Growing up in the snow belt of Northeastern Ohio, winter felt like a decade. From October to May, the grey expanse of dirty snow was separated from the blank grey winter sky only by evergreen pines dotting the horizon.
These bleak months ended with the sudden exclamation of spring. Overnight, it seemed, yards filled with crocuses and the lilac tree outside my bedroom window filled with bees. My favorite alarm clock was that combination of perfumed air and buzzing symphony.
Honeybees in the lilacs marked warmer days. So did fireflies. Driving home in our station wagon from Sunday dinner at grandma’s, I counted the number of fireflies flickering in the woods. The more I counted, the closer it was to the last day of school.
As I got older, I stopped keeping bug time, replacing it with a buzzing calendar in my pocket. I moved to North Carolina and would sometimes see the fireflies in my overgrown backyard. I didn’t pay them much mind.
Then I had kids. I wanted them to experience the joy in nature that I felt as a kid. I wanted them to run around barefoot in the backyard catching fireflies in mason jars. I wanted them to laugh at roly polys as they tumbled out of loamy soil. I wanted honeybees buzzing to sound to them like music, not a menace.
Things didn’t turn out as I planned. Our postage stamp backyard was menaced by biting midges and bloodsucking mosquitos, insects that were not just a nuisance, but also a terrifying threat to two-year-olds. I missed the bees and the fireflies and the roly polys. I chalked up their absence to our being in a different part of the country. Or maybe we were just too busy to notice.
Then Brooke Jarvis’ article “The Insect Apocalypse is Here” stopped me in my tracks. It wasn’t just me not paying attention. Insects are actually disappearing, not only pollinators but all kinds of insects. Among many sobering statistics, the article reports that:
“In the United States, scientists recently found the population of monarch butterflies fell by 90 percent in the last 20 years, a loss of 900 million individuals; the rusty-patched bumblebee, which once lived in 28 states, dropped by 87 percent over the same period.”
Insects play vital roles in our ecosystem. Most know, for instance, that bees and butterflies help to pollinate plants. Without them many flowers and crops would disappear.
Other insects also have very important, if unsung, jobs. Beneficial bugs keep the population of harmful insects in check. For example, dragonflies eat mosquitos and damselflies eat mosquito larvae. Insects are also nature’s house cleaners. If dung beetles went extinct, the African plains would be overcome with animal droppings and other dead and decaying organic matter.
Insects are also the sole source of food for some lizards, fish, and small mammals like hedgehogs. Without them many food webs collapse. Unfortunately, insects are disappearing faster than scientists can identify the important roles they play. The New York Times article continues:
“Larger trends were harder to pin down, though a 2014 review in Science tried to quantify these declines by synthesizing the findings of existing studies and found that a majority of monitored species were declining, on average, by 45 percent.”
A forty-five percent decline is shocking, the problem much more severe than not seeing fireflies on summer nights. Insects are the canary in the coal mine for climate change. This sudden decline signals a much larger problem.
Rather than lecture about the impending doom of climate change (plenty of articles do that), I’d like to offer a few things you can do to help fix this problem by making your yard friendlier for bugs… and trees (we are a tree company after all).
Stop using insecticides and other pesticides
It’s understandable, when hit in the side of the face by yet another carpenter bee, to reach for the nearest bottle of toxic bug spray to get rid of them for good. These sprays, however, hurt other friendly pollinators, insects in general, and damage healthy soil, which then causes other unintended harm to our ecology.
Ditch herbicides and learn to love your weeds
Springtime weeds like chickweed and dandelions are often the first source of food for honeybees and other insects. Yes, some invasive weeds need to be managed, but a lot of them are beautiful and beneficial. When you spray herbicide you kill the many organisms that creep, crawl, sleep, fly, and burrow on your property.
Get rid of your lawn
Monoculture turf grass lawns rely on chemicals that harm organisms living in the soil. They also provide little ecological benefit where bugs can live and thrive. Instead of investing in sod or commercial grass seed, fill all or part of your yard with native plants, shrubs, and trees. These encourage insect, bird, and small animal diversity. Alternatively, if grass is a must, there are ways to maintain it without using any chemical inputs.
Care for your soil
Many insects live part of their lives as larvae in the soil (sometimes for years or, in the case of cicadas, decades). If you continually compact your soil or fill it with chemicals like NPK fertilizers, insects won’t survive. Adding organic matter like leaves, wood chips, or compost will improve the health of your soil and of the insects living there. Healthy soil means your trees will be happier too. Trees are an important habitat for many bugs, birds, bats, and other ecological diversity.
Avoid preemptively spraying for mosquitos
Yes, this is similar to the point above about not using insecticides, but it bears repeating. Mosquitos are a threat to human health, but instead of immediately spraying for mosquitos in the spring, take other steps to remove them from your yard. The organization Beyond Pesticides suggests eliminating mosquito breeding grounds, keeping uncovered water moving, and planting mosquito repellants like lemon balm (citronella), rosemary, thyme, and marigolds. If you choose to spray, use safe alternatives such as garlic concentrate. Better yet, encourage bats to take up residence on your property. One bat will eat up to 10,000 mosquitoes in an evening. There are ways to control mosquitoes without spraying toxic poison in your yard.
Learn more about the insects and plants that are in your yard or your neighborhood.
The more that you know about them, the more likely you will be to look out for them.
It’s unlikely that we’ll recoup the massive loss of insects we’ve seen. Hopefully, by following these steps, we can at least slow the decline. Insects are also adaptive and resilient so it is likely they will find new ways to thrive.
Taking these proactive measures not only benefit insects; they also have significant positive impact. First, it means you have a safer place to live. Many of these chemicals mentioned above have been linked to cancers and other serious illnesses. Second, taking these steps can help fix many serious environmental issues.
But we can’t do it alone. Insects play a vital role in a healthy ecosystem - one that we can't afford to lose. Healthy insects, happy ecosystem.