Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Let's talk about insects

Let’s talk about insects

I live in Seattle now.  I consider myself a New Yorker despite not having lived there since right after 9/11 (it’s been a long, strange trip).  And my family farm is in Iowa. 

As a kid I spent weeks there every summer, peeling potatoes, hanging up laundry, picking beans, making pickles, husking corn, going fishing, “helping” Grandpa Channer milk the cows, exploring in the pasture beyond the apple orchard, and taking minute inventory of the astounding variety of insect life.

I was a mini-biologist back then, and the farm was paradise for someone so inclined.  Everywhere, there were insects.  If you couldn’t see them you could hear them, thrumming and whirring and scratching as they went about their business.  Bees crowded the garden, all industry and drive amongst the peonies and bachelor’s button.  Palm-sized garden spiders hung in wait in the long grass at the far side of the driveway, midriffs bright with orange and scarlet coats of arms.  An almost infinite variety of beetles were everywhere to discover – huge ferocious stag beetles, pretty ladybirds, longhorns, and loud, startling click beetles.

There were giant walking sticks and waterbugs to catch and release – katydids and praying mantises to observe – wasps to fear as they buzzed protectively about their immense, bulging nests – fireflies to catch and imprison in Mason jars – and giant red velvet mites astonishing in their tiny perfection.

Clouds of gnats hovered in the cool under the oak trees at the bottom of the lawn, and at the stone quarry in Chickasaw Park there were traffic jams of dragonflies – bright blue skimmers, heavy cruising darning needles, emeralds and petaltails.  In August, any tiny patch of moisture on bare ground attracted cabbage moths, yellow and white, fluttering delicately as they sipped and looking in their numbers as if, when they flew off, they could hoist the Earth with them.

And now?  Now, there isn’t nothing, but there’s not much left.  The full-throated chorus of droning, humming, throbbing insect song is a barely-heard ghost in the distance.  A handful of gnats bother late porch-sitters if the screen door isn’t closed.  The garden spiders are a greatly reduced army, and they are all much, much smaller than before.  A Monarch butterfly in the garden is cause for exclamation, and farmers are importing bees from Australia

A recent study published in Science and led by UCL, Stanford and UCSB found that invertebrate numbers have decreased by 45% on average over the last 40 years.

I can see the decline when I visit the farm each August.  I can hear the silence where once there was an omnipresent roar.  But I had no idea how drastic the change was – and when I saw it quantified, I was astonished.

You might ask, “So what?  I don’t like spiders.  Gnats are nasty and annoying, and butterflies are pretty, but who needs them?”

According to the study,

This decline matters because of the enormous benefits invertebrates such as insects, spiders, crustaceans, slugs and worms bring to our day-to-day lives, including pollination and pest control for crops, decomposition for nutrient cycling, water filtration and human health.

And Dr. Ben Collen, last author of the study, said,

We were shocked to find similar losses in invertebrates as with larger animals, as we previously thought invertebrates to be more resilient. While we don’t fully understand what the long-term impact of these declining numbers will be, currently we are in the potentially dangerous position of losing integral parts of ecosystems without knowing what roles they play within it.

And yes, climate change.  

It’s not the only reason, of course, that insect populations are in decline.  We don’t know what’s happening with the honey bees yet.  In Iowa I suspect that factory farming, so reliant on chemicals, is killing off populations of any number of species.  And monoculture agriculture can’t be conducive to biological diversity, even where insects aren’t bug-bombed into oblivion.

But climate change isn’t helping.  Sure, a species here or there is able to expand its range – but that comes at the expense of other, neighboring species, on whom it must encroach.

Most concerning, I think, is that WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT WE’RE DOING.  We don’t know what’s out there.  We don’t know precisely how these complex ecosystems work.  We don’t know which species can die off with no human repercussions, and which are lynchpins on which our very survival might depend.  We suspect – we think we know – we study feverishly, attempting to limn the outlines of the story before the players change – but we don’t know.  Not for certain.  Not enough.

The issue is not that we act as though insects are pests to be gotten rid of.  The issue is that we are heedless in every way.  Our lumbering, careless, devouring predation and annihilation of ecosystem after ecosystem does not strike us – or at least not many of us – as the amoral violence that it is.  We’re rushing toward the future and we think it’s bright.  We think of planetary prosperity and food for everyone, a never-ending upward rise and expansion, a glorious future of technology and pleasure.

The minatory finger of evidence, however, points in the exactly contrary direction.  The insects are telling the real story.

So listen, will you, when you step outside.  What do you hear?

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