When my dad was growing up in Dallas, he remembers a truck fogging his entire neighborhood with DDT. One time, he was killing hornets with a tennis racquet in his front yard when the truck drove by and most fell to the ground before he could kill any more.
After nearly a century of ruthlessly effective pesticides and the steady march of habitat loss, many insect populations have been devastated, a fraction of what they once were. I have heard stories of fireflies numbering in the thousands on a summer night while now there are maybe a dozen if any at all. When I search online for a blog post like this, I frequently get websites for exterminating the insects that I’m trying to learn about. Of course, there are insects I don’t like. I started an organic mosquito control program this year and I spread carpenter ant bait around my deck every once in a while. I’ve never had a roach problem, but if I did I’m sure I’d call someone. I like to think the active centipede population in the basement keeps them all in check.
I was raised to appreciate insects and in recent years I’ve started to care even more. I do what I can to help out by plating beneficial plants and offering decomposing waste in the compost. For the most part, I just enjoy these creatures and appreciate all the crazy shapes and personalities that insects bring.
May 2 – This was the first time I’ve ever seen an eastern eyed click beetle. The false eyes as a defense mechanism definitely made me look twice and feel like it was watching me as much as I was watching it.
June 1 – The earliest major pollinator show of spring around here is watching honey bees and bumblebees swarm a pair of Verbascum chaixii ‘Wedding Candles’ (aka Mullein). I first noticed this burst of activity last year and was very much looking forward to it this spring.
June 10 – It’s been a long time since I was this excited about an insect. When I first saw this hummingbird moth on some English lavender I was confused in the way that whomever named it obviously was as well. It hovers and flits just like a hummingbird and has what looks like the beak of a hummingbird, but it is actually a moth with a long tongue for drawing nectar.
June 11 – I let some parsley flower this spring. It’s the first time I’ve seen a parsley flower before and it was interesting to notice which insects were attracted by it. I’m hoping it goes to seed and brings back a whole flower bed of parsley next year. Below is a cool, black and blue false wasp.
Here are two Margined Leatherwing beetles ensuring future generations.
June 15 – In the next two photos, a metallic green sweat bee and a bumblebee forage on the earliest Echinacea blooms of the season. The sweat bees are especially beautiful to watch in the sun.
June 20 – Catnip is actually a great pollinator. I planted this last year and it really took off this spring. I’ve been watching all kinds of bees and hover flies swarm around.
June 24 – This next one might gross some people out – feel free to skip
I was recently cutting back suckers on a Crape Myrtle when I found a whole civilization of millipedes (Apheloria virginiensis, I believe) living in a crease in the stump underneath. I took a photo then also a video because the way they were all moving at the same time was completely mesmerizing.
June 27 – This is Euthyrhynchus floridanus, the Florida predatory stink bug, holding its prey. It’s a native stink bug that sometimes travels in packs to hunt other insects.
June 27 – A false wasp on English lavender. I think false wasps are some of the coolest looking flying insects in the garden.
Margaret Renkl is a regular contributer to the NYT opinion section who has made me sigh more than once. Her observations in the garden connect with me on so many levels, from the plants and insects that we share to the sense that things are not what they once were. As someone who has lived in both extreme corners of the South (Eastern Texas and Virginia) I always appreciate her references and storytelling. She writes in a Southern lament style as she finds beauty in nature as well as the death and decay below the surface. In a more practical way, the essay by Margaret Roach shares wisdom from the 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park. While Renkl mourns the loss of butterflies, Roach reminds me that while rural and suburban America are a toxic wasteland of pesticides, a new wave of natural meadow-style landscaping is turning cities into oases of natural beauty. Here are just some quotes and photos I enjoyed from each piece.
From Renkl, there is always beauty and death. She and I are living parallel lives and I’m so grateful that she writes because she helps me organize my own thoughts, she connects the ecosystem and helps me appreciate each part.
“How ragged we are now, dragging summer behind us like an old blanket we can’t set down. The homicidal heat of August has given way to the merely cruel heat of mid-September, but we are done with it even so. Everyone is cross, and not just the people.”
The mornings are a gift. Cool and damp, they feel like part of an entirely different ecosystem. If I’m poking around the garden early enough, I can spy all the darling bumblebee butts deep in the bells of balsam flowers where the bees have tucked themselves in for sleep.”
“The spent zinnias and coneflowers and black-eyed Susans provide plenty of seeds, and the beautyberries, arrowwood berries and pokeweed berries are ripe now, too.”
“Already the fall wildflowers are beginning to come into their own. The goldenrod throws its yellow plumes into the air; ironweed and asters purple the fields and roadsides; snakeroot blankets the forest understory; anise hyssop and elephant’s foot flowers call to the bees on the naturalized side of our yard. All of them feed the insects that feed the birds who need fuel for the migration, or for surviving the winter at home.”
“A basilica orb-weaver spider has built her cathedral outside our front door. Her web has been pummeled by rains again and again, but her pearly egg sacs, all strung together in a row, are safe. Every day I check them to be sure, and every day their mother watches me warily as I check.
She will guard them faithfully until she dies, and the last thing she will do is secure the guy wires they’ll need to guide them when they climb out of their sacs next spring.”
From Roach, practical wisdom and photos that make me dream of my next trip to New York.
“Rather than following the common practice of planting and transplanting in spring, for instance, she suggests shifting virtually all of that activity to autumn — and not cutting back most perennials as the season winds down.”
“But in just 11 years since the first section opened, the place has become a refuge and breeding ground for diverse and unexpected species. The state-threatened golden northern bumblebee (Bombus fervidus) can be seen happily collecting nectar on wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), while nearby, fluttering swarms of the common but colorful little pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos) are delighted to find so much of their host plant, smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve), to savor.”
“More than 180 species of birds have been sighted in the park. And not just the mallards and herring gulls that you might expect on a waterfront, but swallows, woodpeckers and rare sparrows, as well as 31 species of warblers. An extremely rare painted bunting (Passerina ciris) spent two months in the park one winter.”
“The practice she adheres to is called ecological horticulture. It’s the polar opposite of the purely ornamental version, which is driven by asserting control of plants in the name of aesthetics.”
“Spring planting “gets in the way of our work, instead of complementing it,” Ms. McMackin said. And in the past four years, her crew has gradually phased it out. Next year, there will be no spring planting at Brooklyn Bridge Park, except for some tree species that resent fall root disturbance.
“When we do plant in spring, and then summer arrives, it can be such an extreme environment — hot, dry and windy, too,” she said, and those are hard conditions for plants trying to root in. With a fall planting schedule, the winter that follows is easier on them.”
“In May and June, instead of planting, we can get weeds while they’re still small,” Ms. McMackin said. “You can hoe rather than having to hand-pull — getting rid of things that can cause massive problems later, if you don’t.”
“At Brooklyn Bridge Park, the gardeners skip most of the traditional fall cutbacks and cleanup. That leaves plenty of seed that can self-sow, or be eaten by birds, and preserves an overwintering habitat in the leaf litter for arthropods. Except where mulch or compost is needed, the approach is hands-off.”
“We just had an endangered sedge pop up. And we had a state-threatened saltmarsh aster appear that we relocated to our salt marsh,” she said. “It’s amazing what happens when ‘Leave things alone as much as possible’ is part of your maintenance strategy.”
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.
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.
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.