Insect Apocalypse? Bothered By Bereft of Backyard Bugs
July 23, 2020
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.