Opinion

Insect Apocalypse? Bothered By Bereft of Backyard Bugs

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An eastern bumblebee, Rhode Island’s most common bumblebee, dines on orange milkweed, also known as butterfly weed. The amount of insects in this writer’s yard this summer, however, appears to be drastically reduced from just a year ago. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Let me start with this disclaimer: I am not an entomologist. With that significant disclosure on the record, I am concerned about the lack of insects in my yard — not mosquitoes and ticks. I’m talking about bees, dragonflies, ladybird beetles, and a host of other bugs I saw last summer but couldn’t and still can’t identify.

This summer, there is a dearth of insects when I weed, plant, water, and landscape. Why? My Portsmouth, R.I., yard hasn’t changed much in 12 months, except for more, mostly native, plants. We don’t use pesticides or any kind of -icides, and we don’t apply fertilizer or any other chemical concoction. We’ve even let much of the yard go wild, with minimal human interference.

Last year at this time the sweet pepperbush and cardinal flower were swarming with insect activity. So far this summer, these areas, like most of the yard, are largely buzz-free zones.

I miss watching these critters fly, jump, inch, feed, and chill. This summer, for some strange reason, I think I would have spent even more time observing their lives. Perhaps I was too intrusive last year and they ventured off to a neighbor’s yard — although I doubt it, as much of that space is just green carpeting that is quickly mowed down when a yellow dandelion or white clover begin to sprout.

Of the 550 gigatons of biomass on the planet, animals make up about 2 gigatons, with insects comprising half of that. While humans weigh in at just 0.06 gigatons, we have no trouble using our comparatively light weight to suffocate life.

Many of the experts who study such things believe the planet is at the beginning of a sixth mass extinction — in more scientific terms, the Holocene extinction, the name given to the past 10,000 years or so of Earth’s history — and humans are mostly to blame for this staggering loss of biodiversity. A 2017 study called the massive loss of wildlife a “biological annihilation.” A 2018 study noted that humans represent just 0.01 percent of all life on the planet but have destroyed 83 percent of wild mammals.

It should come as no surprise then that our massive footprint and our overblown self-importance are also stomping out bug life. According to a 2019 study, about half of the world’s insects are speeding down a path toward extinction that threatens the collapse of nature’s ecosystems. Insects are pollinators, and a food source for amphibians, birds, fish, reptiles, and some humans.

“Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades,” the study’s authors wrote. “The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least.”

More than 40 percent of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, with butterflies and moths among the worst hit, according to last year’s peer-reviewed scientific paper published in the journal Biological Conservation. The study noted that intensive agriculture is the main driver of insect decline, particularly the overuse of pesticides. Relentless development and the climate crisis only serve to accelerate the demise of insect species.

The rate of insect extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds, and reptiles. Total bug mass is decreasing by 2.5 percent annually, according to the 2019 study. (The annual percentage of eastern cottontail mass in my yard is growing at a faster clip than that.)

I’m also not an ornithologist, but I have observed more birds, most notably robins, gray catbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and American goldfinch, in my yard this summer compared to last.

Perhaps they have filled up on the small invertebrates that once buzzed around me in substantial numbers. It’s a more positive way to view the absence of insects in my locked-down yard during this most depressing year.

Editor’s note: A thank you to David Gregg, executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, who identified the flower in the above photo with certainty and the bee with a little less certainty.

Frank Carini is ecoRI News editor.

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  1. You have to look at it holistically, rather than the piecemeal way that government addresses these issues. The collapse of insect populations is translated by the government into the “pollinator crisis”, because this group of insects can be tied directly to a basic human resource, food. So, the honey bee gets more government attention than any other insect, even though it is an exotic species brought to the New World for honey production, not pollination services, and isn’t really declining. To tackle the “pollinator crisis” government funds cookie-cutter pollinator gardens with plants favored by honey bees, and plants the seeds on soils that have been pre-treated with glyphosate to reduce weed competition. The needs of the more than 200 native bees found in RI are essentially ignored, not to mention the thousands of other insects out there performing other important ecological functions. One of those critical jobs is being eaten by other species higher on the food chain. The logic is easy to follow – reduce the number of insects and there will be a reduction in the number of things that eat insects.

    Remember the report last year about the disappearance of nearly 3 billion North American birds in the last 50 years? Government blames it on “loss of habitat”, as they always do. It’s the simplest answer, easily rectified by creating more habitat, and you don’t have to face the real problems. But, what if a habitat isn’t declining? What if the habitat is actually increasing, like suburbia, where the habitat supports robins and catbirds, and baltimore orioles, remember them? Orioles have declined by more than 30% in the last 50 years. These residential neighborhood birds aren’t losing habitat, they’re losing the insect food needed to feed their young. As a result, nests fail and adult birds are not replaced in the population.

    Everyone thought it was a great environmental victory to ban DDT and other pesticides that were outright killing birds and other animals. There are still some of these chemicals around, but today there is a new generation of pesticides that are “wildlife safe”, but are now full spectrum. In other words, they kill ALL insects. Anyone can go to Walmart or Home Depot and buy a bottle of Spectricide, for example, for under $10. The label promises to kill more than 200 kinds of insects – not species, but kinds. You can also buy a propane fogger for less than $100 to spray the chemical around the entire yard. The point is, you do not need to hire a licensed applicator to destroy the insect biota in your yard. And, if you don’t follow the label instructions and fog on a day when the wind is more than 5 mph, you end up fogging most of the neighborhood. Gets some neighbors wondering why their insects are disappearing even though they decided to go chemical-free.

    Of course, most of this is just a matter of human selfishness. Most people do not like insects, they are all pests, disease-carrying, stinging, biting, sipping at the rim of the coke can, bothering the dog, just don’t need them. It’s why the bug zapper continues to be a big seller Even though it doesn’t kill mosquitoes, who cares as long as it takes care of ANY flying bug that dares enter the yard. The new generation of kill-all pesticides is even better than the bug zapper, so the carnage increases. All without any real regulations because government cares more about supporting the industry. Both the pesticide and landscaping industries.

    Let’s remind everyone again, the most lucrative agricultural commodity in RI is ornamental vegetation, nursery stock and especially turfgrass. More than 4000 acres of prime farmland in RI is used to grow lawn. The state university spends more time researching the best grass seed mix for golf courses than it does on growing food. Unless of course it’s GMO food so farmers can use all the glyphosate they want.

    What to do? Need to change human nature. As long as people want the perfect lawn. As long as over-the-counter pesticides are available, people will buy and use them. Personally, I think there are too many people who just don’t care. It takes only one or two mindless individuals to kill off the insect life in the whole neighborhood. Will “more education” help? Not likely, we’ve known about the harm of pesticides for decades, but many just ignore the warnings in order to have their pest-free habitat. And “more education” means that the “educators” need to teach the right things, starting with some basic ecology and the importance of BIODIVERSITY!!

  2. Timely article for me, as at the end of each of these hot sultry days my wife and I repair to our side porch here in North Providence to sit and watch and feel the cool of the night coming on, and I can’t stop casting a pall over this pleasant scene and atmosphere by recalling, against my will, an incident that occurred a month ago when at dark I got a call from an old friend up in the country in Burrillville. Shortly after we started to talk, an element of his background noise obtruded itself on my attention to the point where I had I to remark it. "You and ________ out on the deck?"

    The couple have back deck fronting a short grassy slope down to a very small pond surrounding by tall oaks and stand of white pine.

    "No, we’re hanging in the house right now."

    I was taken mildly aback. I once lived up in the country, but had now dwelt for so long here in suburbia, albeit in an old neighborhood, that I forget, exactly, what a summer evening in the country can sound like.

    "Man!" said. "I can hear the crickets behind you like they’re Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’."

    "No, we’re just sitting in the kitchen with the windows and deck door open."

    Conversation over, I resumed contemplation of my own yard: thick grass, mower set permanently high and thick with clover seeded by me; seasonal brook along the property line, edged with native shrubs, mulched with last years leaves, the margin between it and the lawn in tall grass and clumps of native flowering weeds; big trees and small trees here and there, shade and sun, a little copse of them across the street, and a thick privet hedge there with the street margin of it thickly grown up with various grasses and flowering weeds… Altogether a micro habitat that once upon a time… Once upon a time… I think as ancient as ten years ago was supporting…

    Crickets!

    No cliche—the silence was was deafening!

    No friggin’ Crickets! End of June! We had noticed for several years now that the lightning bugs were gone. But not the crickets, too!

    I was just indignant. And keep getting indignant every night I’m out there and I have to fight to keep the indignation back into its bottle in order to not spoilt the whole evening. But it comes back every bright, sunny morning now, just past seven o’clock, especially on Monday, when the Invasion of the Lawn "Maintenance" begins.

    I’m not such as pessimist that I’m ready to give up, not until we’ve pulled out all the stops so far as education is concerned. (Disclaimer, I’m a retire teacher.) I would like read, if ecori could find some, formal studies of the impacts; a study, for example of one suburban property that hires lawn maintenance next in a neighborhood where some other owners—horrors!—still cut the grass themselves but are sometimes lazy about it, with aging hand-pushed mowers with the blade height rusted on maximum, and generally with a lawn "maintenance" ethic compromised by an endemic propensity for procrastination, such that the "weeds" in the corners and along the margins and between the bushes just never seem to get "managed."

    People are getting upset with this in suburbia and not just people with a notably green perspective. I dream of a revolution some day when altogether we rise and cast off the tyranny of these invading Maintenance Beings.

  3. It pains me greatly that we see commercials on the "boob tube" that offer compensation if you have been exposed to Roundup. Law firm commercials are played extensively promising $$ if you have been diagnosed with Lymphoma Cancer from being exposed to Roundup. However, Roundup is still available to buy in every store that carries these products. If the courts decided that Roundup is a cancer causing product and you could reap compensation for having used it, why is it still on the store shelves? Should it not be banned?

  4. The insect apocalypse is upon us. I see the results most days, but this morning I was swarmed by more tiny black flies than ever on my walk in Providence’s North Burial Ground, a place I have walked nearly every day for 8 years. And the air over Ridgeside Lake was filled with dragonflies and other assorted flying creatures. I was watching one of the hundreds of little frogs in the pond and it was eying a dragonfly that seemed to be drawing closer. There was a little back and forth by the dragonfly, and when it closed the frog got ready. When it finally got closer, frog jumped and nabbed it. What I also learned this summer is how actively the painted turtles go hunting every day. Twice I have witnessed them nabbing a bug. Once I caught it on video. The ecosystems are crashing, but we have to be thankful for what is left, and fight harder to make the ecosystem healthier.

    The politicians will never figure it out, they will have to be replaced before we finally do the right thing, but it should always be noted that healing ecosystems will help the economies of our communities, and especially low income communities.

    You can not heal ecosystems without ending poverty, you can not end poverty without healing ecosystems.

  5. The proliferation of RF EMF (Radio Frequency ElectroMagnetic Fields) and the collapse of insect populations is concurrent. Thousands of peer-reviewed studies have shown repeatedly and consistently that wifi radiation increasingly foisted on the wildlife and people of our natural world, including insects, is detriment to all. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/241538484_BEES_BIRDS_AND_MANKIND is one early paper studying effects of pre 5G proiferations. In order to function, 5G must run with 4G, compounding the problem. EnvironmentalHealthTrust EHTrust.org, one of many exposing these hazards, posts hundreds of the studies showing harm to insects: if you put a cell phone next to a bee hive the queen will abandon the hive and the workers will be unable to locate the entrance, and all will perish. From EHTrust.org: "A publication by Daniel Favre describes the methodology for a study in which direct adverse were seen in the bees’ behavior following exposure to electromagnetic fields. Favre states, “The present data strongly suggest that honeybee colonies are affected and disturbed by electromagnetic waves (RF-EMF).” In his comprehensive review article, Ulrich Warnke cites multiple studies which examine the effects of radiofrequency radiation exposure on bees and notes the vital importance of bees as pollinators. Research has found behavioral effects after electromagnetic radiation exposure including inducing artificial worker piping (Favre, 2011), disrupting navigation abilities (Goldsworthy, 2009; Sainudeen, 2011; Kimmel et al., 2007) decreasing rate egg laying rate (Sharma and Kumar, 2010) and reducing colony strength (Sharma and Kumar, 2010; Harst et al., 2006). Furthermore, Neelima Kumar and colleagues found cell phone radiation influences honey bees’ behavior and physiology. (2011). As Clarke et al. (2013) has reported, bees have a particular sensory modality which allows them to detect electric fields, and thus they are particularly susceptible to large amounts of electromagnetic radiation.
    5G Millimeter Waves, Bees and Insects “Exposure of Insects to Radio-Frequency Electromagnetic Fields from 2 to 120 GHz” published in Scientific Reports is the first study to investigate how insects (including the Western honeybee) absorb the higher frequencies (2 GHz to 120 GHz) to be used in the 4G/5G rollout. The scientific simulations showed increases in absorbed power between 3% to 370% when the insects were exposed to the frequencies. Researchers concluded, “This could lead to changes in insect behaviour, physiology, and morphology over time….” (Thielens 2018).(EHTrust.org) There’s more on impacts to wildlife on these pages, all of which are ignored by the "captured" agency, the FCC, which is run by lawyers and officials from the Telecom industries. This is the fox guarding the henhouse, and the public is further duped into accepting a false narrative of "safe wifi" proliferating the media. Meanwhile, dozens of municipalities and counties, 3 states (NH, LA, OR) and several nations have done their homework and put a halt to the mandate to install the "small" antenna and towers throughout our neighborhoods (that can be aimed at anyone or thing) until it’s proven safe. A simple painless, connected solution is to WIRE everything – your computers and phones, say no to smart meters (you have the right to say no, but you may have to put up a fight for that right in this corrupted climate) and STOP using the cell phone. One last article – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7139347/ – confirms what many already knew "Electrohypersensitivity as a Newly Identified and Characterized Neurologic Pathological Disorder: How to Diagnose, Treat, and Prevent It", like thousands of articles (Use your TOR browser and search "EMF harm"): exposures to RFR (Radio Frequency Radiation) are unsafe for biological life forms. In this era of mass extinctions, frail insect populations are being hit hard, but so are we, and everything else.

  6. I too and a few neighbors have been worried over the past few years and started planting more milkweed and natives in our yards. I’m happy to give you some hope that we are seeing Bumble bees, monarch and swallowtail butterflies, and lots of “ BUGS”! I also have just started now seeing a firefly or two at night where I haven’t seen them in years, so have hope!!! Small changes do make a difference!

  7. Each of us can do a small part in planting more pollinators and reducing/eliminating pesticide use. This can help slow down the loss of insects. Thanks for this important article.

  8. Our garden also was once a-buzz with life. The sparse scene now is frightening. Finally have two Monarchs luckily of opposite sex (the mating dances) so the milkweed can be put to use. A large caterpillar I saw a few months ago on a parsley plant that survived winter apparently is the parsley caterpillar (Black Swallowtail). I finally saw one on a buddlia. But will it find a mate? Only 2 or 3 other butterflies and 1 moth. I saw a lone ladybug if that’s possible. There also is a pernicious dearth of the nuisances: mosquitoes,
    ticks, black flies and Japanese beetles. We have the same birds mentioned by Frank plus hummingbirds. But what will they all feed
    their young who don’t eat seeds and nectar? One problem is ignorance of the interconnectedness of life. It wasn’t
    stressed in my education; probably more so now. Worse are the number of people who know our chemicals and encroachment on habitats are harmful but just don’t care enough. The middle class and wealthy are the majority voters and actors in our society. Most worked hard for the good life. Real action (as in related climate warming) requires real dents in that good life. The longer we wait, the harder the lives of our children and grandchildren and the more extinctions of our doing.

  9. When I was a little kid, I remember the front of the family car being plastered with dead insects in the summer months. That doesn’t happen anymore. Of course, I don’t long for dead insects stuck to my car but I do notice and fear the loss of these little creatures. I’m saddened and angered by the arrogance and short-sightedness of humanity for allowing this "insect apocalypse" (and so much more) to happen.

  10. Each day … in my inbox, on social media, on video streaming sites, when I visit the weather channel, when I do a Google search, in environmentally dedicated media such as this, via overheard conversations … I’m made aware or reminded of the countless assaults on the natural world. This is usually accompanied by pleas for a donation to a very worthy cause. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that protecting the future doesn’t lie in these many piecemeal projects. These seem like money pits to me now; Burning my donation money would only be slightly less effective. Where one environmental project seems to be succeeding, two or more pop up that need attention. Humanity seems to believe we can keep capitalism as is, increase or at least maintain all of our creature comforts while dedicating some dollars here and there to saving, conserving, preserving, protecting, restoring, etc this or that area or species and, by so doing, prevent worldwide environmental and societal collapse. It’s delusional. This is not the way we’re going to protect biodiversity on planet earth. The remedy is nothing less than a revolution in thinking … a revolution that gives the natural world a seat at the table, EVERY table where consequential decisions are made. And this isn’t the direction we’re going.

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