This month’s newsletter is going to be a bit of a deviation. I find myself somewhat overwhelmed with weighty thoughts and complicated emotions which is proving to be a difficult place to write from. I can’t seem to zero in on a topic without zooming out further, trying to address all of the connections, weave the whole web.
That said, I set out this month intending to write about the role of insects in plant pollination. You may have read in recent years about studies on the decrease in “bug splats” on cars, also called the Windshield Phenomenon (If you haven’t: Car ‘splatometer’ tests reveal huge decline in number of insects). These studies, and others from around the world, indicate that insect abundance is declining at an astounding rate. Had you brought this up to me in early June, as I grumpily smeared itch cream on the dozens of black fly and mosquito bites I acquired from a day in the garden, I might have given a malicious cheer.
There’s no denying humans have a complicated relationship with bugs. As we’ve ascended to apex predator status, we still remain vulnerable to the damage and disease that insect pests and parasites can inflict upon us. In cities, the mere mention of bedbugs or cockroaches is enough to elicit a shudder. Bloodsucking ticks, fleas, and flies, stinging wasps, and venomous spiders induce primal anxiety in most people. Farmers and gardeners the world over have lost countless crops to swarming locusts, beetles, and caterpillars. After WWII, the use of synthetic pesticides became a widespread agricultural practice. Over time, we’ve learned that many of these compounds work as blunt tools, indiscriminately killing beneficial insects alongside the pests. Scientists have discovered some of their toxins persisting in food, soil, water, and other organisms - including humans. Pesticides are now widely regarded to be a contributing factor to Colony Collapse Disorder which is decimating the honey bee population that we rely on to pollinate the very crops we are trying to protect.
“Insects are absolutely fundamental to food webs and the existence of life on Earth,” says Paul Tinsley-Marshall from Kent Wildlife Trust in the UK. Not only do they feed birds, bats, and other critters, but according to the United Nations, “approximately 80 percent of all flowering plant species are specialized for pollination by animals, mostly insects, and they affect 35 percent of the world's crop production, increasing the output of 87 of the leading food crops worldwide.”
In recent years, a surge in demand for organically grown food and the development of genetically modified organisms as an alternative to synthetic pesticide use indicates that humanity is reprioritizing the health of the ecosystem. Agrologists are getting creative in their tactics for fighting some pests without relying on chemicals: dusting larvae with a deadly-to-bugs fungus, releasing sterilized males to “mate” ineffectively and curb population growth, or even temporarily bringing in flocks of domestic birds -like ducks - to feast on infestations.
Here in Maine, I strive to limit my interventions while still protecting my family’s health, the integrity of our house, and the verdancy of our garden. This being a banner year for ticks, we sprayed the yard with a non-toxic cedar oil which has been very effective. When I work outdoors in spring, I typically wear netting to baffle the black flies, and when I lounge, I light citronella candles to deter mosquitos. When ants inevitably try to move in with us, I target the nests nearest the house with a homemade borax treatment. And when Japanese beetles show up to strip my plants of their vegetation, I install a specialized scent trap designed just for them. I typically buy seeds from a local supplier that were bred in the region and focus my energy on growing resilient, native plants or those that have been proven to be bug resistant. I am fortunate that I do not rely on my garden to subsist, so if some plants succumb to hungry bugs, I can begrudgingly say, “You’re welcome!” and go about my day knowing that we are coexistent organisms of the same great system.
Car ‘splatometer’ tests reveal huge decline in number of insects , Damian Carrington for The Guardian
FAO's Global Action on Pollination Services for Sustainable Agriculture, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
The Evolution of Chemical Pesticides, Fisher Scientific
How farmers in Thailand are using armies of 10,000 ducks to keep rice paddies pest-free, Meg Teckman-Fullard and Amelia Kosciulek for Business Insider