Bales makes a case for bugs

Betsy PickleOur Town Neighbors, South Knox

Stephen Lyn Bales knows a lot about the birds and the bees (and other bugs).


For starters, he knows that most domestic birds can’t live on the treats humans put out for them. Even hummingbirds need more than their version of “soft drinks.”

“Backyard feeding is great,” says Bales, a Gatlinburg-born naturalist who has lived in South Knoxville for 34 years. “I do it all the time. But hummingbirds don’t live on just sugar water. They can’t. They eat small insects. That’s where they get all their protein, and that’s how they raise their babies – on small insects, whatever moms can grab.

Hairy woodpecker with a meal (Photo by Betty Thompson)

“Most birds can’t raise families or even exist on just seeds. Your chickadees, your titmice, your cardinals – yes, they eat seeds, but this time of year they eat bugs; they eat protein. They need the insects. Only the finches, as a group, can exist on just seeds and raise babies on just seeds.”

Bales will go into depth about the topic during the virtual program “Bugs Are Not Bad,” sponsored by the University of Tennessee Arboretum Society’s First Thursday Supper Club via Zoom at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 4.

The arboretum’s education coordinator, Michelle Campanis, reached out to Bales in 2020 to see if he would give monthly talks on Zoom since she couldn’t do in-person programs because of the Covid-19 pandemic. He was willing to do so – as long as she told him what Zoom was and taught him how to do it.

The monthly “supper club” – participants are welcome to eat as they watch – began in November 2020. The August edition will be the 21st. The program is free, but registration is required to receive the link.

So far, Bales has revisited only one topic – about bird courtship. August’s focus came to him when he came across a naturalist’s nightmare.

“I’d heard of somebody who went and called Orkin because they had Junebugs in one of their trees,” he says by phone. “They called Orkin to spray the tree down. The cardinals were eating the Junebugs. (The homeowners) were killing all the cardinal food in their yard!”

Bugs “are a huge part of the web of life because birds have to find them and eat ’em,” Bales says. “And flowers grow because they’re pollinated by insects.”

Bales, who retired from Ijams Nature Center almost four years ago, is a popular speaker for local groups, and he’s happy to share tips. When he does his hummingbird talk, he also hands out a list of hummingbird-loved flowers people can plant as an alternative to sugar water.

“It’s like Diet Coke or a cup of coffee to finish the day,” he says of the human-provided liquid. “Mama hummingbird teaches the young ones what the feeders are and how to go get their little pick-me-up.”

He recommends against using store-bought hummingbird nectar because it usually has red dye, which isn’t good for birds or humans. “Just use four parts water, one part plain old sugar.”

Growing up in Gatlinburg, where he attended Pi Beta Phi Elementary School and Gatlinburg-Pittman High School, Bales was addicted to the weekly columns written by Knoxville-based bird expert J.B. Owen. Owen had a column in the old Knoxville Journal from 1960 to 1972 and in the Knoxville News-Sentinel from 1973 till his death in February 2001.

Bales graduated from East Tennessee State University, where he studied photojournalism, and after graduation went to work for the Gatlinburg Press. He started as a photographer and gradually added writing. Later, he moved to West Knoxville and wrote the weekly Neighborhood Naturalist column for the Farragut Press. That led to the Back Porch Naturalist column for the Hellbender magazine. His writing experience paved the way to a relationship with the University of Tennessee Press, for which he has written three books.

Orchard oriole with its “fast food” (Photo by Betty Thompson)

Along the way, he took classes at UT to “augment” his original degree. And though he is “retired,” he stays busy reading and doing his part to educate people about the natural world.

“I still go to Ijams every Sunday morning to take their larger birds out for a walk,” says Bales. “They have a red-tailed hawk and a barred owl.”

And, of course, he answers questions for Ijams visitors.

“Barred owls eat insects,” he says. “They eat insects at night – the large arboreal insects like cicadas and katydids – if they’re not finding a mouse. Screech owls eat insects.”

Bales is taking part in Ijams’ Hummingbird Festival by giving four talks at the Ijams visitors center leading up to the Aug. 13 event. The first is 6-8 p.m. today (08/02) on “The Hidden Wonders of Hummingbirds.” The program is all-ages appropriate but is geared toward age 10 and up. It will repeat at 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 11.

Saturday, Aug. 6, will bring “The Mystery of the Monarchs,” 6-8 p.m. “Identifying Local Birds of Prey” will be at 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 9. Registration is at ijams.org.

On Sept. 15, Bales will be working with the UT Arboretum again when the center returns to in-person events with its Butterfly Festival. Bales, who is an artist in addition to being a photographer, will lead programs on “How To Draw a Butterfly” and “The Miracle of Metamorphosis.”

Naturalists like Bales are concerned about the declining numbers of birds in this country.

“The big picture is this: Since 1970, we’ve lost 3 billion birds,” he says.

“The group of birds that are called aerial insectivores – that’s the birds that fly around and grab flying insects out of the air – since 1970 we have lost 160 million, and that would include the chimney swift, which I’m concerned about. “Another bird that is down tremendously is barn swallows. We’ve lost two out of every five – 40 percent of barn swallows since 1970.

“The one that really breaks my heart is the wood thrush; we’ve lost 60 percent of wood thrushes. I used to have them all the time behind my house singing. Many people think that they’re the most beautiful singers. I heard one this year, but I used to have multiple wood thrush.

“The grassland birds have really been impacted. That’s the birds in the meadows. The Eastern meadowlark, they’ve lost three out of every four – that’s 75 percent of meadowlarks since 1970. And meadowlarks eat insects, too.”

He says the numbers of birds of prey are actually doing well, aside from the American kestrels, the smallest falcon. They eat primarily grasshoppers and crickets in the open fields.

It’s not a mystery that development and pesticides are the biggest factors, but at least one of those can be curtailed.

“The big boom years for pesticides were the 1950s and 1960s,” says Bales. “Then the news of DDT, that started backing people away from pesticides. But it’s still being bought. There’s still tons being bought.

“That’s why Michelle and I started to do (the Zoom programs). Don’t use so much pesticide; it’s not necessary. I know you’re spraying to kill this, but you’re killing everything else.

“If you’ve got ants in your house, put down Borax. If you’ve got roaches in your house, put down Borax, which is natural. Don’t just go around spraying everything.”

His tips for other indoor alternatives include putting out a bowl of apple cider vinegar mixed with a natural liquid soap.

“Lavender, eucalyptus, peppermint and lemongrass essential oils – not only will spraying these oils around the house create a beautiful aroma, but they will also deter those pesky flies, too,” he says.

“Citronella has historically been used for repelling mosquitoes and is currently a registered insect repellent with the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Bugs are simply not bad.”

Betsy Pickle is a freelance writer and editor who particularly enjoys spotlighting South Knoxville.

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