Where Are All the Bugs Going and What Can I Do About It?

Lambert: A couple of points. First, “gardening” is not a consumerist response to “climate change.” Beyond the good effects on one’s own body and spirit (assuming you’re not spraying chemicals all over everything), plants that attract beneficial insects benefit not only you, but the entire ecosystem that surrounds you, and all without any sort of cash nexus. And as the author points out, you don’t need to be a property owner to garden. Second, the idea of the citizen scientist er, intersects with so many topics: Gathering good data, which we don’t have even on insects, building observational and data analysis skills, building social capital through work with others, and an enormous increase in citizen science is an obvious use case for a Jobs Guarantee, part of the Green New Deal. Also, abolish lawns.

By Eve Andrew, who writes Ask Umbra, Grist’s civic advice vertical. .

Q.Dear Umbra,

Insects are disappearing at an alarming rate. This terrifies me! What actions can I take to mitigate my despair?

— Help Me Help Ants

A. Dear HMHA,

I think first I have to applaud you for writing about insects at all — many of them are almost too small to see, and they have six legs, and occasionally they bite, so in general, they’re not winning any popularity contests. When humans get interested in saving habitats, it’s usually cultivated by affection for the more charming animals that live in them — cute furry mammals like koalas and sloths and whatnot. And I hate to carapace-shame, but a cicada is not a koala.

And yet bugs are having a moment, I think, judging by several of the questions that have been buzzing to my inbox lately. It might have something to do with that scary New York Times Magazine article that came out a few months ago about the ; or the as-yet-unsolved mystery of ; or the Biological Conservation of the “decline of entomofauna” (insect loss, in non-science speak) which claimed that we could lose 40 percent of insect species to extinction over the 21st century.

But that “40 percent of all insect species will die” figure is fairly wobbly. That’s because, as Terry McGlynn — entomologist and urban ecologist at Cal State Dominguez Hills — says, there’s such a vast amount we still don’t know about all the bugs out there. It’s a huge challenge to empirically document or estimate how the whole of the insect kingdom has changed or shrunk over time because scientists know relatively little about how large they originally were.

“Insect ecologists, in general, have not been counting density or abundance of insects as systematically as we could have been,” he says. “You need some clear systematic way to measure numbers over the years, and people haven’t focused on that, and now we’re learning that it’s important.”

“We have a whole lot of solid data that shows some insects are declining, but we also have a lot of solid data that other insects are increasing,” agrees Gwen Pearson, science writer and self-described “insect evangelist.” “But losing even a few species can be really catastrophic to an ecosystem. You can start taking parts of a car out, and it will still run, but when you hit a really critical one, that’s the end.”

That’s because insects are the waste management contractors of ecosystems. And not in a , especially in that they do it for free and without all the murder. (Maybe a .) Our natural environments would fill up with so much … grossness and become totally overwhelmed without them. Humans don’t eat our janitors and undertakers and recyclers, fortunately, so this is where the metaphor starts to collapse — but insects are also the building blocks of pretty much every food chain. Without them, things fall apart, to paraphrase Chinua Achebe (paraphrasing William Butler Yeats).

Even if the numbers aren’t that solid, and may not apply to all the insect species in every region, every entomologist I spoke with added that insect populations do appear to be reducing, and no one can be 100 percent sure why. There are a few pretty well backed up theories, and most of them come down to habitat loss due to an overwhelming combination of human development, industrial agriculture, and climate change. Insects need plants to eat, soil to burrow in, and leaves to sleep under, and when all those things disappear for the reasons stated above, they find it pretty hard to survive.

But while our planet needs insects to stay in balance, humans and bugs don’t always get along. Insects are highly adaptive, which sounds like a good thing until you consider they can compete for the same resources as humans. So even, say, switching to pesticide-free produce might not be doing the situation as much good as you’d think.

“I don’t know of an ‘insect-friendly diet’ that doesn’t betray science,” says Kristie Reddick, director of bug advocacy and education group . “If I were to say, ‘go organic-only,’ that doesn’t really make sense because insects and humans are in sort of an arms race with each other. One defense comes up and over several generations, insects are adapting quite quickly.”

So while an organic smoothie bowl a day might not be the best way to bring back the butterflies, one solution to the great bug-die off might be to holler at your congresspeople to increase government funding for ecological research. One of the reasons for the uncertainty around insect survival is the stagnation of science funding, said McGlynn.

But the second thing you can do, suggests Reddick, is be a citizen scientist. Money for research is increasingly hard to come by, entomology isn’t like, the sexiest of all sciences, and there are billions of trillions of zillions of bugs out there to be cataloged and analyzed. That’s where you, Bug Lover, come in. You can look up BioBlitzes, where you join groups cataloging all kinds of plants and creatures in your area, .

Another big-deal bug-friendly action you can take on in your area is to get more native plants up in there. Every time you put in a palm tree where evergreens are supposed to grow, you’re putting in something a native insect isn’t going to be able to eat or live in.

Lawns, in general, are pretty much the enemy for healthy insect habitats. All the herbicide and insecticide and fertilizer and mowing and trimming — it’s going to make your multi-legged compatriots more likely to fly or crawl away home. If you’re a renter like me — or even if you want to go beyond the boundaries of your own property — you can also turn your attention to spaces like road medians and public parks and push the city council to get them the native plant treatment. (, from the Xerces Society, is a great resource for native plants across North America.)

But back to the main reasons some bugs are most likely disappearing: human development, industrial agriculture, climate change. Wow! Really big, systemic things that are hard to tackle! It would be hard for you to do it all by yourself!

Cue the usual Umbra siren of civic engagement to remind you to petition your local elected officials to push for legislation that nourishes natural habitats. Even the most concrete-filled city has space for a few trees and bushes, which could be both home and dining hall to millions of insects.

My last point: Not all the crawling or flying little things who need your help will be sweet (in fact, some of them — like spiders and centipedes — may not be insects at all), and you need to be OK with the more shriek-inducing creatures as well. Cuteness is not always a factor in what’s best for your local ecosystem. You love ants? Great, you may also need to rep the . You’re down with butterflies? The may need your allegiance, too. It’s very confused!

And while we’re saving insects, I guess stop squishing spiders too? I know. I need to work on that one as well.

Wingedly,

Umbra

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

32 comments

  1. Samuel Conner

    A sibling who works as a physical therapist mentioned to me that she has never met a centenarian who was not a gardener. She thinks its a good way to maintain “whole body” functional strength.

    Gardening can be a way (a small way, admittedly) to help preserve biodiversity; it’s also a way to outlive the climate science deniers (not that that is going to be an agreeable experience)

    Reply
  2. divadab

    A few ideas:
    1) compost your kitchen waste – along with your garden trimmings and weeds- we have 3 spinner composters (one being unloaded; one almost ready; one being loaded), and they create an ecosystem of their own – fruit flies and worms, which birds and bats, and so on. And natural compost is alive and replenishes your garden’s organic material which in harvesting vegetables and weeding you remove.
    2) don’t spray roundup or any other pesticide. And most Counties will not spray roundup along the road by your house if you ask them not to formally.
    3) provide bat and bird houses. SO fun to watch insect eaters like phoebes hunt – we have a nest under our eaves which has produced new phoebes for at least 15 years. So wonderful to see them return in the spring.
    4) honor the living planet and its critters – take time every day to love them and let them feel you – they can feel you and you can feel them, if you take the time to inhabit their space. (sorry for the awkward language – words are inadequate for the profoundly spiritual, which must be felt in the flesh and the spirit).

    Remember that whatever our ignorant depredations, the living planet will survive us. A sad consolation but there is always hope. Always.

    Reply
    1. marieann

      ” honor the living planet and its critters”

      I don’t like to say I love insects but honouring them explains it quite well. I try to treat them a fellow travelers on this planet.

      I seldom intentionally kill one but just planting in the garden decimate the worms and the cabbage moth decimates my broccoli. However the swallowtail butterfly eats my parsley so I plant dill as it likes this better.

      The ants and spiders that come in the house get put back outside and I can attest to the fact that they do bite even when I am trying to liberate them

      Reply
        1. BlueMoose

          My trick for spiders is a yogurt cup. Then I slide a postcard under the cup (works vertically as well as horizontally). Then outside. If it is a really scary spider however, I call my wife to take care of it. I don’t ask any questions.

          Reply
    2. tegnost

      a quibble, roundup is an herbicide, and it’s best to call evil by it’s true name. But yeah don’t spray anything unless you make a tea like liquid from edible components, say cayenne pepper, tabasco, and a touch of dr. bronners.

      Reply
  3. Wukchumni

    Our windshield turned into quite the splatter shield on Hwy 395, en route and back from Mammoth-with yellow impact craters dominating, leaving 2 inch blurs where some insects met their see through end.

    It was old school-the look.

    Can’t remember the last time a windshield was so messy in a morbid way…

    Reply
    1. barefoot charley

      California’s mighty floral bloom is booming bugs! Good news. It hasn’t reached us up here in Baja Oregon yet.

      Reply
  4. Phacops

    Here in Michigan we also have MiCorps (Michigan Clean Water Corps) a diverse group of conservation districts and volunteers who run insect collections in local streams and rivers twice a year. These are ID’d to family level and the result used to calculate a measure of water quality since aquatic insect families vary in their tolerance to pollutants. I like doing this as it gets me back to the fundamental basis of natural history: taxonomy. But then, data costs $$$ and I love to help with this effort, especially adopting a lovely river I canoe and fly-fish frequently.

    Plus, my spouse and I are lucky enough to be able to landscape with natives especially in a series of boulder terraces along our house. In summer and fall it is a riot of pollinators with several species of bumblebees and Hawk Moths which look like tiny bumblebees (and, if you have hornworms on your tomatoes, don’t hurt them as they become Hawk Moths!).

    Reply
  5. DJG

    This article is a wonderful explainer–and in our discussions here of how to make climate change and the effects of global overheating real, these kinds of witty and insightful explainers are one thing to use. (Why, I think I will go to my FB page and paste it in.)

    The admonition about using native plants is right on the mark. Here in Chicago, there has been a vogue for turning lawns into little native plantings–not exactly prairies. But bee balms truly do attract bees, and milkweeds truly do attract monarch butterflies. And if you plant one of the highly fragrant milkweeds, the scent will attract you.

    Whenever I despair about where all the bees are, I venture over to the restored prairie adjacent to Amundsen High School. For most of the growing season, it is ablazed with flowers. Because it is restored prairie, many of the species are the tall prairie plants and grasses–six or seven feet tall, bedecked with flowers. And there are bees. So native plantings do help. And in these parlous times, whatever can help is worth trying.

    Reply
  6. Bruce F

    As an organic row crop farmer, I’m going to say that I think the expert on bugs has it wrong. While no system is “perfect”, it’s the herbicide/pesticide matrix that is constantly failing to adapt to the changes in the bugs. We’re building super bugs. The organic system has been shown, with over 20 yrs of research at places like the and Rodale, to work, and work well.

    I’d encourage readers to check out of organic farmer Klaas Martens, of his keynote speech to the 2018 OGrain conference, titled “Managing crop pests and diseases through practices not products”.

    Reply
  7. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    Cuteness is not always a factor…

    Exactly.

    From Kobayashi Issa:

    Don’t worry
    Spiders
    I keep house…casually.

    (Bertrand Russell was similarly inspired with his ‘In Praise of Idleness.”)

    “Are you being too busy today?”

    Reply
    1. marieann

      When I was growing up spiders in the house was considered good luck as they took care of all the other house bugs and didn’t really bother the humans.
      I can live with them but my son is deathly afraid of them, so when he comes for supper I have to evict them…..usually with a glass and a piece of paper

      Reply
      1. Anarcissie

        I had a rather large spider in my bathroom last year — going by the web, some kind of orb spider. As she was out of the way, I let her be, figuring she would reduce some of the flying insects I get in this sieve of an apartment. In fact, when her web broke due to a combination of excess humidity and wind, I repaired it and she continued to live on it. As a result she stayed with me until January and then vanished, I suppose bound for the next world. I hope she enjoyed her stay. Maybe we will meet in other forms somewhere down the line. Meanwhile a number of ground spiders are holding the fort under my kitchen cabinets.

        Reply
        1. polecat

          My favorite spiders are the jumpers .. I often find them in the house, which is ok by me. If, for any reason they need to be relocated out of doors, I encourage them to hop on my hand, to be given a hand out, as opposed to a hand up .. they’re not apt to bite … and they are of a curious sort !
          We also have ‘house spiders’ .. funnel webbers of which some are the size of dinner plates … well, dollhouse-sized dinner plates, anyway.
          Last year, I noticed tinsy tiny whip scopions hanging around the backyard bee hives. Perhaps they like dining on varroa mites.

          Reply
          1. Phacops

            Jumping spiders are the cutest. Plus they never seem inclined to bite.

            Plus, these spiders have a remarkable vision system

            Reply
  8. ddt

    One thing I never see mentioned as a possible cause for insect decline is wireless signals. Anyone know of any studies that show how insect lifecycles may be affected?

    Reply
    1. Cal2

      According to Physicians for Safe Technology, risks from 5G include:

      Damage to the eyes- cataracts, retina
      Immune system disruption
      Metabolic disruption
      Damage to sperm
      Skin damage
      Rise in bacterial resistance and bacterial shifts
      Damage to plants and trees
      Collapse of insect populations, the base of food for birds and bats

      You might also want to learn about the effects of ‘smart meters’ on your own health, as well as that of plants that die next to them.

      Reply
  9. Cal2

    Besides being an astute gardener, you can make seedballs of plants that insects benefit from. Choose wisely please.

    These can be thrown, sling-shotted, dropped and given away and used where ever they can grow.

    There’s a lovely patch of flowering plants half way up a freeway embankment that we seedbombed twenty years ago. Year after year, the plants reappear. Birds are visible flying in and out of it. Too far to see the insects.

    Reply
  10. johnd

    Windshield data point –

    2 weeks ago, just south of Sacramento on I-5 heading north at dusk…more splats than I’ve encountered in years. Was annoyed at the time as it was the day after I washed the car for the first time in months. Moderate amount since with normal driving about town. Must be related to spring following a wet winter?

    Reply
  11. Susan the other`

    I just googled “insects and decimation at chernobyl” and found a headline. I scanned the first 3 paragraphs and found that it was confirmed that radiation wiped out insects and spiders and that forests are not decomposing due to those bugs being wiped out. So that’s interesting. I’m sure we’ll never hear the truth about Fukushima being 10 times more disastrous than Chernobyl, but it was/is. And we might be able to confirm all our suspicions by the awful evidence that insects are disappearing. Just a thought. Maybe there is research to establish that insects are more resilient than it seems. They certainly survived and adapted quickly to all sorts of pesticides. So what is going on?

    Reply
  12. kareninca

    We moved to our condo in Silicon Valley 23 years ago. We have no control over our surroundings and landscaping, but I’m not sure that even matters. Since when we first got here, there were loads of bees on the flowering plants around our unit, and I often saw butterflies as I walked around our neighborhood. The plants haven’t changed, but I see no bees now, and only very, very rarely a butterfly. The switch over was about five years ago, I’d estimate.

    The same is true where I volunteer. There is a gigantic planter – 20 feet by 20 feet – in a deserted, enclosed courtyard. It is full of a variety of plants that can survive the summer unwatered. Five years ago when the plants bloomed, there were many bees. There aren’t any now.

    The weather hasn’t changed enough to account for any of this. I don’t think local pesticide use has changed. I don’t know what it is. I guess lack of habitat for hives? Every square inch around here is now developed. The community garden where I used to have a plot has been bulldozed. Maybe it is the wireless signals mentioned in the post above.

    Reply
  13. Oregoncharles

    ” abolish lawns”

    Let’s say there are a lot of caveats (he writes, looking out at a large area that needs mowing.) It depends on where you are and how much land you have. An urban front yard: sure. We’ve done this both in arid Albuquerque and the wet Willamette Valley; our front yard is a garden – not vegetables; very mixed. Sort of a sampler.

    But there are two back yards, and they’re in – let’s be kind and call it meadow. It sure isn’t pure grass. That would be far more work than I’m going to do. We’ve talked before about mixed “lawns” and that’s what I have. Some of it I planted, some just appeared – for instance, ajuga (bugle weed) is a nice addition to lawn, that just spread in. You do have to stop mowing to let it bloom. (Purple spikes.)

    We’re in the Willamette Valley, where much of the country’s grass seed comes from. Around here. grass is the default plant; if you mow, you will soon have grass. If you don’t mow, you will soon have head-high blackberries; followed, if you’re lucky, by enormous trees – sometimes the blackberries can keep them out. The big blackberries aren’t native, but they are very tasty, so I don’t exterminate them even if I could.

    I try to utilize the areas I perforce mow; for instance, using the clippings for fertilizer and mulch. And grasslands do sequester carbon quite effectively.

    Reply
  14. ambrit

    We risked the ire of the neighbors in our Inner Ring Suburb by not mowing yet. I have pulled the ‘nasty’ weeds, and let the flowering varieties thrive. Why? Because a few weeks ago, when I was preparing to mow the front, I saw a pair of Monarch butterflies flitting from flower to flower in our front yard.
    Like some here, we have ‘seen’ a drop off in insect populations over the past few years. Likewise for the hummingbirds. Italian honey bees are a very rare sight now. The primary pollinators now seem to be Bumble Bees. Actually, Carpenter Bees. Their burrows into wood can be found where ever one looks.
    I thought that the boffins had determined that neonicotinoid poisons are a primary culprit in honey bee population declines. Now to do the hard work of weaning growers off of doing things the ‘easy way.’
    Read:

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Pay more for bio-clean products from producers who do it the hard way. Some of the easy-way producers who see the hard-way producers making more money than the easy-way producers make might decide to adopt the hard way in order to make more money.

      Reply
  15. ChuckT

    I try to catch and release most insects found in the home during the warmer months, in winter I admit to putting the poor buggers to a quick death rather than the suffering of freezing in the cold.

    The one exception are house centipedes. Those I kill on sight year round and feel no regret about it.

    Fun story: my wife’s aunt once accidentally put a house centipedes that was hiding in a cup of water left out overnight into her mouth. Apparently their bites have an electric level of pain…

    Reply

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