The New York Times Magazine (12-2-2018) article The Insect Apocalypse is Here by Brooke Jarvis reveals to people like me, who rarely pay attention to most insects, that the population of bugs in the world is declining. Some of us can remember years when driving through the summer nights required hours of cleaning the car windows, removing all the dead bugs. No more. We suddenly realize that particular chore has not been necessary for years. Why not?
Some answers come easily. Farmers and gardeners use pesticides which kills many insects. But other causes include habitat loss, the killing of native weeds, single-crop agriculture, invasive species, light pollution, highway traffic, and climate change is possibly the newest threat.
As a long time gardener I have been aware of the declining number of Monarch butterflies and bees. Many years ago, when we lived on 30 acres of fields in Heath, we enjoyed the Monarch migration in late summer when there were flocks of Monarchs fueling up on the mint that was running rampant in a field. Then there were years when we did not see these clouds of butterflies. Now I get all excited in my small urban garden to see five Monarchs on my coneflowers, bee balm, asters and asclepias (milkweeds).
As a former beekeeper aware of threats to bees I also plant cardinal flowers, obedient plant, buttonbush, culver’s root, and turtlehead and welcome every kind of bee that visits. I am doing what I can to support these ‘bugs’ but it will take more.
Doug Tallamy, who teaches entomology at the University of Delaware, and author of Bringing Nature Home, said “You have total ecosystem collapse if you lose your insects. How much worse can it get than that?”
When Tallamy spoke at our local Spring Garden Symposium a couple of years ago he noted two threats, “Humans’ war on weeds and vast farmland planted with the same few crops. Weeds and native plants are what bugs eat and where they live. Milkweeds, crucial to the beautiful monarch butterfly, are dwindling fast. Manicured lawns in the United States are so prevalent that, added together, they are as big as New England. Those landscapes are essentially dead zones.”
Tallamy has taken his own action. He now lives in a rural area between Philadelphia and Baltimore. He planted his ten acre patch with native plants, that will sustain many bugs. Now he has 861 species of moths and 54 species of breeding birds that feed on insects. Unlike my friends who are birders, I did not know that almost all birds need insects to feed their fledglings. Insects are high in protein and vital.
Before there was Tallamy, there was E.O. Wilson, who has spent much of his life studying ants. He warned: “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”
The German Krefeld Entomological Society, a group of mostly amateur naturalists, have been keeping records of insects for over a hundred years. With an article by Sally McGrane in the NYTImes in 2017 they sounded the alarm. Others were beginning to notice the lack of bugs, but no one else had a record of what was. I think we will all get more serious about what the risks are.
When I looked to see if anyone had noticed there was an Insect Apocalypse on its way, I found several articles. The NYTimes wrote about the Silence of Bugs earlier this year. Last year Science Magazine asked Where Have All the Insects Gone
The Insect Apocalypse is Here is a fascinating article and I am still taking it all in.
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This is a frightening development. I can tell even around our garden there are fewer bugs. Makes me sad.
I remember as a child having to scrape bugs off the windshield regularly on car trips. My kids have never had that experience. We used to think it was gross, but now I am frightened and sad.
Yes, it’s scary and it’s sad. I’m trying to help in the effort to curb this trend…trying to remain hopeful…
Beth – You and I and a lot of other gardeners are doing what we can to support insects and birds in our own gardens – and in our communities. Our town has bird and bug loving public parks – and we are thinking about others.
Jeane – I remember one long ago summer when the bugs were terrible. I hated having to drive at night because of all the bugs. Now I am wishing them all back.
Lisa – Knowing you, I’ll bet you’ve got more bugs than a lot of people. Just remember, a lot of them are in the soil, not flying around in the air.
One of my neighbors Martha Rullman, read this column and sent this response?
I read this piece, and while I thought it was a good and in depth article, I didn’t think it did enough to succinctly emphasize the effects of pesticides and herbicides on insect life and on the food chain. I’m a naturalist and have lived in western Massachusetts for more than 40 years. I have intimately observed the insect and bird life, and there has been an undeniable decline in both, especially just in the last decade. In the past three summers, there seemed to be a sudden sharp decline in dragonflies, fireflies, caddisflies, moths and butterflies. The widespread, rampant use of pesticides and herbicides, especially neonicotinoids and glyphosate, is wiping out insects, many of which are important pollinators and which other species, including birds, depend on. These products are made by giant chemical companies Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto. Glyphosate, AKA “Roundup,” is made by Monsanto and is the most widely used herbicide in the U.S., where it is wiping out milkweed, which monarch butterflies heavy depend on as a food source. While the absence of insects may not be immediately noticeable to a lot of people, but this is a critically important problem, and scientists need to do A LOT more to try to bring the damage that’s being done to the public’s attention. Global climate change is having devastating consequences and some of these may be out of our control, but we can at least not contribute to the collapse of natural systems that we’re now seeing by not purchasing products containing glyphosate or plants pretreated with neonicotinoids.
Thank you, Martha. You added a lot of important information to my post. We all have work to do – and that means we all need information to begin.
Doug Tallamy’s book was a huge consciousness raising experience for me; it totally changed the way I looked at insects in my garden. This summer I took a class on native bees at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens — another eye-opener.
Jean – Doug Tallamy’s book was a revelation to me too. As a former beekeeper I was fairly familiar of bees, but it was all those other insects that I ignored. No more. I’m trying.