Don’t Be a Buzzkill

Posted on: May 18, 2018

Insects are often seen as pests – bothersome, dangerous and serving little value. Insecticides can be found not only in home improvement stores, but also in grocery stores, gas stations and drug stores. Most of us have no problem swatting, squishing and spraying insects without much remorse. But, what are the consequences of this assault? Do we really understand our impact on insects and the price humans may pay for the demise of the arthropod world?

Insects have been on this planet for an estimated 400 million years. They are arguably the most successful creatures, accounting for over two thirds of “visible” life forms. They are found on every continent and inhabit all ecosystems, minus the oceans. They pollinate the majority of fruit crops, are the vital link in food chains, and provide many beneficial products such as wax, honey, silk, and dyes. They are used in medical research and serve as decomposers, eating away dead plants and animals that would pile up around us. Insects are estimated to provide 57 billion dollars of ecological services in the United States each year. They are beautiful, mysterious, inspirational, and unfortunately, declining at alarming rates.

Surprisingly, we still haven’t identified the majority of insects. There are several estimates on how many insect species exist. To date, about 900 thousand species have been given names. Many entomologists believe there could be minimally two million species, while others have estimated upwards of 30 million species. A stat listed in The Guardian mentioned that during the first week of November 2017, 95 new beetle species were discovered in Madagascar, seven types of moths were identified in South America, 10 new spiders in Ecuador, and seven new spiders from South Africa. We still have a lot to learn about the little critters that share our planet.

As scientists discover new species daily, they also learn how rapidly they are disappearing. In October 2017, an alarming study was released. Trapped insects from 1,500 samples taken at 63 different nature reserves across Germany were analyzed by biomass (weight) over a 27-year period. It revealed a 76% reduction in flying insect numbers. Most likely, this is happening in many other countries. Even us non-entomologist have experienced the decline. Remember when a drive at night, especially through the countryside, would result in a bug-splattered windshield? Most of us wash away more salt from our vehicles these days than moth wings.

To share another perspective, consider that of parental birds. Most baby birds rely on a diet of insects. Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, has shared stories of chickadees that need caterpillars for their young. Many caterpillars eat specific leaves and chickadees repeatedly seek out native trees. On a day in 2014, he noted that a native white oak tree had over 220 caterpillars present while a non-native callery pear tree had just one caterpillar. No native trees, no caterpillars, and no chickadees. Our songbird populations have been declining for decades. We need to consider our landscapes, how they impact insects and subsequently the wildlife that eat them, especially as natural habitats continue to disappear.

Many people are aware of low monarch butterfly populations due to habitat loss and herbicide use that has killed off milkweed plants, the monarch caterpillars required food plant. By eliminating certain plants, we negatively impact insects. Our farming practices are having a global impact on insect numbers. We are losing the most resilient types of beings on earth. On a large scale and on a personal level, perhaps we should consider that not all bugs are bad. We’ve created chemicals that can coat seeds and make them insect resistant for the duration of the plant’s life. Yet we still haven’t figured out how to pollinate most of our food crops without insects. Instead of shooing them, perhaps we should try saving them.

WHAT WE DO: Over the past ten years, the Glen Ellyn Park District been dedicated to restoring natural areas within our parks. As native plants return, they support insects and the wildlife that depend on them. Insects pollinate most wild plants, leading to the development of seeds which expand the plant populations. In 2017, a young woman working on her Girl Scout Gold Award, constructed a mason bee house. The structure is filled with hollow tubes, logs with holes and plenty of space for the little native solitary bees to nest and lay eggs. You can check it out at Churchill Park. The Park District and Village also partnered to create “We Support Pollinators” yard signs. They are available for purchase at Main Street Recreation Center and Spring Avenue Recreation Center for $10.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Rethink your landscape plants. As things need replacing, consider native trees, shrubs, and perennials that support wildlife and offer food for insects like caterpillars. Reduce use of insecticides. Sometimes insecticides are hidden even in the ornamental plants you purchase. Avoid flowers and plants that are treated with neonicotinoids – a synthetic chemical insecticide that is taken up via the roots and is systemic throughout the plant. There are concerns that the pollen and nectar of the treated plants also contain the poison – potentially harming bees and other pollinators.