You want something more to fear? Try this on for size.
Across the world, there’s evidence that spider populations are in danger of collapse. A landmark 2019 study in Nature found that the number of spiders, insects, and other arthropods dropped precipitously in Germany from 2008 to 2017, with the total number of different species researchers counted declining by 33 percent and total biomass dropping by 40 percent. Remember the Australian trapdoor spiders I told you about? They’re disappearing, too. After a century of settlers clearing land for crops and raising livestock, they’re becoming harder and harder to find. It’s all but certain that entire species of spiders will go extinct before we even have a chance to discover them, falling victim to industrial agriculture, pesticides, and climate change.
Then there’s this:
Alaska canceled the snow crab fishing season for the first time on Monday, as crab populations mysteriously plummet.
An estimated 1 billion snow crabs suddenly disappeared from the Bering Sea, according to CBS News. The collapse deals a heavy blow to Alaska’s biggest crab industry, and could drive many fishers out of the business.
“Mysteriously.” What a useful word. We send out trawlers to shred the seafloor, we drop traps and snatch away millions of crabs, and we spew garbage and microplastics into the ocean, and then shrug and say it’s a mystery why populations abruptly and catastrophically crash.
Another example: we’re seeing fewer vehicles with dead bugs splattered all over them.
From 1996 to 2017, insect splatters fell by 80 percent on one of the routes Moller regularly travels. On the other, longer stretch, they plunged 97 percent. Conventional measures show similar trends, and more recent observations have seen even sharper declines, Moller told us.
This article takes the somewhat interesting approach of speculating about alternative causes — which is fine, they’re being thorough, but we’re eventually going to have to face the reality that something “mysterious” is also happening to insect populations.
So, given this uncertainty, isn’t it possible that our spookily clean windshields are caused by factors other than rapidly declining insect populations? After all, we still see bugs everywhere, we just don’t seem to mash them with our cars as much.
Many smart people we spoke with, including entomologists and wheat farmers, speculated that maybe the cars have changed, not the bugs. As vehicles become more aerodynamic, the thinking goes, their increasingly efficient airflow whisks the bugs away from the windshield instead of creating head-on splatters.
Um, no. That’s a very silly explanation, as the experts they consult state, but also for obvious reasons. Car grills have not become more aerodynamic, nor have radiators. Also, the cars…or rather trucks people are driving are not particularly sleek. In fact, the trends are for more aggressively blunt, large, flat front ends. A lot of column inches get wasted on this ridiculous hypothesis, which can also be dismissed experimentally.
But we also saw 60 percent declines in insects between 2004 and 2021 in a British study from the Kent Wildlife Trust, which built on a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds effort in which thousands of people used “splatometers” to measure bug splatters on license plates, which aren’t much affected by aerodynamic advances elsewhere.
So then we get another off-the-wall hypothesis. It’s not that insects are in decline, it’s that there are fewer insects splattered by individual cars because we’ve vastly increased the number of cars on the road. I’m losing patience with their efforts to find any explanation other than that we’re poisoning the environment, but OK…being thorough is good.
Americans now drive three times as many miles as they did in 1970, and the explosion of trucks and SUVS means many of us do it in cars with much, much larger windshields. Back-of-the-napkin math suggests acreage of windshields out on the American road has tripled. And that’s probably an underestimate in some places: A large majority of our increase in driving has come on a narrow set of major urban roads, according to our analysis of Bureau of Transportation Statistics data. And as Kenny Cornett of design-software giant Autodesk points out, more traffic means more vehicles riding in each other’s bug-free aerodynamic slipstreams.
So in our little thought experiment, which makes the depressingly accurate assumption that bugs are a finite resource, our bugs-per-windshield metric would have been cut by two-thirds even if the number of bugs had remained constant.
I…I don’t even. This would only work if, instead of sampling a tiny fraction of the extant population with our windshields, we were exhaustively extracting enough bugs with one car to deplete the population for the next car. If that were the case, then maybe tripling the number of cars would be responsible for the population crash. But that’s not the case. The column of insects wiped out by the passage of a car is minuscule compared to the population in the fields, over the lakes, around our homes.
Treating the excessive driving habits of Americans as a rationalization for insect extirpation rather than as part of the problem is troubling, too.
Weirdly, the article concludes that the problem may not be as big as we think because…we have so many cars?
So, simple math hints that the very real ecological disaster of the collapse of insect populations may look even more apocalyptic thanks to the parallel rise of another ecological time bomb: the world’s intensifying love affair with ever more and ever bigger automobiles.
No. This makes no sense. We’ve got other methods of sampling insect populations that are not bug-splatters on cars. When I first moved to the Midwest, a regular feature on the news was when vast clouds of mayflies and midges would hatch out and rise from our lakes to appear on weather radar. Nope, not so much anymore. I would go outside and marvel at the dense masses of flying insects that would cluster around streetlights — nowadays, all summer long, the lights are lonely and shining into an emptiness. I wanted to use spider populations as a proxy for insects, and spiders aren’t leaping in front of cars on the freeway…and see the first article cited, they’re in decline, too.
What’s going on? Oh, I know the answer: it’s something “mysterious”. Problem solved.
Don’t worry, though. We don’t even like bugs, so who cares if they disappear. Then, when they’re gone, the birds and fish and reptiles will fade away, but they’re not our pets, so who cares? Unexpected crop failures…well, we’ll come up with a technology to deal with that. And finally, when humans mysteriously go extinct, there will be no one left to worry about it, and all the windshields on the decaying cars we leave behind will be shiny and clean and their grills will gleam unspattered. No one will be standing around wondering what happened to all the people, and best of all, there will be no one standing around smugly to utter the non-answer, “It’s a mystery.”