Editorial: Where have all the bugs gone?

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A generation ago, at this time of year, clouds of black flies made it hard to breathe near cold-running streams. During the shift change at dusk, when the night-biting mosquitoes joined their day-biting brethren, exsanguination seemed a distinct possibility. At dark, over lawns and fields, firefly flashes formed ephemeral constellations. Clouds of moths danced around porch lights and lanterns, and by midmorning butterflies, monarchs, swallowtails, coppers and sulphurs decorated flowers. Such sights are rarer now and gone altogether in some locales.

The warnings began about a decade ago. In 2010, Canadian researchers noticed a pronounced decline in the population of aerial birds that feed on insects. In 2012, the Zoological Society of London reported that global insect populations had suffered a severe drop. In 2014, a Stanford University ecologist estimated the decline at 45 percent over the past 40 years. Last year, German entomologists who had been sampling the insect population of a forest reserve since 1989 reported that the average weight of insects collected using the same traps had fallen by 77 percent.

Good riddance to bad company, some might say. But the decline, if it continues, is ominous.

As the eminent biologist E.O. Wilson puts it, if humans suddenly disappeared, the world would soon become the lush, biologically rich place it was 10,000 years ago. If insects vanished, ecosystems would collapse and humans would last only a matter of months. Insects pollinate crops; feed birds, fish, amphibians and even people; consume the dead, both plant and animal; and return nutrients to the earth. Without them, most things would die.

In a New York Times op-ed Sunday, Curt Stager, a professor of natural sciences at Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks, reported on other shortages: naturalists trained to study insects and money to fund their research. Given the current administration’s scorn for matters scientific, the latter is not likely to change. Thus this call, sparked by Stager’s op-ed, for citizen scientists to collect data on insect populations.

Who knows? An amateur naturalist could even discover a new species. Scientists estimate that only 1 million of the Earth’s 4 million insect species have been identified.

Stager uses hawk moths, large moths that in some cases have been mistaken for hummingbirds, as an example of an insect that appears to have declined in the Northeast. Little is known about the moths because few people study them. Little reliable data exists about their presence in a given locale. Citizen naturalists can fill the gap by photographing every hawk moth they encounter and recording the time, place, temperature and other facts about the encounter. That data can then be shared with fellow amateurs and experts on sites like inaturalist.org or Xerces.org. Ditto for honeybees, bumblebees, monarch butterflies and any other insect. It’s a great thing to do in summer with children.

Stager also wrote of studying his own vehicle and those in parking lots. They had far fewer bug splatters on their hoods and grills than they used to. The evidence, anecdotal as it might be, confirms the findings of many amateur observers. To be more scientific about it, amateur naturalists can count and record the number of insect remains on front license plates for a set amount of miles driven.

A lot of factors are likely contributing to the insect decline: habitat loss, herbicide and pesticide use, monoculture agriculture, the 3.3 billion people added to the world’s population since 1978. There are things that can be done to help offset the decline. The replacement of lawns, particularly treated lawns, with native plants, the consumption of organically grown food, a ban on the most harmful pesticides and herbicides – but what’s needed first is information.