“With each generation, the amount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation takes that amount as the norm.”
~ Peter H. Kahn and Batya Friedman
When we think about losing biodiversity, we tend to think of the last northern white rhinos protected by armed guards, of polar bears on dwindling ice floes. Extinction is a visceral tragedy, universally understood: There is no coming back from it. The guilt of letting a unique species vanish is eternal.
~ Brooke Jarvis
I’m as curious as the next guy, I think, but I don’t have a great tolerance for bugs. Although, if I find a spider or wasp in my house, I’ll toss it outside rather than kill it. (This may be a relic of that Twilight Zone episode about the guy who hated spiders.) Just like a weed is a plant in the wrong place, a pest is an insect in the wrong place.
However, sometimes it’s us who are in the wrong place. I’ve hiked the mountains where mosquitoes were so thick you could hardly breathe. I’ve been stung by hornets and bit by horse flies and generally annoyed by all kinds of crawling and flying critters who were in their natural environment.
For many summers, we have driven across southern Idaho following the Snake River on our way from Colorado to Oregon. During the first trip, we learned that windshield washer fluid was no match for the swarms of flying bugs from the nearby irrigated fields that thickly spattered the windshield. At a truck stop, I futilely tried again to clean the windshield, then noticed a trucker nearby who was using kitchen cleaner spray on his windshield. Ever since, we take a spray bottle with us on every trip.
I remember summer nights as a kid in Texas, when the June Bugs swarmed. These were shiny brown beetles interesting to play with singly, but sometimes they swarmed in masses. At night, they were attracted to the porch light and hundreds or more would cover the screen door and floor of the porch. Entering the house was spooky, because the door seemed to be alive with the mass of teeming insects, and you couldn’t avoid stepping on dozens of them. The “crunch, crunch” and resulting slime was unnerving.
We once went fishing at a farm tank on one of my Dad’s client’s ranches that was overflowing from recent storms. I got bored and wandered to where the overflow from the dam had spread out across the hillside. It was only a few inches deep so I walked through it to a small bit of dry land, just looking around. Suddenly I became aware of hundreds of red ants crawling over my legs — some biting. I ran to my father who quickly shucked off my jeans and tossed me into the pond. Apparently the overflow had flooded several ant beds. They were searching for refuge from the water and I was convenient high ground. I always felt differently about ants after that.
Working in the desert in Northern Arizona, I learned not to use smelly after shave. In my first few weeks in the field, I attracted hundreds of bees, constantly driven to land on my face. I suppose I was the best smelling thing for miles around (not a condition I was often accused of.)
We get used to these masses of insects. But as reinforced in movies like The Naked Jungle (South American army ants) and Them! (giant ants created by nuclear testing), our annoyance can drive us to chemical warfare, physical destruction, activity avoidance and eventually, madness. In our madness, we’ve sprayed and burned colonies, decimated vegetation and wetlands, worn heavy clothing in the heat of summer, hidden out on our screen porches and doused ourselves with deadly chemicals.
But still, it has always seemed that we’ve been outnumbered and outgunned.
Recently, however, scientists are seeing evidence of significant decreases in insect populations. Brooke Jarvis reported in the New York Times Magazine, “Because insects are legion, inconspicuous and hard to meaningfully track, the fear that there might be far fewer than before was more felt than documented. People noticed it by canals or in backyards or under streetlights at night — familiar places that had become unfamiliarly empty. The feeling was so common that entomologists developed a shorthand for it, named for the way many people first began to notice that they weren’t seeing as many bugs. They called it the windshield phenomenon.”
But is this ‘feeling’ real? I know I’m not getting out in the wilds as much as I used to, and insect repellents are much more effective, so maybe it’s just perception, not fact? Jarvis continued, “Anyone who has returned to a childhood haunt to find that everything somehow got smaller knows that humans are not great at remembering the past accurately. This is especially true when it comes to changes to the natural world. It is impossible to maintain a fixed perspective, as Heraclitus observed 2,500 years ago: It is not the same river, but we are also not the same people.”
Scientists have had to shift from studying the details of individual populations to trying to determine overall numbers. Imagine counting mosquitoes in a swamp or ants in a field. As kids we used to try to count fireflies at night in the backyard. Was that the same one or different? It was impossible. But scientists worldwide have persisted and are seeing startling results. Insect populations are declining worldwide.
Jarvis noted, “Entomologists also knew that climate change and the overall degradation of global habitat are bad news for biodiversity in general, and that insects are dealing with the particular challenges posed by herbicides and pesticides, along with the effects of losing meadows, forests and even weedy patches to the relentless expansion of human spaces.”
So what? What if we reduce the population of all those pesky bugs? Fewer mosquito bites? No more spooky spiders over the bed? (No more invasions of giant ants?)
Unfortunately, insects are also a part of the earth’s ecology, and a significant part of what is needed for our planet to survive is dependent on insects. We’ve all been told about bees being a precious resource for our crops, but other insects play a necessary role in waste control, nutrient distribution and other parts of the web of life. Some like Monarch butterflies, are also pretty. Jarvis laments the potential problems, “One result of their loss is what’s known as trophic cascade, the unraveling of an ecosystem’s fabric as prey populations boom and crash and the various levels of the food web no longer keep each other in check.”
“Scientists have begun to speak of functional extinction (as opposed to the more familiar kind, numerical extinction). Functionally extinct animals and plants are still present but no longer prevalent enough to affect how an ecosystem works. Some phrase this as the extinction not of a species but of all its former interactions with its environment — an extinction of seed dispersal and predation and pollination and all the other ecological functions an animal once had, which can be devastating even if some individuals still persist. The more interactions are lost, the more disordered the ecosystem becomes.”
We are a part of the world’s ecosystems. Maybe we’re all family, different from each other but bound together in inexplicable ways. We occupy the same spaces as other creatures and share the resources among us. We and they are interdependent, and the loss of any one — insects included — impacts all the rest.
Jarvis notes, “We’ve begun to talk about living in the Anthropocene, a world shaped by humans. But E.O. Wilson, the naturalist and prophet of environmental degradation, has suggested another name: the Eremocine, the age of loneliness.”
Brooke Jarvis, The Insect Apocalypse Is Here; What Does it Mean for the Rest of Life on Earth? Nov. 27, 2018, New York Times Magazine
Xerces Society, https://xerces.org