Thursday, January 13, 2011

Mr. Stinkbug's Winter Vacation

On Tuesday morning Ally was sitting at the dining room table eating breakfast when she pointed out a dead bug on the floor beside the door leading to our back deck. It was a brown marmorated stink bug, a newly arrived pest species in Virginia. Over the past couple of years populations of these stink bugs have built up to where they spend all summer feasting on your tomatoes and other garden produce before coming inside your house to stay all winter with you. They're a lot like Cousin Eddie in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation in this respect. This particular specimen was on its back in the classic folded leg yoga posture that announces, "I'm a dead bug." However, when I picked the stink bug up I noticed that one of its legs and antenna were still twitching. Figuring that the little bugger was on its way out, I decided to toss it in the compost container so it could at least fertilize the tomatoes this summer after sucking out the juice of my tomatoes all last summer.

I'm a dedicated composter. I don't maintain my compost pile in the most efficient manner, but I do put every possible scrap of organic material in it that I can. Fruit peels and cores, egg shells, coffee grinds and their filters, old dry bread, vegetable peelings, even the paper mache cartons for my eggs get torn up and tossed into the compost, along with any grass clippings or mulched leaves from the yard. I don't add any dairy or meat products as I don't want to attract any more varmints out of the woods than we already get, but I've been known to toss shrimp tails and the occasional fish skeleton in there, too. I'm always amazed at how much biodegradable material we, a family of three plus a small dog, can generate in a week. I like the idea of all this stuff going into my compost pile where it will eventually break down and nurture my garden instead of merely filling up another spot in a landfill for all of eternity.

The only problem is that after making dinner in the winter, I'm not motivated to run out in the cold and dark to dump that day's offering on the compost heap over by the woods. So I keep my compost fodder in an old red plastic Folger's coffee container. I'm sure the blue plastic Maxwell House containers work just as well, but ours is from Folger's because that's the kind of coffee we prefer. I just keep it on the kitchen counter and add scraps to it throughout the day. I've used this type of container as a temporary compost holder for years and I have never had a problem with any type of smell coming from the container as long as the lid is on securely. Sure, they get a little worn looking after a while and someone unfamiliar with my composting habits might get a nasty shock if he's looking for ground coffee for the coffee maker, but they work great, they're easy to clean, and better yet, they're free after you use up all the coffee. When they get too worn looking you can just rinse them out and put them in the recycling bin. Not a bad deal, especially compared to buying a specialty "composting pail" that can easily cost $30.00 from a gardening supply catalog.

But because I add so much material to the old coffee container each day, it fills up after a couple of days and I still don't want to run out to the compost pile to empty it due to the winter weather. So I put the full container to the side and start up another one using an empty container. Usually it's another coffee container, but this week I had a plastic container that had previously held spring lettuce mix. It's a nice size, but I don't typically use a container like this as it's clear plastic and not everyone enjoys seeing compost material in a pre-rotting (or worse) stage. But that's what I was using when I tossed Mr. Moribund Stinkbug in there.

Imagine my surprise Tuesday afternoon when I opened the container to add an apple core and found Mr. Stinkbug alive and well, walking over Monday's coffee grinds. Apparently the extra humidity and warmth of the compost container was just what he needed to perk himself up. I left him there figuring it was just a minor reprieve from the inevitable. When I opened the container on Wednesday to add more coffee grinds, Mr. Stinkbug was jauntily sitting on the apple core, sucking out some juice and clearly having a good time. He had found himself the stinkbug equivalent of a mid-winter paradise, much in the same way I long to drop everything right now and spend the weekend on St. John's in the Caribbean with a cool fruity drink in my hand and my toes in the warm white sands. And I've left him there to enjoy it as long as he can. Eventually the wind will stop howling and the snow flurries will cease and I'll take all the full containers out to the compost pile. It's possible that Mr. Stinkbug can bury himself down in the leave mulch to ride out the rest of the winter despite the freezing temperatures. Even though he's nothing but a pest and they reproduce by the gazillions in the warm months, I can't bring myself to dispatch another fellow soul hunkering down to make it through another round of bitter temperatures and freezing wind this January.

However, I won't hesitate to smush him or any of his kin this summer when I find them on my tomatoes. Winter compassion officially ends as soon as the temperatures rise above freezing.

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