Insectageddon means we are buggered

It was one of those throw-away remarks that stick in the mind. I was at Middlebury College in June when somebody at dinner said, “Funny, I saw more deer on the journey here than insects splattered on my windshield.” He had driven 200 miles through farmlands to Vermont.

It reminded me of a 75% decline of insect populations over the past thirty years in German nature reserves. The news might be welcome if they were only the biting and stinging kinds, but the list included butterflies, wild bees, and dragonflies. The survey was more striking for being in nature reserves! Unfortunately, they are not strictly reserved for nature because pesticides drift from nearby fields, and climate is shifting everywhere. There are also reports that insects are less common in Spain and Britain, and that reminds me of struggles to keep honey bees here in Virginia.

Mountain mint

Discouraged by the loss of two colonies last year, I put my labor into growing more pollinator-friendly plants instead. Mountain mint is currently my favorite. I am happy to see this native plant gradually invade fallow areas of garden because it competes against Japanese stiltgrass that smothers the ground and is inedible to browsing rabbits and deer. The mint has a pleasing odor to attract hundreds of pollinators of many kinds, including bee visitors from an unknown apiary.

I doubt there are many homeowners in the district who are trying to attract bugs. If neighbors knew they might restock their sprays and give their chemical lawns and flower borders an extra coating of toxins to ensure they are sterile. Bugs have few friends, although we make exceptions of butterflies, bees and a few others.

On May 28 the city of Williamsburg recommended a service to residents for fogging their yards, and encouraged the battle by playing up the risk of Zika, malaria, West Nile virus, and Yellow Fever. You might imagine from the announcement we live in a tropical swamp! Meanwhile the US military conducts aerial spraying of its land, sending local beekeepers scurrying to cover their hives. Sprays are no respecters of species; they kill beneficial insects along with mosquitoes.

And yet I hear people ask why friendly insects are less common than in the past. And they wonder about fewer garden birds, bats, and frogs too. Perhaps we can’t have the good without the bad. I will tolerate some bites and stings for the sake of biodiversity, but then what are they to a beekeeper?

It matters if we are facing ‘Insectageddon’ because, at halfway down the food pyramid, many insects provide pollination services. Others eat invertebrates below and/ or provide food for animals and birds above. The environmental writer-activist at the Guardian George Monbiot believes the disappearance of insects caused by modern farming practices and the industrial vacuuming of marine life pose the two greatest existential threats to life on the planet, greater even than climate warming. An alarming warning by Harvard ecologist E.O. Wilson has gone viral: “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”

Getting public attention on bugs is an uphill struggle, except to eliminate them. Since people left farming in droves in the last century for sterile condominiums in cities there are fewer people who notice a difference in the air. And even professional ecologists are more detached from nature if they spend time nerdishly in front of screens. That’s why we need more citizen scientists in the community, those amateurs whose passion takes them outdoors to record observations like naturalists of yore.

For my part, I only have anecdotal stories as a gardener-naturalist, not the quantitative data needed to monitor historical changes in insect populations. I notice fewer fireflies and butterflies in my backyard than 17 years ago. What was then semi-rural is now semi-urban, with all that implies.

But when I took an evening drive last month along country roads in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia I had an experience I used to take for granted, and the memory came back as a jolt. It was like driving through lightly falling snow. The landscape was filled with moths. Is it a coincidence that the area is thinly populated and old farms that fell on hard times have become fallow meadows? By the time I reached home my car was splattered, and I realized it was something to celebrate instead of grumble. It suggested a new project for amateur naturalists to monitor insects from the comfort of their driving seat. The only effort required will be to wipe license plates clean of corpses after recording data in mph (moths per hour).

Carving for the Ages (Petroglyphs)

A slab of yellow sandstone larger than a dinner plate lay at the foot of an old maple tree close to a woodland trail in the Allegheny Mountains. The shadow of an inscription on its flat face made me pause for a closer look. It read:


There are several hundred cemeteries dotted across the county, but few of them are “official.” The county resists zoning laws, so private landowners can bury the dead in their own backyards. Casualties of war, especially the fallen enemy, were not always honored with ceremony or laid in consecrated ground but rolled into a hastily dug grave where they moldered from anonymity to invisibility. But if the memorial stone marked Billy’s grave, he had not been buried carelessly.

Federal troops were known to be stationed there during the Civil War. Probably they were involved in the fierce engagement with the Confederate Army at Droop Mountain in November of that year that swung in their favor. Perhaps Billy was mortally injured in the fight, or maybe he died of measles, which was claiming victims in both armies.

soldiers-gravestoneTo examine the lettering on the hard stone, which was probably made with a knife point, is to realize this was a tenderly made memorial amidst so much suffering and misery. Billy has long gone out of memory, and would have disappeared from notice if his platoon merely tied two sticks to make a wooden cross, but carving a rock gave the young man a greater longevity, at least in name. Had the inscriber chosen a softer rock, like my father’s first headstone, it would not be legible for long, but deep gouges in the stone preserved Billy’s biosketch for 150 years.

On an ancient route across a rocky plain in Anatolia, and near the town of İmamkullu, a Hittite paused to carve a boulder over 3,000 years ago. The images are worn but you can see a princely soldier and a god, as well as incomprehensible hieroglyphs. Petroglyphs are found the world over from prehistoric times, and if you want to leave a memorial to posterity never leave it in ink or paint, but carve it on rock. Hard rock!

I mused about Billy’s gravestone while I chipped away at a boulder on our property, some twenty miles across the county. It’s hard to explain the impulse for my first rock carving, although the boulder offered a flat, vertical surface decorated with several species of lichens with a mossy seat on top. It is beautiful, and it was irresistible even for a virgin of the rocks.rockwoodcarving72dpi

If I was an accomplished rocksmith with time on my hands I might have carved a noble, sphinx-like head of a Shawnee brave, because this was the tribe’s hunting ground. My ambition was far more modest, the mere cutting of eight letters under the eye of James Alexander Thom, a family member who carves wood when taking time out from writing historical novels. I won’t add my signature or even my initials, preferring the carver to remain anonymous and somewhat mysterious like Billy’s inscriber.

When the cerebral effort of design is finished and the repetitive work of execution begins, a different part of the brain seems to kick in. As the rational region relaxes, the imagination can take over for dreaming to the noisy accompaniment of chipping. I wonder if anyone will stop to ponder the inscription in future centuries and millennia? I guess they might need a translator to read the word, “ROCKWOOD.” And I try to imagine what will those people will look like and how much the environment will have changed. The struggle to look forward probably stretches the imagination as much as when they try to look back at me, or I try to picture the Hittite.

When I returned to Billy’s gravestone I met the landowner Tom, whose family has lived on the mountain since they came as pioneers in 1830. He restores old log cabins transplanted on the back of a big flat-bed truck from across the Alleghenies, even as far away as Pennsylvania. Billy may have known one of the cabins because it used to stand on Droop Mountain. They are far more comfortable after renovation with a new tin roof and stone chimney than for the families who built them, and make attractive rental properties for visitors. Few cabins survive on their original sites because wood quickly rots when they are no longer cared for and the roof falls in, whereas castles and cathedrals quarried out of rock in the mother country of Tom’s ancestors will endure for eons. Without conservationists like him there would be fewer testaments to the lives of struggling pioneers.

After chatting about how the logs were cut and chinked, I asked him about the memorial stone on his land. I could tell from his changed demeanor that he had news. “It’s not the original! After lying there so long, someone stole it fifteen years ago.” He found a stone to replace it and carved the tribute to Billy from memory. “It’s a pretty good replica,” he told me.

The memorial says something about the carver again, the second time around, but I blush at the notions expressed sometimes about Appalachian mountain men by ignorant outlanders. As an afterthought Tom said, “It’s a pity it wasn’t too big to be carried away,” which brought my boulder to mind.

Next Post: Thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantation

Bearly in Spitting Distance

I had to post this news while it is still fresh in my mind. Around noon today, I decided to take a break from writing and have lunch on the deck of our Allegheny Mountain home. I hoped to see some wildlife.

A pair of hummingbirds was squabbling around the nectar feeder, but the scene was otherwise peaceful. The heads of Queen Anne’s Lace were drooping at the end of their season in the little glade, and beech leaves at the forest edge were still. Only the tops of quaking aspens fluttered in the slight breeze.

I thought I caught a movement in the corner of my eye, but when I turned sharply I only saw the hummers. I went back to my coffee and sardines on toast.

I was still munching when a black form cast across my retina, and looked up. At a measured distance of only 18 feet away, well within spitting distance, was a black bear weighing 250 or so pounds—perhaps the biggest beast I have seen here. How it didn’t see me I don’t understand, unless bears are even more short-sighted than I assumed. He or she was an awesome sight. I was amazed that such a bulky animal could wander so close on a gravel path without making a sound.

Black bear
Sooty bear checks out my camera

It put its nose into the air, but didn’t catch my scent, and then its eyes scanned this way and that, but still didn’t notice me despite sitting directly in its vision without anything between us. I had frozen with my sandiness held aloft a few inches from my mouth, and hoping it wouldn’t notice them!

Black bear
Night-time visitor

After this close encounter, which lasted only seconds rather than the minutes it seemed, the animal sauntered on. I knew where it was going. I had seen it every day since arriving on the weekend, but only through my window and mostly at dusk or later. It goes to find corn under my automatic feeder close-by. My best view was from the downstairs bathroom. It is surely the only shower stall in the county from which you can watch bears, though it’s unnecessary to be bare to enjoy the experience.

I now feel an affinity for the animal I named Sooty, although it doesn’t share my sentiments. On another occasion when it spotted me, it scampered into the woods like a frightened rabbit. But I enjoy the company and fear for its safety. I hope it stays around this refuge and doesn’t bother my nearest neighbors down the valley.

Yesterday, my only visitor of the week arrived to make an indoor repair. He is one of biggest bear-hunters in the county, and he regaled me with stories of tracking down animals as we sat on the deck after he finished the job. But I feel like Sooty’s parent and am keeping mum.


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