Wild Ideas: Farewell to bugs, and to a loyal friend

I’ll always think of 2013 as the Year of the Bug, and the year I lost a long-time companion.

The author’s dog, Mai Coh, in the snow in Gid Brown Hollow in 2007.
The author’s dog, Mai Coh, in the snow in Gid Brown Hollow in 2007. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

With the spring arrived the expected emergence of Brood II of the 17-year periodical cicada. While the relatively damp, cool spring and summer may have inhibited some invertebrates from emerging or reproducing, these insects were undeterred, appearing by the millions per acre in some locations. While their intense hum filled the air to deafening proportions in many places in Rappahannock, up here on the mountain it was pretty quiet. I have to chalk that up to lack of oaks and other favorite cicada host plants.

Brown marmorated stink bugs also showed up in large numbers, but perhaps not as large as were expected after the hoards that showed up at the autumnal equinox in 2012. Around that time this year, a lot were covering the outer walls of my house, looking for a way in, but there didn’t seem to be as many as the fall before. Perhaps they’ve just dispersed more into pockets, as Asian multicolored lady beetles have. I’ve contacted Virginia Tech entomologists about the numbers and impact of the Brood II cicadas and stink bugs and hope to report back on that in January.

Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies had a boom year, and were seen everywhere “puddling” in wet spots through much of the spring and summer. Other butterfly species, most notably monarchs, were pretty much a no-show. The increasing lack of monarchs is mostly attributed to loss of habitat, particularly in their overwintering areas, such as Mexico.

Insects are pretty much gone now, or holed up for the winter, except for the few who venture out on warmish days that remind us Virginians that we live in the South.

While the bug dramas were going on throughout Virginia, I had my own drama going on at home. My dog, Mai Coh, a Belgian Tervuren Shepherd Dog, had been slowing down for the last couple of years. Once my constant companion in my ramblings in and outside of the county, at 14 she was now having a problem getting around. By summer, even going into the yard had become difficult for her.

I was having a hard time with a chronic health issue myself, so Mai Coh and I both spent a lot of time at home. On a hot day at the end of July, I loaded her into the car and took her down to the ponds to enjoy one of her favorite activities — soaking in cool water. Winter, or summer, she was always heading into rivers and ponds or rolling around in snow banks. She had a thick, double coat and a slow thyroid, so she was as fond as cold as I was of warmth.

Her body was shutting down, and a week later I finally had to put her down. She’s buried next to my house, thanks to help from my landlords, whose kindness during this trying time I deeply appreciate.

Those of you who have known me for some years will know Mai Coh, since she was almost always with me, waiting patiently outside Rae’s Place while I was in a conservation meeting, or serving as official greeter for visitors to the bookstore I used to have in Flint Hill.

The author’s dog, Mai Coh, on a winter walk in Huntly.
The author’s dog, Mai Coh, on a winter walk in Huntly. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

For those of you who didn’t know her, Mai Coh’s the dog in the thumbnail photo that accompanies this column. I chose the photo because it was one of the best that was ever taken of me, not her. She was actually not the goofy dog with the lolling tongue shown in the photo. Her expression had a lot to do with her age at the time (around two); the excitement of having a friend of mine visiting (he took the photo); and having just chased my cat, Felix (who I lost to cancer several years ago), around the yard.

Mai Coh was rarely silly, even as a pup. True to her breed, she matured around six months, her black muzzle going silver under her chin. Throughout our many travels, she took her job as constant companion quite seriously, sticking close to me and being ready to meet all threats.

She was a quiet, thoughtful dog who, also true to her breed, was uncomfortable being out of my sight for more than a few minutes. Loyalty is the hallmark of the breed, so I used to joke about her being my Velcro puppy. Paradoxically, she would wait quite calmly for me if left her at home or in the car.

While what was going on with Mai Coh and with my own health was far from pleasant, there was an upside to narrowing my forays into nature mostly to my yard. I discovered the wonderful world of bugs out there. My many hours of observing their lives became a great solace to me and took me back to my earliest memories of nature.

My family lived on an Air Force base in Germany in the early 1950s. We moved there when I was almost two and stayed for three years. The first wild creatures I remember encountering were the hoards of snails of all sizes and colors that showed up on the trees during thunderstorms and the huge, black hirschkäfers (stag beetles) that hissed and snapped their outsized jaws at me when I insisted on trying to play with them.

Larger fauna were scarce on the base, so at that age tiny critters had a big place in my life. Although I’ve always loved bugs, I moved on to frogs, snakes, rabbits and other larger fauna when my family returned to Virginia.

In turning back to the world of tiny creatures this summer, I had to make myself slow down, be patient and look carefully to see the drama that was going on everywhere in the yard. The effort brought huge rewards. Through waiting and watching, I got to see ants farming treehoppers, red-footed cannibal flies eating coreid bugs, tiny white-banded crab spiders taking on prey many times their size, braconid wasp larvae parasitizing huge tobacco hornworms, outlandish-looking tussock-moth caterpillars . . . and more. Their world became my world, offering both solace during a difficult time and a great educational opportunity. I documented much of this in this column and in a slideshow on my website at nighthawkcommunication.net.

Mai Coh’s passing left a huge hole in my life, and writing about her is still difficult. While I’ve mentioned her from time to time in this column in the past, eventually I’ll write more about the adventures we shared — about dancing with bears at midnight, being chased by skunks at dawn, encounters with baby groundhogs and with box turtles and so much more. It’s a tale full of drama, comedy and, most of all, a great friendship.

For now, I’d just like to thank Mai Coh for all she gave me — her kindness to people and other creatures, her eager embracing of all that nature had to offer, her willingness to defend me from any threat (real or perceived) and her relentless loyalty and patience.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 341 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”