(Are your ears bored? You can listen to me talk about this column with Features Editor Sarah Pearson by clicking right here.)
You may have heard that we are facing an insect apocalypse, a portent of the collapse of the global food chain and resulting planetary chaos.
Well, I have good news, or perhaps I should say not-totally-awful news: Don’t panic. But we should be very concerned.
And we should make changes to help the insects that are still here, starting with our lawns. More on that in a moment.
All this is the message conveyed to me by Piera Siegert, the New Hampshire state entomologist (i.e., bug expert) when I asked her opinion about unsettling news reports that have been percolating in recent weeks.
Those reports started with a 2017 German study that said the total mass of local flying insects has fallen by 80 percent in three decades. The alarm grew with more reports about falling numbers of insects in various locations, and culminated in two researchers’ meta-analysis of studies that concluded entire classes of insects, as well as some arachnids and maybe some crustaceans, could spiral into extinction this century.
“I don’t think that we have enough information to really make that determination,” she said.
However, ignorance is not bliss – it’s blindness. Even if these reports don’t prove that humans are wiping out the global invertebrate population, they raise red flags that we would be fools to ignore.
“The reason we don’t have the information is that, in order to study changes in insect population, scientists need funding. It takes quite a bit of effort to capture population changes over time,” she explained. “If you want to say, ‘Do we have this insect in New Hampshire?’ We can find it in one trap. But you’ll have no idea of the population density, of the density over time, of differences from year to year – weather can influence whether you have a high population or low. To say that you have to be doing surveys where you’ve laid out blocks and are sampling the same place year after year, at different times of the year.”
The need for that kind of work is why Siegert kind of welcomes this public panic, even if misplaced, since people don’t usually worry about the fate of insects except for a few of the “charismatic” species like honeybees and butterflies.
“Mostly what we get is: ‘Insects are creepy and I want them all to die!’ That’s 90 percent of my interaction with the general public,” she joked – although I’m not sure she was joking.
“Insects are really important. They are critical to pretty much every terrestrial and freshwater environment on the planet. It’s not just pollination, but also decomposition – returning nutrients to soils – and a role they serve in many, many food webs. If something happens, it is absolutely going to impact life on Earth and humanity, so I think it’s really great that people are talking about it,” she said.
Talk is cheap, of course. What should you and I start doing?
“One thing that people can do is rethink the lawn a little bit,” Siegert said.
We need to dump the idea that a lawn should be a uniform field of plants, all an identical shade green – even though I’ll admit such lawns look awesome. The fertilizer, water and chemicals needed to make that happen, not to mention labor with a gas-powered machine, is doing serious damage and we need to cut it out.
“Intersperse some native flowers, get some diversity into your landscape. You don’t have to get rid of the whole lawn … but if it’s nothing but one type of grass, that’s really great habitat for grubs that like to eat roots of grasses, maybe not great habitat for other types of insects,” she said.
For those of us who are uncertain how to begin, I’d say begin with UNH Extension. They have guidelines for helping pollinators, information about beneficial insects around the lawn and how to help them, and plenty of advice from their Master Gardeners if you give them a call.
You can also look for citizen science projects to help gather some of that insect data we’re missing, such as N.H. Audubons’ annual dragonfly survey.
Beyond that, the advice sounds like pretty much all the “living eco-green” advice. Spray less pesticide and herbicide, release fewer emissions from motors, disrupt less natural vegetation, don’t freak out if you see bugs unless you’re sure they’re a problem such as termites in the walls or an invasive species killing your trees.
In other words, try to live more gently on the planet, as the Kumbaya-singing folks put it. Otherwise the planet is going to change in ways that will make us very, very sorry.