John Howell’s Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Mother’s Day brings end of strawberries, influx of Asian termites in New Orleans

By John Howell Sr.

Mother’s Day has become an unintended calendar milestone for several unrelated occurances in south Louisiana.

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By that weekend in May, Pontchatoula’s strawberry season is about ended. During the mild winters of the last several years, fresh-picked strawberries have been available continously in that city on Lake Pontchartain’s north shore. They start in December, selling for about $20 a flat. That’s 12 pints. The price drops as the supply increases.

The season peaks in April, and Pontchatoula celebrates with its big strawberry festival. Last Friday as I returned to New Orleans, I made my usual stop at Pontchatoula’s Berrytown Produce. There was a small stack of half-flat boxes holding strawberries. They were marked $5.50. By the time I checked out, they were rung up at $3.15. Sure sign that the season’s about gone. Of course, those proved to be the best of the season.

Mother’s Day weekend usually coincides also with the Asian termite swarms. We spotted  them around our porch lights this weekend, so we turned most of our porch lights off. I don’t know whether that does any good, but it can’t hurt.

The Times-Picayune said the Asian termite population is rebounding after Hurricane Katrina’s flood. Many colonies perished as the structures they inhabited remained inundated in the weeks after the August, 2005 levee breaches.

Even then, the newspaper’s account continued, some colonies down in the roots of trees were able to survive flooding. And, of course, they survived in non-flooded areas like the French Quarter where they had wrought such heavy devastation until massive termite eradication programs were begun in the 1990s.

There are fewer buckmoth caterpillers evident as May progresses. These creatures favor feeding on the leaves of Live Oak trees. They apparently eat their fill in the leaves so regularly that it makes them too heavy to hold on and they fall earthward.

Don’t think fuzzy caterpiller; think spiked caterpiller. The creature’s very appearance is a warning of the painful result of coming into accidental contact with its spines. Its very look says “Don’t touch.”

Most of the abundant population of buckhorn caterpillers that was everywhere two weeks ago has apparently morphed into its next life cycle and allowed the shade of the Live Oak trees to return to tranquil normal.

Then there’s a new entry into the New Orleans’ list of insects to be avoided — the brown widow spider. Not a black widow nor a brown recluse, the brown widow is a recent arrival from Florida, apparently having caught a ride on nursery plants or whatever else may be coming from there to here. And it found debris piles — in this city and Mississippi’s Gulf Coast as well — make suitable nesting sites.

The brown widow’s northward spread has coincided with milder winters, arachnologists say. Its venom is perhaps twice as potent as that of its near relative, the black window, but the brown widow is more likely to avoid human contact and usually injects less venom into her victims.

The brown widow has the same, tell-tale red hourglass figure on the underside of its abdomen as its shiny-black cousin.

And somehow, this column that began with a reference to Mother’s Day has descended into a discussion of black and brown widows, for which I apologize.