Something’s gone missing over the past few summers. It’s not fly swatters; there’s plenty of those still in the hardware stores, though they’re not selling like they used to. It’s not bug spray; cans of that still line the shelves of pharmacies and sporting goods megamarts, and probably should get the blame for the sluggish sales of the swatters.
It’s the insects themselves: the bugs flying around the porch light at night, the bugs meeting a messy death on the windshields of our cars and trucks. Our speedy carriages are nearly devoid of those black, sometimes green, splats and spots that made life miserable for fastidious drivers. You can go for days, even out in the countryside, even at night, without collecting more than a mere scattering of the fliers’ brittle remains.
Bugs and insects — there’s a difference: The former are suckers and the latter are biters — have gone missing everywhere, according to entomologists around the world. The decline in the populations of honeybees and monarch butterflies has been widely reported because of the utility of one and the beauty of the other. Lots of scientists, conservationists and farmers have been wringing their hands over that, and rightly so because so many crops depend on pollination. And who doesn’t miss the butterflies? But now it’s becoming clear that all kinds of critters, the ordinary creepy-crawlies, are in sharp decline and nobody knows for sure why.
The vanishing insect was first documented in reports by German researchers about five years ago after long observations in the fields and forests of central Europe. Between 1989 and 2014, the scientists said, the biomass of insects caught in traps set out from May through October steadily fell from 3.5 pounds at the beginning of the study to an alarming mere 10.6 ounces by its end. That was an astounding drop, one that had gone unnoticed until the study.
“So what’s the problem?” you might ask. Who needs mosquitoes, cockroaches and stink bugs? Who needs ants? If they all went away, life would be easier, sweeter, and safer, wouldn’t it?
Human lives might, for a time, be a little less uncomfortable for those who work outdoors or even just venture outside from time to time. But animals’ lives wouldn’t benefit. Birds, bats and certainly anteaters would have a hard time of it. Entire ecosystems, based on the meals bugs and insects offer to life living further up the food chain, would be — perhaps already are — challenged by the lack of nature’s MREs.
In fact, we all will have a hard time if the crashing of insect populations isn’t stopped and reversed, scientists say. Every tiny piece of an ecosystem has a role to play. A few pieces can be removed, and some systems adapt. But take big pieces away, pieces like millions of insects, and ecosystems will collapse. The two-footed, brain-topped creatures at the very top of the system — us — won’t escape.
Farmers often see insect populations surge, decline and surge again. One of the most famous in recent memory is the case of those stink bugs, which caused a near-panic among backyard gardeners, vegetable and commodity farmers,, and orchardists. Their populations seem to have stabilized over the last few years as predators have caught up to them, but they’re by no means vanquished. Just wait. You’ll see.
Insect populations often wax and wane. This year, in my experience, cabbage butterflies and their worms arrived early and multiplied rapidly. They’re Public Enemy No. 1 around here. The striped cucumber beetle showed up in sizable numbers ahead of schedule, too, so early that they didn’t have any cucumbers to eat and had to dine on spring and early summer crops. But Mexican bean beetles and squash bugs have lagged behind, though they’re gaining a foothold — or mouthhold — now.
Mosquitoes have been few and far between, as well, despite the fact that big puddles and overflowing ponds seem to have become permanent features of the landscape.
These typical seasonal variations don’t tell the real story, we’re finding out now. The big change is happening in the leaves and plant litter on the ground, in the currents of the air above.
Big Agriculture’s monoculture cropping, heavy use of deadly pesticides and habitat destruction are leading suspects in the decline of nature’s most ubiquitous visible life forms, but the jury is still out. I suspect it won’t be out for long.