward I was brushing stray beetles from my hair, his mane, and other places they’d lodged.

This was an epic year for insects on the East Coast as the 17-year cicadas emerged in May in their billions to set up an eerie, extraterrestrial-sounding mating serenade that drowned out all other noises, even in the city. Washington-area residents quickly divided into two camps: the cicada haters and the cicada lovers.

It goes without saying that I was a pro-cicada, but, alas, Oakie was not. With its buzzing, kamakazi flight, the cicada sounds and looks very much like the dreaded horsefly. Oakie was convinced that’s precisely what every cicada was. Rides through the woods became seriocomic affairs, as he’d stop dead every time a cicada got near him --and there were often hundreds of them whizzing through the air. Attempting to teaching him that these bugs were not going to bite involved an unsuccessful de-conditioning campaign. I, of course, was keen to observe the red-eyed brood up close.

One tree in particular was astir with masses of cicadas for several weeks, with as many as four or five of them on a single twig. As we approached the tree, the din they made was, I admit, unnerving. Oakie signaled his displeasure in all the standard equine ways: tossing his head, backing up or stepping sideways, snorting and swishing his tail in agitation, and generally not holding still for two seconds, which accounts for this rather blurry photo of the insect in question.

If he is less than thrilled with cicadas, though, Oakie’s a trooper when it comes to spiders. Riding through the woods during what I call ‘spider season’ – roughly late July through September – involves passing through innumerable gossamer strands the new spider hatchlings spin at roughly horse level across the width of our favorite trails. I know squeamish riders who will not essay this arachnid gauntlet, but I am more amazed than disgusted by their spiderly acrobatics. In particularly dense areas, I wave a riding crop before me to clear a path, and Oakie sensibly understands that I don't intend to hit him with it. Try waving a crop around while riding a green horse and see how quickly you set a record for an unscheduled dismount.

July is a wonderful month for insect observation. The butterflies are at their peak, and after a sudden shower during a dry spell brings them out by the hundreds in fields brimming with red clover, Joe Pye weed, butterfly weed, milkweed, and bindweed. All the much-maligned ‘weeds,’ in fact, are prime butterfly attractants. Sadly, there have been progressively fewer monarchs about than in previous years, testimony to the ravages of their winter homes in Mexico.

When the grasshoppers and assorted orthopteroids reach their full growth in August, they make a whirring susurration as they leap aside at our approach. Some of these locusts are of biblical proportions. Occasionally a particularly athletic specimen lands on Oakie’s mane or my thigh and that, of course, makes me wish I’d brought a collecting jar to capture it.

When we’ve finished our hack and Oakie’s had his bath, I bring him out to graze on a lush patch of clover just outside the barn, his reward for a job well done. This is perhaps my favorite time, as I lounge in the grass, meditating on the steady hnncch, hnnch, hnnch of his grazing and the accompanying hum of bumblebees plundering the clover. I think of nothing in particular, reduced to "a green thought in a green shade." Without intentionally searching, I invariably spot a four-leaf clover or two, and though I’m not superstitious, I like to keep these clovers pressed in a book of poetry. I found a clover the other day and later carelessly opened the book to press it. Out cascaded four-leaf clovers by the dozens, relics of peaceful mornings and warm afternoons spent in the quiet company of my good friend and steadfast companion.


Can you spot the four-leaf clover?

Check It Out: By a happy coincidence, many entomologists are also engaging writers. I’ve compiled a list at of my favorite books on bugs at Amazon.com entitled, Small Wonders.

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