2017‎ > ‎Two Weddings, II‎ > ‎

# 10: Animales, 1

The Hunting

            In Pamplona they run the bulls on July 7, San Fermín. In Santa Cruz Etla the toros run every night from the fifth of May to the end of July. And they run by the thousands. Toros de lidia in Spain are a particularly ferocious breed of cattle.

Mexican toros are a tribe of rhinoceros beetles. About an inch and a half long. Black on the carapace, russet on the undercarriage. They have fierce jaws and sport a black horn on their snouts that they use to push twigs and stones and rival beetles out of their way. They live in holes in the ground near their two favorite foods: maguey cactus plants and fresno trees, which are a variety of ash. The adults come out of their holes, swarm, mate, and die. At least the males do.

They flip over on their backs, wave their little legs in the air a few times, flutter their wings, and just give it up. In their death throes they seem particularly attracted to street lights, so in the morning the asphalt (or dirt, or adoquinado) under every street light is pockmarked with black carcasses. By midday the traffic has squashed

them all flat. Qalba loves to roll in them, finding their stink to be a particularly alluring perfume.

             Note: these toros are in no way related to the papier mache toros with their backs trammeled with exploding fireworks that the macho young men of the Etlas wear on their heads in all the valley’s festivals.


            The female toros, which to the untrained eye are indistinguishable from the males and are therefore not called vacas, after mating burrow back into the ground to lay their eggs. When the eggs hatch and the grubs emerge, they fatten themselves on the insides of maguey plants –of which we have none—and fresnos, of which we have one, which is happens to be the largest and shadiest tree on our property. When the grubs pupate and turn into toros, the adult beetles chomp their way out into the open air and begin the cycle anew. If you stand next to the fresno tree, you can hear the rustling hum of their chomping as they make their way to the outer bark. You don’t even have to stand all that close.


            This is not a good thing. We like our fresno tree, and we especially like the shade it gives to the casita. Several long strips of its bark have already been gnawed off, and the roots, bask where the tree abuts the irrigation zanja, have a hollow in them large enough to hold a volley ball. These toritos are clearly both a menace and a nuisance. There are a couple of dozen on the porch patios every morning, bicycling their feet weakly in the air. They get into the cistern and have to be fished out with a kitchen strainer taped to the end of a long carrizo stalk.

            What to do about them? The internet provides no useful clues. Our neighbors, and Lauro who helps us with the gardening, have no ecologically palatable solutions. There are so many of toros that you can’t go around stomping on them. It would be like trying to eliminate an ant colony by stepping on them one by one. Besides, unlike silverfish, say, that are already flat and don’t get much flatter when you squish them, the toritos are fat and juicy. A little like stomping on ripe plums. No, there is only one way to attack them:


            Lauro tells us what to buy. We try hardware stores, the feed stores, and nurseries, and the supermarkets, and when we fail, he promises to have his wife pick up a sack at the Central de Abastos, the huge wholesale market on the south edge of the city the next time she shops.

            She does. The next morning Lauro and I dig around the roots of the fresno, scooping out the toros that are on the verge of tunneling out into the air. It doesn’t take us long to get a bucket full. Then we pour poison powder into the holes. By the following morning the stream of emerging toros has slowed to a trickle. The rustle and hiss of subcutaneous gnawing has subsided. We haven’t won the battle, but ... maybe ... we have saved the tree for now. Next May we’ll have to start marshaling our forces earlier.


            Much more satisfying, though probably just as futile, is the midnight hunt for arrieras. An arriero is a wrangler, a muleteer, a person who drives a string of pack animals, around here mostly donkeys or horses. Arrieras are leafcutter ants. They also are pack animals. The ones we’ve seen along the Gulf coast and in Central America march by day. A long line of them filing out from the ant next to the harvest site, and next to them a long line of ants walking on their hind four legs and with their two front legs carrying a parasol of green leaf back to the nest. They seem to be particularly fond of fruit trees and of flowering shrubs like bouganvilas. Leafcutter ants actually farm the harvested product, growing a fungus on the cut leaves that they use to feed the larvae of the next generation of ants (there is a fascinating article about them on Wikipedia).

            There are anthills all over our property, harboring ants of a variety of sizes and colors. In fact, we probably have more individual ants living under the surface of our land than there are human beings in all of Mexico, or maybe even the entire world. Who knows? And who can tell which mounds signal the arriera nests? The problem is that our arrieras, unlike their Central American cousins pictured here, are diminutive little buggers: ten in a line might stretch for an inch. And unlike their Central American relatives, the Santa Cruz Etla arrieras only march by night. And unlike many species of ants, especially the ones that bite, ants who are proud to leave the entrance hole to their nests open for the world to see and predators to avoid, the arrieras hide theirs, and close it before dawn to eliminate any clue for potential predators.

Linda and I might admire the brilliant purple flowers of a bouganvilla catching the late afternoon sun, and then go out in the morning to see a wimpy little bush of naked green twigs with nary a leaf or a flower in sight. No parade of parasols. No track through the weeds to lead the hunters to their quarry.


            So Linda and I stay up past our usual bedtime, past the last skyrockets, the last rooster crows, even past the last barking frenzies of the neighborhood dogs. A flashlight in one hand, a can of ant poison in the other, we prowl the grounds of Casa Davilinda. Halfway down the road from the carport to the gate, a green line ripples across the packed dirt. We focus our lights and bend over for a close look. Arrieras! The unburdened marching east; a parallel line, sails held high, marching west. We follow the green to where it suddenly disappears into a tiny hole, cleverly hidden in some leaf clutter near the base of a shrub. Fwap! We hit the hole with a spoonful of white ant poison. A few of the little critters, their natural dull red color cloaked now in white anti-hazmat suits, stagger off into the weeds to go belly up. Others carry the poison down into the nest.

            We prowl on. Near the portón gate is another line, and in the bushes another nest. Fwap! Near the plumaria tree, a third. Fwap! And two more lines between the decaying tree trunk and the portón chico. Fwap! Fwap! In the morning I take a picture of the innocuous-looking mound with its zap of white powder. The next night it rains, and we decide to forgo the hunt. But tonight, weather permitting, we will head back out on our safari. 


David & Linda