Extinction and other Matters of Life and Death and Insects
Perspective on the "Insect Apocalypse"
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At the start of our discussion about the fate of insects last week, Vermont Public Radio host Jane Lindholm asked me if we were indeed in the Sixth Mass Extinction.
One thing is certain, I replied: If we’re in the Sixth Extinction, insects will most certainly survive it. As for us? Well … not so much.
The worthy fate of earth’s insects has burst into the news lately, notably with Brooke Jarvis’ perceptive The Insect Apocalypse is Here in The New York Times and, more recently, alarming news coverage of a review paper warning of outright insect extinction and the “collapse of nature.”
Now comes some parsing and the nuance. First, I can say with the hindsight of 400 million years of history that we humans will be gone from this earth long before insects depart. They have already survived five mass extinctions. Toxic gases, horrific heat, volcanic eruptions, meteor strikes and even human beings and our abuses are no match for millions years of insect evolution by means of natural selection. To insects, the dinosaurs were a passing fad. So are we.
This by no means absolves us from what we’re doing: wiping out insects at an alarming rate with little remorse. That we so easily kill off these durable animals is less an indictment of their survival skills than a demonstration of our deadly ways.
Yet decline and extinction in nature are rarely simple matters. Diverse and versatile, insect defy headlines and simple explanations. The planet has about 10,000 bird species, for example; ants alone number at about 12,000 species. My home state of Vermont has about 200 breeding bird species and more than ten times as many moth species. Bees? We’ve got about 4,000 species in North America. Some are fine, some are imperiled, some are on the verge of oblivion, and some have yet to be discovered.
Insects pollinate about 80 percent of our wild plants and lots of our crops, they are food for about 60 percent of our birds, and they move nutrients through the food chain like few other organisms. Our rainbow of lovely warblers cannot eat the leaves and needles from our trees. Instead, insects eat those leaves and needles, and then become food for the warblers. So if you want songbirds in your forests, you had better protect the insects in your maples and oaks, your spruces and firs.
But we are not protecting them. We are killing them. I myself look at the problem from three angles (each with a political overlay): global, local and personal. And this not only concerns the finality of extinction, which so few of us ever actually witness; this is also a decline in abundance, a troubling loss of biomass: fewer insects, fewer birds, fewer pollinators, no more “moth snowstorms.”
Globally, the rise of agriculture is a well known perpetrator. Lots of the studies on insect decline point to agriculture and pesticides as proximate and powerful. Agriculture brings on monocultures that lack diversity. Yeah, we all gotta eat. And we can be buoyed by the localvore movement and organic farming and other good trends in growing food. But absent some massive rethinking of how we eat (notably meat and soybeans and their related deforestation, among other crops) on the scale of what’s necessary to curb the climate disaster, agriculture will remain a major culprit in global insect decline. That’s unlikely to change.
Locally or regionally, sure, we might enact policies to protect insects and their vital roles in our lives and economies, notably as pollinators. These might include bans on neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides particularly toxic to insects, especially bees. Yet we all too often cling to the simple fixes, such as a link between GMO crops and Monarch decline. Remember: insects are rarely simple. New research suggests that Monarch population decline began long before the advent of GMO crops. No easy answers.
Personally, we can do lots of things to promote insect diversity in your own backyards, not the least of which is to reduce or stop all the mowing. Not only are lawns relative insect wastelands, so much of the other mowing we do, along roadsides and in public parks, diminishes insect diversity.
So, yes, by all means, increase the plant diversity in your world wherever you can. Insects will be all the better for it. Mow less lawn. Plant more milkweed. Grow oaks, which host more insects than maples. Join the Xerces Society. But have no illusion that you are saving the insects. They and their troubles are far greater than the likes of you — that is unless you, as a member and co-conspirator, can bring on a reversal in the Anthropocene and this Sixth Mass Extinction.
Even so, this somber perspective does not mean we should stop trying our best to live with nature. I ended our discussion on Vermont Public Radio with a plea for you to get to know an insect or two close to home. Watch for the Rosy Maple Moths coming your way this spring. Visit with the Six-spotted Tiger Beetles killing hunting down tiny insects near your garden. Sit with the bluet damselflies beside your pond. And read among the best books yet written on this subject: The Moth Snowstorm by Michael McCarthy.
After all, along with all the killing we do, ironically, our drive to discover and love life in nature is intrinsically and wonderfully human. We know, therefore we care. And when we care, we act.