In this book, we learn that insects have already declined recently by as much as 75% — which is probably not news to those of us whose automobile windscreens and grills lack the typical ‘bug spatter’ of yesteryear, particularly after long-distance drives at night. This dearth of insects translates into far fewer insectivorous birds for birders and nature photographers to chase. Yet weirdly, most people — even many birders, who should be aware of and alarmed by this steep decline in birdlife — remain blithely oblivious to these dramatic changes. This is thanks to two errors in human perception: first, shifting baselines, where we mistakenly think that the current state of the world is normal. Second, this is also attributable to a peculiar form of gaslighting where we downplay the extent of the changes that we experience around us. (Self-gaslighting?)
Up until a few years ago, I would have classified myself as a lab rat, a denizen of an environment defined by air conditioning and fluorescent lighting, but then I decided I needed a radical change and started going outdoors (!) and walking around in empty fields and woods (!!) looking at spiders. My first project (which remains unfinished because of the damned pandemic) was justified as an attempt to use measurements of spider populations as a proxy for the larger and more complex populations of insects, so this book is right there in my interests.
Despite being new to this field, and despite only paying attention in the last 5 years, even I am noticing the changes. It used to be that if I were walking home at night, there’d be a cloud of flying insects around every streetlight, and you’d hear the happy clicking of bats flitting around their hunting ground. Now we’ve only got silent dead lights. There is a crabapple tree near the walkway home, and every Fall I’d be annoyed because the rotting fruit would attract swarms of yellowjackets…but this year, nothing. In fact, I used to dread that path home because it was surrounded by trees that blocked the wind, and vast clouds of midges and mosquitos would accumulate there. Not this year, though. I’m still seeing house spiders, though, I would guess that if you’re adapted to human environments, you’re still doing OK, but I’m finding fewer, and smaller, orbweavers outside.
To GrrlScientist’s list of excuses, I’d add that we expect some natural variation. This has been a summer of drought, so maybe it’s just a temporary situation — if we get good rains next year, maybe they’ll bounce back. Maybe it’s also a targeted attack. A few years ago I learned that the university employs a pesticide company, which was specifically called in when those harmless, bumbling grass spiders would dart into university offices, looking for mates (to no avail — the ladies were outside, fellas), and so the shrubbery would get sprayed, to my horror (sorry, fellas, the ladies are all dead). While prowling around buildings looking for spiders, I noticed piles of dead yellowjackets, which tells me what happened to the insects that usually feasted on rotting crabapples. They’ve been murdered.
Will people stop spraying insecticides all over farm country? I doubt it.
Fortunately, the book provides some solutions.
Although our current situation is serious, it can still be reversed, Professor Goulson maintains, because insects reproduce extremely quickly. All we need to do is support them as their populations recover. Some of the actions that we all can take include: reduce the space occupied by lawn and replace it with flowering plants, mow the remaining grass less often and allow a corner of your garden to “grow wild” and “get messy”; incorporate a wide range of native plants that flower throughout the season into your garden, along road verges and in roundabouts to attract beneficial insects; avoid pesticide use whenever possible by giving predatory insects a chance to take care of a problem first; create your own “insect hotels” and clean them periodically to reduce the accumulation of mites and fungi that can harm bees, and reconsider beekeeping as a hobby because of the many threats that domesticated European honeybees, Apis mellifera, pose to native bees. Professor Goulson also proposes a number of actions that farmers, city dwellers, and politicians can take or enact to support the recovery of local insect populations.
Oh, yeah. We’ve got a lawn, and I hate it. It’s not exactly thriving, anyway — the drought has killed big patches of it. My wife has created a couple of native plant patches in the back, and I wouldn’t mind expanding them. We have a sort-of vegetable garden that has been neglected and is overgrown with weeds, and maybe we can pretend that’s intentional. We don’t use pesticides. Of course we encourage predatory spiders to take care of any insect problems, and even transplanted a few spiders from other locales to our home.
Previous owners of our place were much more meticulous in maintaining the traditional American monoculture of boring grass in our lawn. We even have vestiges of an automatic underground watering system, a network of pipes and sprinklers connected to a fancy-ass timer system in our garage. That died a few years after we moved in, when a break in the water mains meant the city brought in a backhoe and dug a trench across the lawn. It might be a good project to finish the job, go in and dig out the PVC pipes in part of the lawn, tear out the grass, and plant prairie grasses and forbs and encourage more wild insects to move in, before they all die off.