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).

A Zoo-to-Go

For kids growing up in London during the austere decade after WWII, it was a special treat to be taken to the zoo by parents or school teachers. The zoos were crowded. Children had to be hoisted on the shoulders of grown-ups to see the big cats pacing in their cages, and catch the eye of Guy the gorilla across the moat. We had no guilty feelings then about their cramped quarters, because we assumed the animals were there for our entertainment. Nor did we learn much about their wild nature or the habitats from which they were taken. We thought it would be cool to be zookeepers pushing joints of meat under the bars for tigers, tossing herrings for sea lions to catch, and locking our school ma’am in the reptile house at the close of day. But, in hindsight, there wasn’t much difference between the zoo and Wormwood Scrubs prison, except for the species incarcerated.

There were no parklands for those animals to roam, except outside London at Whipsnade.  But zoos have come a long way. The naturalist and author, Gerald Durrell (1925-1995), was regarded by the Establishment in those days as a maverick for calling on zoos to change into centers for captive breeding of endangered species instead of being public exhibitions of unhappy creatures. As is the way of pioneers, he is now celebrated as a visionary and memorialized at the Durrell Wildlife Park for conservation, but there was one thing he never changed. You still had to go to his zoo to see animals.

New Quarter Park, Virginia
Clyde takes his traveling zoo to a public park

One of our master naturalist friends, Clyde, is also a zookeeper, but not the kind I ever imagined. He was more radical than Durrell when he created a portable zoo that could be taken to children in their classrooms and to public parks. The critters were collected in his neighborhood or the local churchyard under state collection and exhibition permits. Reptiles and amphibians were returned to where they were caught a few days earlier, while other creatures were cared for at home. His zoo is transported in shopping bags in his car trunk and, although none of the big predators and venomous snakes beloved by children can be included, his small critters have been tremendous hits. Since it was launched in 2007, he has entertained and educated over 13,000 children and adults across five school districts in south-east Virginia.

The mission of this zoo is education instead of conservation. Clyde was concerned that most children are less connected with nature nowadays than when he was growing up. Few of them grow up on farms or want to visit city zoos or are allowed to roam the countryside unsupervised, and their days are brimful of organized activities and screen time. The writer, George Monbiot, worries that, Without a feel for the texture and function of the natural world, without an intensity of engagement almost impossible in the absence of early experience, people will not devote their lives to its protection.

We can hope the newly-minted generation will be more caring about the environment than their predecessors, but I think the chances are much greater for those who have met Clyde and seen his menagerie. Watching how they respond to his lessons warms our hearts, the lower grades 2 through 5 especially. When Clyde and his “zoo cru” of helpers transfer critters from Tupperware boxes and glass jars to trays on the front desk, there is plenty shuffling as boys and girls strain to identify the collection of beasts—beetles and butterflies, mantises and millipedes, slugs and snails, salamanders and skinks, toads and turtles. There are a few skins, scales and shells for creatures that are too rare or too dangerous for live ones to be let loose. The boldest kid steps forward to ask if a giant hissing cockroach could rest on his sleeve. Even those who stood nervously behind the front row eventually want to tickle a roly-poly or poke the leaf litter to make a centipede scurry. Giggles and questions go in circles like whirligigs. Some questions from minds full of innocent curiosity are disarmingly penetrating.

Virginia Master Naturalists
“Want to stroke the spotted salamander in my bucket or the Madagascar hissing cockroach on my sleeve?”

Clyde explains that every species has its own life history, then tells their stories. One of his favorites is about the community that lives under logs, where he finds many of his critters. He asks the class what they expect to find when they roll a log over. A short arm shoots up with an answer, usually its “beetles” or “spiders.” He then spins nine yards of ecology, and I doubt any other lesson that day captures more attention.

Leaning forward to the class, he tells them dark secrets about beetles. They feed on the wood rotting on the underside of the log. He shows them a little bag containing brown, granular material. “It’s beetle poop,” he confides (more giggles). “It will be made into healthy soil particles by tiny things called decomposers.” But life under the log is not all rosy. There are predators just as voracious as on the African plain. Beetles, slugs, and spiders are eaten by salamanders, frogs and toads, and occasionally a long black racer winds under the log to gobble all of them up. “After we looked under the log, we must roll it back,” he tells them. “We have to care for nature because all things are connected, including ourselves.”

praying mantis
Amen – the praying mantis

Clyde loves to quote the wisdom of American Indians, but it was Rachel Carson who expressed his role, If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder … he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.

Most children in this district only have one opportunity to see his zoo, so you might wonder if they will remember his stories in the future. Surely, their memories will gradually sink in their unconscious minds and become overlaid with hosts of new stories and experiences. But they won’t die. I think they will linger underground, maybe for years or even decades, like fungal hyphae which, when fertilized by soil, season, and time, will suddenly sprout above ground into the light as toadstools full of fruitful spores.

Clyde is now a retired zookeeper, but others are continuing his mission.

Thank you, Clyde, for life lessons!

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