A Zip Code of Their Own

During the day they floated everywhere, or maybe my imagination sees it like that. Into the Kellogg’s Special K and the all purpose flour and my cooling cup of coffee. They lit on the counter, the couch with the bed hidden inside, the fireplace hearth, and the green bedspread.

After the sun set beyond White Sands, they mobbed every source of light in town. It looked like the bowels of a blizzard.

In the house they’d batter their wings on the inside of the lightshades and when one approached my head, the wing flutter reminded me of choppers in Nam which was something I did not want to remember. I swatted them and smothered them and crushed them, caught them and threw them out the door.

Miller Moth

But it was after the lights went out that things turned weird. At first they attacked the lampshade, beating it with their wings and I’d wonder, without the lights, why they still made that racket. They harassed me like they knew I was guilty of turning out the lights. As if they wanted to get even, they were at my noggin. Maybe my skin, my bone radiated warmth, too, like the lamp, and they bored inside the lobes of my ears and the flutter magnified like a drill bit grinding into my brain.

Reinforcements showed up if I managed to swat the offenders. Next it was my nose, and then my eyelids as if they needed to pry them open and if I wasn’t careful, they invaded my mouth, bitter and powdery and wild with wing beats against my tongue.

It was annual. They came out in early summer about the time the yellow jackets started to flit around my face as if I was something to eat. Some years proved worse than others.

I once met a woman who’d been raised out on the Bell Ranch—which was so big it had its own zip code, 88441—outside of Tucumcari and the miller bugs must have been horrendous when she was a kid because she possessed a mortal fear of them. She wore a battered black John B. Stetson and her big, callused hands clenched and unclenched like she wanted to box. I bet myself she could waddy up with the best of buckaroos but when the miller bugs buzzed her she cringed and shrieked like a frightened three-year-old.

It may have been 1986 when they seemed the worst, the year after the state sprayed the woods to kill the spruce budworms. Although 1985, 1987, 1988 were also nasty.

The old-timers wondered—even they thought the damned miller bugs were bad—if spraying the woods for spruce budworms made the miller bugs worse.

These pests have come to mind because an acquaintance of mine is doing some research on miller bug larvae. She’s a scientist who works with ranch folks to solve problems on the ranges of the West.

According to the available information the miller bug larvae, called Army cutworms, like to eat cheat grass which is a noxious exotic plant that causes difficulties for range management folks. And from that point of view, maybe they are good for something—the miller bugs—consuming cheat grass.

Army Cutworm

Reading some of her posts on Facebook lead me to ponder my memories of miller bugs, actually called miller moths, but in the high Sacramento Mountains of southern New Mexico we called them miller bugs.

They came at you anytime and anywhere and a fine powder painted their wings that powder sluffed off when touched and that’s how they got their name, miller moths, after the flour dust that coated the clothing of grain millers.

The moths go to the mountains of the West in the summer, not unlike a lot of folks used to do when they came from the flats of Texas to enjoy the cool breezes and daily downpours of the southern Sacramento Mountains where Betty and I lived.

Evidently bears like to eat the moths because a lot of fat sits—maybe half a calorie per critter—in those little flitting bodies. According to some researchers, a grizzly bear can eat up to 40,000 of the moths per day…40,000…per day.

We didn’t have grizzlies in our New Mexico environs. They’d probably lived there before they were all killed. The last grizzly in New Mexico was slain in 1931, not in the Sacramentos, but in the Gila, over in the western part of the state.

When I think about a bear that can eat 40,000 moths in a day I think of people who run a thousand miles in ten straight days or someone who swims the English Channel.

Black bears—which come in many colors besides black: cinnamon, brown, I even heard tell of a white one—aren’t as big as grizzlies, but they are big enough and like their bigger cousins, they are omnivorous so I reckon they can put away a passel of moths in a day, too.

But no matter how many miller bugs the bears found hiding beneath limestone rocks and piles of dead pine needles in our New Mexico mountains, they never munched enough to suit me.

Now, standing here at my computer, I think of that young woman raised on the Bell Ranch in her big black sombrero and fancy ostrich skin boots, whose hands were rough like big grit sandpaper. I wonder if she wouldn’t have rather run on a grizzly than mess with those miller bugs.

Blogger Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

I didn’t know the moths were here in Idaho, too, but evidently they’ve been gnawing on cheat grass in our locale. And that must be a good thing for the land.

Sometimes outside, on the walls of our house, I spy a moth that reminds me of a miller bug—maybe it is a miller bug—and then I think they aren’t because they fail to assault me. Or if they are, they must be some kind of weak-kneed cousin of those nasty attackers we battled in the Sacramentos.

Yep, down yonder in New Mexico they owned a reputation. And they backed it up with action. They were notorious and were expected every summer with a mountain’s worth of apprehension. They existed wide and tall and grotesquely handsome in the way folks imagined them. They were broad and historic like that old Bell Ranch out there with its very own zip code.

Maybe those miller bugs warrant a zip code of their own, too.

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