Every summer, Roosevelt Park is always the first place I see fireflies -- or as we used to call them, “lightning bugs.” The not-walked-on lawns surrounding the American Museum of Natural History aren’t mowed as often as Central Park, and the taller grass really attracts these floating bits of neon, flickering on and off to amaze yet another generation experiencing nature in the city.
Small kids find all bugs fascinating. It’s only when we get older that we begin to categorize “good bugs” and “bad bugs.” In reality there are just bugs.
“Help save the honeybees!” says the earnest young lady, waving her clipboard on the sidewalk in front of the pet supply store.
“Sorry, I’ll pass,” I say, which stops her in her tracks long enough for me to tell her that the honeybee is not a native North American insect. The mite/virus/colony collapse fiasco that is killing them off is, in my view, “Mother Nature’s market correction” in removing an interloping insect.
The honeybee was brought here in colonial times to pollinate fruit trees. Thomas Jefferson’s diary records he brought back French bees from Paris with an eye to improving yields on his grapes and apples in Monticello. Like a lot of American gardeners, he was unfamiliar with native pollinating bees, such as the orchard mason bee, the carpenter bee, and the bumblebee, which is critical to pollinating that tomato plant on your terrace. According to Cornell University, there are about 450 wild bee species already adapted to modern food crops, and they advocate encouraging native pollinators.
That giant, four-inch-long, reddish-brown “waterbug” is a native New Yorker. Wave hello next time you see it. It’s the German cockroach -- small, fast and shiny -- that’s the real villain in kitchens. Improvements in pesticides have made these less of a scourge, but we’ve yet to find solutions to other imported pest species, such as the Norway rat and the rock pigeon.
And so on to mosquitoes. The Health Department tells us that the “type of mosquito” native to New York is not the same species that carries the Zika virus. But even ours carry a nasty bite, so their advice to use window screens at home, insect repellent in the park, and clean up any standing water in your backyard is still excellent.
I wish there were more places you could learn about insects. Roosevelt Park is now a surprisingly contentious bit of park land, and while the American Museum of Natural History is a good source for scholarly data on bugs, in my opinion its bid to reduce the tree canopy and lawns around the building may deprive native insects, not to mention New Yorkers who also enjoy the shady walks and flower plantings.
Other places to find native insects are areas that include native plants: this includes the Turtle Pond plantings in Central Park, now lively with native flowers, and the High Line, also well planted with native flowers and grasses. Online, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (www.fws.gov/pollinators/) celebrates “National Pollinator Week” with a variety of videos and activities for kids.
Not long ago I found a Walking Stick insect (Diapheroma femorata) in my window box, and I do get the occasional butterfly. Keep an eye out; send me a photo (email@example.com) and let’s share the insects that share our city world.