Leaf Swarm

A swarm of leaves starts to fly off of a gray-bark tree
“Leaf Swarm”, 16in x 12in, acrylic on canvas

We thought the border guard was going to give us trouble. We had no visas, no letters of introduction, and certainly no official permission to enter the country. So as we walked up to the gate you said we should just nod and smile like we were on an afternoon stroll. It didn’t matter — the guard barely looked up from his book as he waved us through.

That’s how we snuck into Mrzdernistan — a tiny, unregistered country tucked unobtrusively among some forbidding mountain ranges east of Uzbekistan.

Hardly anyone knows it exists, because the citizens didn’t brazenly declare independence or hold a noisy revolution. They just elbowed their way in between a couple of countries in Central Asia and quietly set up shop — in a place where meddling Westerners can’t even pronounce the names — jotted down a constitution, elected a few folks to run the government, and went about their lives. Things are still pretty casual there, though I was sorry they don’t stamp passports so we could prove we had visited beautiful Mrzdernistan.

We had come to investigate reports about a type of tree that was either a new species or didn’t know how deciduous trees were supposed to behave. Instead of turning their leaves pretty colors in the fall and dropping them on the ground a few at a time, these trees lost all their leaves at once in the middle of summer, without warning. 

And by “lost,” the eyewitnesses meant the leaves simply vanished. One minute they’re on the tree, the next, the branches are bare with not a leaf to be found anywhere.

“Well,” I said, “that would be convenient in the suburbs — no leaves to rake.”

“Why hasn’t anyone looked into this yet?” you asked.

“No research budget. Apparently the only scientist in the country is a retired geologist.”

You were thoughtful. “So they won’t be developing nuclear weapons anytime soon.” One less country to worry about on that front, for now.

Another bit of folklore — the trees shed their leaves on the second new moon after the summer solstice, so we arrived in mid-August, hoping to observe the phenomenon and see where the leaves went to hide.

The only car available for rent was a beige Yugo from last century. A bit cramped, the seat coverings were different colors, and the dashboard rattled like it was about to fall off, but the adorable little thing ran okay — it only took an hour to drive the ten kilometers to the woods and find the stand of trees we were looking for.

We pulled off the dirt road and onto a grassy meadow, but a trickling stream that ran along a deep ditch prevented us from going very far. We grabbed our equipment — a magnifying glass and a few containers for collecting samples — and started to walk toward the trees.

“Those look like beeches,” I said.

They had smooth, gray bark and bright-green leaves. Some of the trees were over thirty meters tall, rounded in shape with wide-spreading limbs, probably a couple hundred years old. Excellent shade trees, I thought — until all the leaves drop off, as they were expected to do at any moment now. The grove exuded a vaguely pungent odor, like the musky smell of termite mounds, but it wasn’t too bad.

We stopped at the largest tree, which stood in the meadow apart from the rest. It seemed healthy and strong, the bark was in good condition, and the crown was full of shiny leaves that sighed in the breeze.

“This would be a nice place for a picnic.” That was my scientific observation.

“It’s not a beech,” you said. “The leaves don’t alternate their pattern along the stems. See? In fact, they don’t seem to have any pattern at all.” 

What self-respecting tree has randomly-spaced leaves? I reached up to the lowest branch and plucked off a few, collecting samples we could look at later. Then I snipped off a twig with about a dozen leaves on it and stuck it in a plastic bag. You searched the ground for evidence of fallen foliage but couldn’t find any.

“Ow!” I said. “What was—? Hey.”

One of the leaves was on my arm, and it had bit me! The end of its dark green stem had dug right into my skin so it appeared to be growing out of my arm. After the initial pinprick bite it didn’t hurt, so I grabbed the magnifying glass for a closer examination. You stood there watching.

The stem was actually the long, thin body of an insect and the leaf was its wings. The insect’s head and six legs formed a cluster at the tip of the stem, or body. It had stuck its nose in my skin and grabbed tight with its feet. I handed you the glass for a look.

“How did we not know this?” you asked.

I gently pulled the bug off my arm and placed it with the others. We both looked up into the branches at what must have been hundreds of thousands of leaf-like insects attached to the tree, with not one real leaf among them. We walked around and checked the other trees. Same thing.

Everyone’s seen pictures of stick bugs and other cool-looking insects that imitate plants to keep from being eaten by birds. But we’d never seen anything like this. It wasn’t just a few bugs camouflaged as leaves, but a grove of trees full of millions of insects that grow as leaves attached to the bark.

“They’re not leaf-bugs, they’re bug-leaves,” I suggested, trying to decide if that was a profound distinction or just a dumb way of saying the same thing.

You put one of the insects under the magnifying glass and crushed its wings between your fingers until they oozed green paste. “These have chlorophyll in them, I think. And the veins aren’t just decoration — they really are veins, like a leaf has.”

I leaned over for a sniff and got a noseful of a sour, acrid smell. “But it’s still a bug.” I refrained from putting it to my tongue, thinking it would probably taste like the exact opposite of fresh mint. Sensory analysis should only be taken so far.

The sun was dropping behind the high mountains, along with the new moon. We watched the last rays disappear before getting back to our investigation, figuring we still had a couple more hours of light left.

“What’s that noise?” I asked. The trees were starting to hum.

“They’re all flapping,” you said, pointing at some of the insects on the lower branches. 

“You don’t think they’re getting ready to—”

“Back to the car, now!” We grabbed our stuff and ran across the meadow.

By the time we had tumbled inside the car, a cloud of green was rising from the trees. I took the passenger side and made sure our samples were safe. You cranked the engine and sent the vehicle bouncing over the grass and onto the dirt road. When I glanced back, half of the big tree was already stripped bare of its insect foliage.

“I guess we were here at the right time,” I said.

“They must have been triggered by the sun setting with the new moon.”

A few seconds later we were engulfed by the swarm. We thought it would fly right by us, but the insects had other ideas. The swarm veered around and flew at us in a fierce frontal attack. The windshield quickly became a gooey mess of bugs as we raced through them.

“I can’t see the road!” you said. 

“You’re doing fine.” I couldn’t see anything either, but since you were driving I figured encouragement was the best strategy.

You flicked on the windshield wipers, which dragged themselves halfheartedly across the glass, but managed to clear a space we could see through. The hood was covered with the little biters, and I could hear them chomping on the roof. 

“They’re eating the metal, I think.” We had to get out of the swarm before it chewed its way through the car.

“We’ll head for the sycamores,” you said, “if we can find them.”

We had passed a grove of sycamore trees on our way in and hoped they might lend us some shelter and help keep the insects away. We didn’t know if they’d be friendly to foreigners — if they were on the side of the bug-leaves, we were doomed.

“Stuck in a swarm of insects again,” I said, recalling a previous adventure. “How does this keep happening?”

“Those turned out to be drones. But yes, this does seem familiar.” 

I looked out the side window at the green storm following us. “At least we know why all the leaves disappear now.” 

You pointed ahead. “The sycamores. Grab our stuff, we’re going to have to run for it.” You swerved the car off the road and slammed to a stop next to the stand of trees. They were in full leaf, and many had wide trunks and sturdy branches. If nothing else, we could climb up to the higher boughs to seek protection from the swarm.

I filled my arms with everything we had brought, then at the last minute I remembered to grab the rental agreement from the glove box. We flung the doors open, leapt out of the car, and made a dash for the trees, batting our way through the insects that surrounded the car.

They ignored us. Now that the car was stationary, the bugs attacked it with renewed fury. It disappeared under a cloud of fluttering wings.

We watched helplessly from the safety of the trees while the ravenous insects ate holes in the body and tore into the frame. As they munched away at the car, their wings took on a dark gray color, then turned a rusty red.

“This must be part of their life cycle,” you said. “Eating metal.”

“I guess that’s how they get their iron — to grow into strong adults. A well-balanced breakfast cereal would also do the trick.”

In minutes the swarm had reduced the car to glass, upholstery and plastic, of which there was a surprising amount. An SUV would have provided a lot more nourishment, we agreed. Or maybe a 1950s Cadillac, if they had a taste for earlier vintages. The red-winged bugs had all flown off, sated. The green ones crawled over the remains looking for scraps, then left as well. The swarm was gone, the grove was quiet.

“They’ve completely destroyed the car,” I said.

“It’s a Yugo. No big loss.”

We enjoyed a pleasant walk back to town that evening, and mused on the enigma of the bugs.

We decided there’s a symbiotic relationship, where the insects provide the trees with food — using the chlorophyll in their wings for photosynthesis — and the trees provide the bugs with a place to stay and raise the kids, until swarming time. The adults probably lay eggs in the bark, then after those hatch the larvae attach themselves to the tree and grow into the leaf-like insects.

“Apparently,” you said, “the trees don’t produce any leaves on their own.”

“The lazy things.”

The next day we told the guy at the car rental place what had happened. We had to reimburse him, since we hadn’t taken out insect-damage insurance, but the car was only worth a few hundred dollars. We paid cash, American. He liked that.

We also stopped by the Mrzdernistan government offices and suggested how they could get rid of their scrap metal — by leaving it out on that meadow once a year about this time. The officials were skeptical at first, but they tried it the following year. It’s been their most effective recycling program ever.