Missing insects

For the past nine days, the only thing I’ve really wanted to talk about is an article in the New York Times by Brooke Jarvis titled, “The Insect Apocalypse is Here.” I had noticed the article on the homepage for a few days, but last Saturday I finally sat down to read it all the way through. I was not prepared.

The story follows scientists and “amateur” etymologists mostly in Europe and the United States who are all arriving at the same conclusion: populations of insects are declining at an exponential rate.  The study that first alarmed the scientific community calculated a more than 75% loss in total flying insect biomass in 63 German nature preserves over the past 30 years. Similar studies of monarch butterflies, honeybees, moths and others have corroborated this research. Worry is growing that the insect kingdom will eventually disappear entirely. The consequences are expected to be catastrophic.

Beautiful headline graphic from the NYTimes article by Matt Dorfman.

The article hit a nerve very close to home for me because for the past year or two I’ve been spending a lot of time reading and watching videos about permaculture design. I’ve come to believe that nature can heal itself with the right combination of human interventions. I’ve begun to follow Jeff Lawton, Colette O’Neil of Bealtaine Cottage, and Toby Hemenway of Gaia’s Garden. My YouTube homepage is full of recommendations for videos about swales, cob construction, and food forests.

The creativity and optimism of these teachers has given me some hope for the future, but this article reminded me that their endeavor is more urgent in more ways than I had realized. Insects are integral to the creation of soil, the fertilization of flowering plants, the decomposition of all living organisms, and the foundation of the food chain. What is permaculture without insects?

I started to look more seriously at how humans have shaped the environment, not just through the lens of permaculture vs. monoculture, but also from the perspective of insect habitat. We’ve taken our flowering meadows and replaced them with grass yards and immense
monoculture farms, we’ve chopped up dense forests into subdivisions, we’ve dammed rivers and prevented them from flooding surrounding lands with their nutrients. We have replaced every known habitat with asphalt roads, parking lots, sidewalks, and other impermeable surfaces. We have removed elements of insect habitat everywhere: pollen, rotting trees and animals, feces. We have cleaned up our environment in every imaginable way and we are left with something monotonous and ugly in contrast to diverse and natural beauty like this alpine meadow that I experienced this summer, shown in the photo below.

Or this Hill Country valley next to Enchanted Rock from last winter:

As I continued to read, I remembered another article from February of this year, “Let Your Winter Garden Go Wild,” that taught me for the first time how insects, birds, and small mammals all rely on dead plant growth from the summer months for shelter during winter. Some insects burrow into the ground, I learned, while others “like ladybugs, lacewings and parasitic wasps spend winter in the hollow stems of old flowers.” For three years, I drove to work past farms south of Richmond, and every season I watched as plants were harvested and removed entirely from the environment: no rot, no hollow stalk for hibernation, no insulation for production from the wind and snow.

I also felt a very personal sense of guilt as I thought about the ways that I have waged war on insects on my own small part of the world. Insecticide, in addition to climate change, is seen as a major determining factor for insect population decline. When we moved into our current house, I sprayed a general insecticide all around the place. I don’t even remember what exactly I was trying to kill, probably ants, but most likely out of some irrational fear. I remembered when I was young how my dad would fog the back yard of our house with an insecticide a few hours before my parents had friends over in order to control the mosquito population. What does it say about the product if we children weren’t allowed go outside for an hour or more after he sprayed? In just the past year I’ve poisoned rats with kill boxes, I’ve trapped flies by the thousands, and I’ve killed wasps burrowed into the dirt around our house. Although annoying, these wasps are actually harmless and we’ve never known them to sting. The insecticide revolution (along with fertilizer) allowed for modern farming to proliferate, but also created a world inhospitable to insects.

“Hans de Kroon characterizes the life of many modern insects as trying to survive from one dwindling oasis to the next but with ‘a desert in between, and at worst it’s a poisonous desert.’ Of particular concern are neonicotinoids, neurotoxins that were thought to affect only treated crops but turned out to accumulate in the landscape and the consumed by all kinds of nontargeted bugs.”

Brooke Jarvis, “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here”

Even small amounts of these toxins have been shown to wipe out insect populations. Jarvis writes that one of the theories about how neurotoxins affect bees is that it prevents them from finding their way home. Lost, the bees die alone and entire hives are found, not full of dead insects, but mysteriously empty.

Considering the insect apocalypse also reminded me that one morning in September of this year, while waiting for the bus, I had been excited to see a bumblebee floating from flower to flower on our purple heart plants. I was so excited that I even took a photo (below) and watched it for as long as I could. What I didn’t realize at the time, because it is so difficult to notice, is that my excitement was borne not of the presence of the bumblebee, but of the overwhelming absence of all other insects in the garden.

Jarvis writes that we are exceptionally good at forgetting how things used to be. “The world never feels fallen, because we grow accustomed to the fall.”

As I have now been made aware of this acute loss, my last response has been to imagine ways that I could contribute to insect habitats. I found a lovely British organization called BugLife that created the following diagram for gardening with insects in mind.

Big Life guide to Wildlife Gardening

This diagram includes food, water, and habitat for insects to grow and survive all four seasons of the year. One of the core lessons that BugLife seeks to share is that in order to support insect life we need to do more and we need to do much LESS. We need to stop keeping our farms, yards, and gardens so tidy and we need to keep a much wider variety of flowering plants than in a traditional garden. Essentially, we need to return our small portions of the earth back to a more natural environment and we need to learn to see beauty in way that each element serves to benefit the other.

I’ve also been daydreaming constantly about buying a small parcel of land that’s for sale near my house and fully living into my permaculture fantasies. It’s a densely wooded area perched above a ravine on one side while bordering a neighborhood and an old semi-industrial area on the others. It looks like there is enough run-off from the street to feed a small pond or two on the property and enough room for a house and multiple outbuildings. While many trees would need to be cut down, the entire property could eventually be reshaped into a self-sustaining and diverse ecosystem of wild prairie, forest, ponds, as well as gardens and living spaces. I’ve imagined the houses incorporating sustainable design such as cob construction, passive and active solar, rocket stove mass heaters, and composting toilets.

Of course, I don’t know how to do any of these things and I can’t quit my day job, but it’s still fun to dream:

Until then, I will be actively swapping my anxiety for action with small changes to make the natural world around me more interesting, more wild, and a little more hospitable to our little friends.

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