I found the borers after work on Thursday, the first of June. I had been expecting them, watching for them, dreading them. We had made our best chemical defense. And in fact I had begun to think we had escaped. The plants were flourishing, pumpkins were growing. But then the pumpkins that had been swelling in size each day suddenly stalled the last week of May. And several leaves on Amy's hospital plants turned yellow and began to die. So I knew then that our luck was not holding up.
The last weekend in May - Labor Day weekend - Amy had rushed into the house announcing there was a strange bug flying around her jack o'lanterns. She and Tony snatched up a butterfly net and went to chase it. These squash vine borer moths are like no other moths I know. They look very much like a fat hornet with soft, dusty wings. Their wings are part black, part transparent, and they have a bright orange-red abdomen with black dots, and furry black muffs on their antennae like a Russian Cossack's hat.
They don't flit and flutter like a moth. Nor do they buzz and hover like a hornet. Rather they swoop and swirl about the plant, dashing in and out of the leaves, like a housefly making a dive for a bowl of sugar. They are quick. And this makes them very hard to catch. You can't slam the net down from above or you'll crush the plant. Even swooping the net from side to side risks taking out a few leaves. So you have to wait until the moth is on one of its swirling ascents, and try to scoop it out of the air and into the net in a graceful, all-in-one motion that carries it to the ground and traps it there.
After several attempts Tony caught one this way, with Amy hopping and shouting excitedly from the sidelines. She crouched down eagerly to examine the terrible demon. She saw instead a feeble, helpless and beautiful creature caught in the white netting. And she was tempted to let it go. But I put a stop to that.
It was only one. But I knew there must have been more. Each laying dozens - hundreds? - of eggs. So I got down on my hands and knees and I crawled into the mess of vines in Amy's Hospital and I began to search. The moths seek out most any member of the squash family - cucumbers and watermelons and pumpkins - as the special food that will be devoured by their babies, the moth larvae. The moth lays its eggs, one at a time, on the vine, often at the base of a leaf stem, and when the egg hatches 7 to 10 days later, it immediately burrows into the center of the vine and begins to devour it, tunneling and hollowing out the insides of the vines and destroying all the tissue that carries food and water to the plant. So after four weeks of this the vine, of course, dies. And about that time the larvae eats its way out of the vine and drops into the dirt and digs down a few inches, spins a cocoon, and huddles there through the winter. The next spring it pupates, emerges as a moth, and goes looking for pumpkin plants.
As I crawled my way along the vine, gently pushing aside the prickly, scratchy leaves, I wondered why on earth Mother Nature thought squash vine borers were necessary. Was there at one time a crippling surplus of cucumbers and pumpkins that threatened to drown out some part of the food chain, so the borer evolved to reduce the exploding pumpkin population? What use was a creature that existed only to lay an egg, devour a plant, and create more of its kind to lay more eggs and destroy more plants? It seemed so pointless and destructive. But I realize I could say this of just about any living creature, including humans. We are born, we kill and eat a lot of stuff, and then we make more of ourselves before we die.
And then I saw it. In the green shade of the leaves, at the very base of a stem, there was a hole in the stem with a damp, crumbly-looking brownish red substance oozing from it. It looked like something that had been chewed up and spat out. Except it actually came from the other end - borer poop. More accurately, it was chewed up, digested and pooped out pumpkin plant. The absolutely conclusive sign that borers were at work.
I scraped away the dirt from the vine and gently squeezed it between my thumb and index finger. A definite soft spot, as if it was hollow in one place. From past experience, I knew this is where I would find the moth larvae. "Amy!" I called. She was there in an instant. "Please go ask Tony to get me an X-acto knife." Time to operate.
I carefully sliced into the vine with the thin blade, feeling firm flesh give way to a hollow center. Slowly, I moved the blade along the length of the vine, cutting about half-way through, until I had a two-inch long cut. I put down the knife and gently pried the vine apart. I leaned in close to get a look inside the vine and bumped heads with Amy, who also was leaning over to peer inside the vine. Squash vine borer larvae are grotesque creatures. We beheld a grub-like caterpillar, about an inch long, with viscous white guts held inside a shapeless sack of translucent, tissue-paper skin. It's plump body was segmented and surprisingly agile as it twisted and squirmed to get away from my knife. At one end of the larvae, almost as if glued there, was a disproportionately small brown bead of a head.
This part was oddly fascinating to me. I had broken into this creature's world shockingly uninvited and now I was about to pull it from its squishy green womb and kill it. With savage satisfaction. All those weeks of research and preparation. All the back-breaking work. All the drip hoses and misters and shade cloths and compost and fertilizer. All the money! And this spineless worm of a creature was destroying it all with nothing more than a hearty appetite.
With the tip of the X-acto blade I speared the larvae and pulled it out of the vine. "Here Amy," I said, dropping the squirming white blob into the palm of her hand. "Squish this." Amy was not at all bothered by the site of the bug larvae in her hand. But she didn't at all like the idea of squishing it. "Mommmmm," she protested. "I can't kill it."
"Then take it to your dad and tell him to squish it," I said. This she gladly did. For the next hour, Amy was my faithful partner as I went on my borer hunt. I checked leaf after leaf, scraping away the dirt to reveal the soft, hollow vines and crumbly brown poop. I sliced the vine, speared the larvae and deposited it in Amy's waiting hand. I was obsessed. I was doing tremendous damage to the plant. Many times I wouldn't find the larvae on my first cut - it would already have moved further up the vine. Sometimes as I pried the vine open I would catch a glimpse of the larvae's tail squiggling away out of sight into some crevice or hole it had bored deeper into the heart of the vine. And so I would have to cut my way in after it. I told myself the borer, left alone, would do far more damage than the surgical slices of my X-acto blade. But who knows?
With every discovery of another grub, I felt more ticked off. How many of the dang things were there? I extracted more than a dozen of various sizes from Amy's hospital, and then moved over to the LaRue. By this time, the LaRue had grown to be huge - about 25 feet long and 20 feet wide at its base, then narrowing toward the tip in the classic Christmas tree shape. And it was only six weeks old! But crawling underneath its canopy of leaves, about 2-feet high, I saw the borers were there, too. Just a foot away from our biggest pumpkin growing on the side vine there was a three-inch long soggy, rotten mess left behind by a borer. If this vine fell apart here, the pumpkin would be cut off from the main vine and face certain death. My knife slipped easily inside, cut away some of the goopy rot, and found two bloated larvae gorging on my pumpkin plant. I personally squished these.
As I moved along to the main vine, I found more. The vine of this giant pumpkin was much different from Amy's skinny jack-o'lantern plants. This vine had been finger-thin and delicate green when I had buried it a few weeks ago. Now it was a sinewy, woody vine about an inch in diameter. I cut along its length and pried it open and discovered grub after grub after grub. I had to dig deeper to find these larvae, as there were more places to hide inside this bigger vine. So I did more damage. I tried my best to tie the split vine back together with a plastic band. But it was a very messy process with dirt falling into the open vine and larvae guts spilling into the cavity as I speared each grub. What would the vine do with all this? Did it have any chance at all?
When I checked the last length of vine, I quit. I knew for certain that I hadn't gotten them all. That was impossible. There were hundreds of leaves. But maybe I had gotten enough to give the plant a fighting chance. I backed away from the plant on my hands and knees and stood up. It was slightly disorienting being on my feet again. I was hot. I was tired. My skin was sweaty and prickly and itching from crawling among the pumpkin leaves. I went into the house and made straight for the shower.
After my slaughter of the borers, I felt strangely at peace with the situation. Life throws all kinds of curves and you do your best to catch them. When you can't, you chase the ball. It was a disaster but it didn't feel too much like a disaster. We would learn from it. We wouldn't give up. We'd wait and see what happened next. Tony didn't take it quite as well. He was despondent. I had battled borers many times before in my garden, though the stakes had never been this high. Tony, however, had never even heard of squash vine borers before a few months ago. He had taken all my warnings and fretting seriously. He had repeatedly doused the plants with insecticide - a systemic insecticide that we had vainly hoped would kill the grubs once they began to chow down. But it's the sort of thing you don't really understand until you see it in action. Now he had seen. He was frustrated and horrified at how quickly all our work had been destroyed by this slime bag of a borer.
He was also very relieved. In two days, I would leave for Houston. If I hadn't found the borers myself before I left, the plant would have wilted and started to die while he was in charge. And then I would have blamed him.