Extension Pete in: The Case of the Missing Menace

This was certainly a new one for Extension Pete, Entomologist Detective. He had solved mysteries where there was a bug and it was causing damage—cabbage loopers (on cabbage!); mysteries where there was a bug but it wasn’t causing damage—bark lice weaving a thin film of silk on a maple trunk; even mysteries where was wasn’t a bug and it was causing damage—dark lint left behind from an old rag, resulting in a new crop of “bugs” immediately after the last batch was wiped away. But this mystery was the first of its kind:

There was no bug.

There was no damage.

So, wherefore Extension Pete? Mrs. Pauline Miller, glacially old, wearing brand new clothes purchased 40 years ago, her whole bearing like crisp, dry parchment—stiff, prideful, and intact, with the same content of its former self, but fragile beyond words and unaware of it—explained at the door, voice with a thin vibration of age, “My roses you see. Ever since, well back when we first moved here it was just after the war, and Charlie, he was my husband, well he had a friend, Stan, at the grocery store. Well Henry thought it would be a fine thing to surprise me with rose bushes on our first anniversary, so while I was at the hairdressers he and Stan planted all these roses.” She gestured to the line of roses along the front of the house. A house and a yard that were painted-perfect. Straight out of watercolored schematics you might find in an article on “New Landscaping Fashions and Layouts for 1958” in the second October issue of American Nurseryman, 1957. “Now that was the year when we got a late frost in early May and it killed the bougainvillea, and then, well it didn’t rain for almost three weeks in July. It was terribly hot, we slept with the windows open at night, but the dust was horrible. I couldn’t have anyone over before noon. Well, our Anniversary was July 31st, we were going to have a June wedding, but the dress maker, that was Gladys Eidelman, she taught at the school, she cut her hand and so we had to postpone the wedding. Now Charlie and Stan hadn’t figured on the ground being so hard, and when I got back from the hairdresser, they only had two rose bushes planted, and Charlie was using a pick ax to dig new holes while Stan was soaking the ground with a hose. They were both covered in dirt from head to toe! Horrible waste of water, but I didn’t saying anything. Charlie said he never thought he would have to become a miner for our anniversary!”

And thus was the narrative of the story of the origin of the rose bushes, Pete nodding and oohing and awing throughout in a respectful manner. Let us summarize the rest or we’ll be here as long as Pete, on the front porch, melting in the sun. Pauline utterly unaware of the blaze.

Originally the roses were regularly fumigated whether they needed it or not, “Joe Parker had a weekly service, and that was what you did back in those days, nobody thought about the chemicals, everything was a chemical.” But times have changed, and the Garden Club has gone organic. And you can’t enter the Contest if you’re not Organic. “Bless their heart” but those “organics” just didn’t work as well as the “chemicals” in the “old days” and ever since she had gone organic the Japanese Beetles (“I never had them until I switched to organics.”) were always around, just a few, and caused damage, just a little.   Except this year.

There were no beetles.

There was no damage.

Thus, the mystery. Thus, Extension Pete.

The high-pitched whine of a toy drone interrupted the tail end of the tale and caused its merciful demise. The narrative shifted to Pete explaining what a drone was and how it worked—interesting that the SciFi stories written about the same time the house was built had anticipated the flying weaponized drones of today, but not the toy drone across the street. Then it shifted back to the roses. It was suspected, by those in the know, that Gladys Caldwell, down the street, in a bid to win the Contest, was secretly spraying her roses with “chemicals”. It was known that she sometimes used box mixes to make cakes and shamelessly passed them off as her own. She was generally thought of as a dishonest and disreputable person because of this.

Pauline’s current working hypothesis consisted of the following: “Could it be that when she sprays, her chemicals get blow over onto my roses?”

The hypothesis was unlikely, the houses were half a block apart, and Pete stalled for time with the careful waffling the youth use to placate the elderly. After much conversation and speculation Pete finally broke from Pauline’s conversational grip to “have a look around”, but not before they had talked about the weather, todays haircuts, “Why don’t young ladies wear hose any more?”, loud rock music, and many, many other such subjects.

Pete started down the street toward Gladys’ house watching yards for Japanese Beetles and potential hosts. There were few of the latter, it was a boring neighborhood. The monoculture of short cut Kentucky Bluegrass, overbred varieties of non-native bushes, and Bradford Pears (a tree that was slightly worse than an open sewer) might as well have been AstroTurf and plastic to an insect. No doubt the birds were hurting too, what do you eat when there are no bugs? And where do you get fine sticks to make a nest when either the trees don’t make them, or any that do fall are immediately removed, disappearing like cats on an alligator farm.

One house offered a respite from the over manicured nature of the neighborhood. A “For Sale” sign offered an explanation for why the yard had not been mowed into the dirt and some taller grass was allowed to grow along the edges. There were three rose bushes clustered around the front door, and several more at the edge of the house opposite the garage. Pete went up the walk to the front door, no beetles. He followed a path flattened in the high grass to the other bushes, no beetles there either. What’s happening? Big juicy delicious leaves! There should be Japanese Beetles here. He looked again, closer. Beetles? Damage? Frass? Anything? Noting.

The other houses along the block, at least those that had plants susceptible to Japanese Beetles, all came up negative as well, including Gladys’. The drone was back and Pete caught a glimpse of the girl at the controls. About 12–14 years old and concentrating on the flight of the drone, trying to keep it going at a steady speed as it rose straight up following the trunk of a pine tree. A big camera hung underneath. Lucky kids. Around the corner Pete found some blackberry bushes growing in the corner of a fenced-in yard (“Beware of Dog”). Still no beetles. He started to move on, but a glint of light?, an odd movement?, a strange color pattern?, something, caught his eye and he suddenly noticed that one of the blackberry leaves about 3 feet back from the fence was skeletonized. He shifted his focus from the leaves against the fence (undamaged) to the leaves further back and saw that they were riddled. Suddenly a beetle took off, swirled around, and crashed back into the foliage.

And Pete had his answer. The path in the tall grass of the house that was for sale hadn’t extended past the roses at the end of the house. If it had been made by a cat, dog, rabbit, wood chuck, etc. it should have continued on. Pete had looked to see where it led, but it didn’t, and there wasn’t a hole under the house, he had glanced. So the path was only from bushes to bushes. And the reason the girl wasn’t “right” is because she wasn’t playing with a toy she’d been given, she was practicing with a piece of equipment she had worked hard to get. There is a definite difference between the two.

“I get a nickel a beetle!,” Sofia said. “My gran doesn’t want to hurt the butterflies and bees with spray, so I pick the beetles off by hand. I tried just doing her yard, but they would fly in from the neighbors’, so I started collecting their beetles, also. There’s a fortune in Mr. Davis’ yard but I can only get what I can reach from the fence. He has a dog.”

“How many beetles did your drone cost?” asked Pete.

“Ten thousand!” She said, smiling. “I walk the same route every morning and evening and collect every one I can. They’re getting rarer now. Maybe it’s the end of the season. I’m going to make nature documentaries with my drone!”

Another mystery solved by Extension Pete, Entomologist Detective!

Sometimes if you tell people the truth it’ll only cause trouble. A loose neighborhood kid coming into your yard and picking beetles off your rose bushes every evening, it’ll never fly. “Well Mrs. Miller, I have made a thorough search of the neighborhood and I’m happy to report that there is no evidence of anyone using chemicals.” Pete launched into some babble about how the leaves change very slightly if pesticides are used and he found no evidence of it, everyone came up clean. They worked on that for a while until Pauline was OK with the idea that no one was cheating. Step one done.

Now time for step two, why no beetles? Pete decided to tell the truth, in a way. “Japanese Beetles are exotic and when they first showed up none of the birds or animals knew what to do with them. But over time wasps might parasite them, birds might eat them. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but something in this neighborhood has a use for those Japanese Beetles, and it must find them quite profitable.”

The End