Bugging Out

ants 1“By one measure, bugs are the wildlife we know best, the nondomesticated animals whose lives intersect most intimately with our own: spiders in the shower, ants at the picnic, ticks buried in the skin. We sometimes feel that we know them rather too well. In another sense, though, they are one of our planet’s greatest mysteries, a reminder of how little we know about what’s happening in the world around us.”
~ Brooke Jarvis

Heavy breathing, splashes as they crossed the swampy areas, then the gasps and screams. The small party escaping through the swamp from the radiation-mutated ants was slowly diminished as one-by one they were caught and devoured. (Note: Joan Collins survived –– the ants were intimidated by her cleavage.)*

Once again insects terrorized another seemingly helpless band of humans. It’s no wonder that we coat ourselves in toxic chemicals and spray them randomly across our yards and farms, and even install electric bug zappers to attract and destroy any miscreant insect that dares to invade our property. Popular wisdom holds that insects are the enemy, to be swatted, smashed, eradicated.

Of course, insects don’t distinguish our urban and agricultural properties from all the others that they inhabit, they just go about their business living, breeding, competing with other insects and often pollinating the plants that we need to survive. We’re actually seeing a parallel now with larger creatures that fail to recognize our boundaries. We’re all familiar with the sight (or evidence) of raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, coyotes and even deer that have decided to return to the habitats they once claimed. Even Arctic polar bears, deprived by climate change of their sheet ice stomping grounds are moving onto shores occupied by people. (I have to say that encountering a polar bear in my driveway would be a different experience from such an encounter with a raccoon. I think even the bug zapper would be ineffective.)

The truth is that we are occupying their space, not the other way around.
However, our incursion has more impact than we realize. Just like our urban and agricultural development has changed or destroyed habitat for all kinds of creatures, climate change is contributing to the ecological impacts. The results are becoming apparent — insect populations worldwide are being reduced.

Damien Carrington reports in The Guardian recently that according to “the first global scientific review … More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered … The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.”

I’m not sure that I would regret fewer mosquitoes, but I’d really miss butterflies. Having been attacked by yellow jackets, I think I could do without them, but bees are fundamental to our quality of life, physically, metaphorically and spiritually. And, in the delicate balance of nature, we know you don’t get to pick and choose.

Brooke Jarvis notes, “Scientists have tried to calculate the benefits that insects provide simply by going about their business in large numbers. Trillions of bugs flitting from flower to flower pollinate some three-quarters of our food crops, a service worth as much as $500 billion every year. (This doesn’t count the 80 percent of wild flowering plants, the foundation blocks of life everywhere, that rely on insects for pollination.)” 

He goes on, “By eating and being eaten, insects turn plants into protein and power the growth of all the uncountable species — including freshwater fish and a majority of birds — that rely on them for food, not to mention all the creatures that eat those creatures.”

“Finding reassurance in the survival of a few symbolic standard-bearers ignores the value of abundance, of a natural world that thrives on richness and complexity and interaction … 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. These places are emptier, impoverished in a thousand subtle ways.”

And, this desolation could lead to human extinction as well. We are all part of the fabric of life; each with our role to play to make it function. Maybe it’s time to take responsibility for our actions and our inaction.

Love a bug.

Additional information:
Damian Carrington, Plummeting Insect Numbers ‘Threaten Collapse of Nature, February 10, 2019, The Guardian
Brooke Jarvis, The Insect Apocalypse Is Here – What does it mean for the rest of life on Earth?, November 27, 2018, New York Times Magazine

*MGM Studios, Empire of the Ants, 1977

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