What's Happening to Bugs?

June 4, 2018

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Most of us aren’t particularly rational when it comes to how we value various animals. It’s obvious why we form deep connections to companions like dogs, which are quite adept at mirroring our emotions. But it’s harder to figure out why the death of a hunted lion gets so much more attention than the death of a deer. (Or of a cow in a slaughterhouse, for that matter!) Certainly, there is a moral difference between killing for sport and killing for food, but reaction to the former can engulf the whole internet, while the reaction to the latter is complacency. Maybe lions are more deeply ingrained cultural symbols than deer, or maybe they are avatars for broader anxieties about environmental degradation and extinction - it’s a truism that charismatic species attract the conservation dollars, which is good for elephants but not so good for aye-ayes. In an environment in which the few animals with the greatest cultural cachet monopolize human sympathy, it’s hard to see how the small, drab and faceless creatures will garner the attention necessary to be protected.

This makes reports of massive declines in insect numbers especially troubling. Some insects bite or sting or flash brilliant colors, but even the plainest of them skitter around like crazed robots or spend hours bumping into a porch light or bashing against screens. These are not endearing behaviors, and I know very few people who enjoy interacting with them. Yet their roles as tillers, pollinators, recyclers, as predators and as prey make them nothing less than foundational to a healthy ecosystem.

It’s disheartening that there isn’t even particularly good data about the scope of the problem, though the few studies that have been done are dire. The most rigorous research is from Germany, where sites in nature preserves across the country have tracked a 75% drop in the total mass of flying insects over the past twenty five years. No comparable work has been done in America, but the precipitous declines of individual species, like monarch butterflies, and groups of species, like fireflies, is well documented.

There are likely a constellation of factors that contribute to this dynamic, but it’s hard for me to believe that land use isn’t a major driver. The focus of commercial farming on corn and soybeans has led to an agriculture in which these two crops in particular are produced with incredible precision. They lend themselves to efficiencies of scale, with ever bigger machines doing an ever faster job of tilling, spraying, and planting. Optimizing efficiency requires pulling down fences and hedgerows, simplifying the crop rotation, and turning up hay ground. The result is a landscape of unbroken duoculture, with the dirt bare in the long months between the fall harvest and the spring planting. Even in the growing season there isn’t much for any bug to eat, except maybe for corn borers.

So I would propose that one small, incomplete solution would be to promote messier farms. Hedge rows, trees, and wild areas running up against cultivated land all provide habitat for numerous species of insects, as well as nesting sites for birds and cover for fishers, porcupines, and other creatures that don’t have societies organized around their preservation. Setting aside wilderness and taking a hard look at pesticides are also likely necessary, but these are collective actions. Individual farmers making individual land use choices have contributed to the problem, so there’s no reason we can’t be a part of solving it.

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