HQ: Killing Condominium

Incomplete chrysalization, black swallowtail on prairie parsley (plus a gorgeous little spider), Austin, Texas, 5/28/018.

One day in April I happened to be on the patio hanging with the plants when the gate was opened by a man with a tank strapped to his back. He stopped without coming in when he saw me. I said hello. He said hello back while eyeballing the patio enclosure, much of which is bare ground.

Two years ago I was told by the management people to restore the grass that was never present before I grew a season of wildflowers. I have tried. I moved wildflowers into pots and broke up the hardpan. I worked sand and compost into the clay, and I planted grass. When the seedlings emerged, the landscape management sent in crew with string cutters and leafblowers to rip through the seedlings at ground level and kill the roots by desiccation. I have planted grass more than once, and each time grass begins to grow, invariant routine maintenance practices kill it.

In an effort to retain soil while sheltering new sprung blades, I have encouraged anything that will grow to do so. Some, like dandelions and sow thistle are not native, but they dig scrappily deep into the hardpan, dirt builds up around their bases, and they come back each week after the whackers take them down. Others, like yellow wood sorrel, horse herb and Texas aster are locals that branch and thrive below the levels of the nylon whips. After two years, the patio finally sports a few mixed patches of sorrel, horse herb and aster, and in these patches new grass clings to life.

As the man with the tank on his back took in unholy diversity, including the large pots of native plant communities dominating the slab, I explained, “I’ve been trying to grow grass. Not successfully.”

The man said, “I hear you.”

Then he said, “I’m here to spray weeds, but in this case I think it would be counterproductive.”

“The weeds,” I pointed out, “are the only things holding the dirt in place. But thank you for checking.”

“You’re welcome,” he answered.

Closing the gate, he went to the next patio and sprayed.

About a week later, I was again on the patio, taking stock of what was flowering in the native pots, and what critters were drawn by the blooms. Healthy, active green bottle flies were nectaring on the heavily flowering prairie parsley, many more than on the day before. Odd movement on the ground caught my eye, which turned out to be more green bottle flies coming under the fence from the neighboring patio. What was odd was that they were walking. Instead of wings, most had small, crumpled masses where wings attach. Some had what looked like one healthy wing and one withered wing standing at a right angle to the body. They were otherwise fat and sleek, suggesting they had just emerged from pupation and had not yet begun to starve. I have seen crumple-wing flies before, but never in numbers.

A green bottle fly with two crumpled masses instead of wings. Austin, Texas, April 2018.

A green bottle fly with a withered right wing. Austin, Texas, April 2018.

More days passed, and reality argued against all wishes that there really were ants colonizing around the foundation of this unit, and moving into the foundation weep holes. Wildflowers die at the pleasure of invariant routine maintenance practices but, by twisting rationale, exterior ant control is a responsibility of the homeowner. Well acquainted with the elisions by now, I arranged treatment for the ants.

I thought that I was very specific with the technician. My concern was ants around the foundation. I do not want this cardboard unit compromised before fate smiles on initiatives to shed it. The tech inspected the interior, and found silverfish under the sink in the main bath. I agreed, “Okay, do those, too,” then returned to editing the book in progress. When the job was done, the technician came back to report that the ants were fire and crazy. Then he reported that in addition to treating them, he had generally treated for “pill bugs and other crawly things just because they’re annoying.”

“Just because they’re annoying.” I can’t tell you how that phrase went through me. It is so massively stupid that I cannot wrap my head around it. He had spread granulated pesticide on the flower beds, in the struggling grass on the patio, and in all my pots, including those growing nasturtiums, garlic, ginger and turmeric for the kitchen.

Before pesticide, the prairie parsley that dominates one native pot had aphids. It also had adult ladybugs prowling its leggy stems, ladybug larvae preying on the aphids, and a beautiful black swallowtail caterpillar feeding on flowering umbels.

After pesticide, the ladybugs, adult and larvae, disappeared. One day present; the next day, nope. Aphids have covered every stem of the prairie parsley, including the thick, browning, main stem. Aphids have attacked plants on which they were not previously present.

A couple of days after the pesticide, the black swallowtail caterpillar was ready to chrysalize. Typically, a caterpillar leaves its host plant for metamorphosis. Likely this is because if a critical life phase involves sitting motionless and vulnerable for several days there is advantage in undertaking it somewhere predators are not accustomed to look. This caterpillar did not do that. This caterpillar descended from upper reaches of the prairie parsley to chrysalize partway up its lowest branch. The chrysalis is not angled properly on the stem, and it is not complete. As far as I can tell, the back is developing as it should, but parts of the belly and prolegs are still caterpillar. If it crawled all the way off the plant onto the dirt in the pot before turning around to crawl back up, the parts that have failed to transform would have contacted pesticide granules. It’s hard not to speculate.

The pill bug population has plunged. I have no idea what the toad that spends days under the illegal monarda is eating, but it still bathes every night in the dish of water I set out for it. At least the landscape crew seems to have conceded the monarda.

Gulf Coast toad hanging in a water dish, Austin, Texas, 5/27/018.

So far this year, I have not seen either a praying mantis or a bumble bee. The pots of native plants seem less like experiments in minimum bases for abundance, and much like death traps for invertebrates already under threat. Of course, I’ll look for a different provider for the next ant treatment, and I’ll police the process. Other than that, I conclude only that Rome is burning.