Studying ecosystem health as a whole

The Plight of the Bumblebee

Have you ever noticed that most causes have a ‘poster child’ which appeals to the masses?  In environmentalism, this could be an animal such as a whale, Northern Spotted Owl, or more recently Monarch Butterfly or the honeybee.  While all of these animals are very important and the world would be a poorer place without them, maybe it is time to start looking at ecosystems as a whole.

Malaise Trap

A Malaise Trap (shown here) is a common device used for trapping and studying insects.

Several recent studies have done that by measuring insect populations in general, and have come up with some alarming results.  Overall, it appears that worldwide insect populations have dropped as much as 45% over the last four decades. In “Vanishing Act: Why Insects Are Declining and Why It Matters”, Christian Schwägerl explains these findings. For instance, in one German study which trapped insects over a number of years, “the average biomass of insects caught between May and October has steadily decreased from 1.6 kilograms (3.5 pounds) per trap in 1989 to just 300 grams (10.6 ounces) in 2014.”

These population declines are attributed to several different causes including agricultural practices, habitat loss, and widespread pesticide use.

In an era with insect borne diseases such as Lyme disease, malaria, and Zika virus, many people may think this is a good thing, but when we understand some of the roles insects play in our environment we begin to understand their importance.  Scientists are now trying to quantify and place a value on the ecosystem services that different organisms provide to us, including insects. Below is a list of some of these services:
 

Ecological Services Provided by Insects
  • Pollination: Most people know that domesticated honey bees are important for the pollination of our crops and that recently there have been serious problems with colony collapse disorder.  We tend to be less aware of wild pollinators such as bumblebees, hoverflies, and moths which are equally important.  Different flower shapes require different insects for pollination.  In nature, one size does not fit all.
  • Waste removal/decomposition: Without insects, we would be swimming in waste.  Insects help break down decaying material and move it into the soil.
  • Soil health, aeration and decomposition: This movement of decaying material into the soil vastly improves soil health by loosening the soil and providing organic material.  Insects themselves add nutrients through molting, defecation, and eventually when they die and return to the soil.
  • Food source: Insects are a food source for birds, fish, amphibians, and mammals from mice to bears.  We need large populations to feed all of these animals!
  • Pest control: Beneficial insects such as ladybugs are often our best defense against other pests such as aphids.  Other insects such as wasps, dragonflies, beetles, and lacewings keep populations of problematic species in check.

 

So now that you have an understanding of the importance of insects, let’s explore what we can do to aid in restoring healthy insect populations.

What you can do
  • Reduce turfgrass: Most properties have at least some lawn, but these areas are inhospitable to most insects.  GreenWeaver recommends that healthy stands of turfgrass are managed in areas with foot traffic or areas of play, otherwise healthy properties should have a variety of plants to host insect and other wildlife populations.
  • Reduce pesticides: There are far reaching implications to pesticide use impacting many unintended species.  For instance, using pesticide to protect our ash trees from the devastating Emerald Ash Borer will affect every insect that nibbles on our ash trees.  Take the use of pesticides very seriously, and always use the least toxic option.
  • Eat locally: Small, local farms tend to have a much smaller impact on the environment than large farms which grow one species of crop which are essentially monocultures.  These large farms, or agribusiness, create vast areas that produce cheap food, but are extremely damaging to the environment.  Besides, locally produced food supports the local economy, tastes better, and is better for you!
  • Love bugs! Insects are endlessly fascinating and essential to the health of our planet. OK, so maybe you will never love them, but at least learn to appreciate them.  And if you do think they are cool, tell others.  For some reason, they seem to have an image problem.
  • Support conservation organizations: One such organization that focuses on invertebrates including insects is the Xerces Society. Donations are always welcome.

 

Although insects can be pesky and a small number of them may even cause health problems for humans, they play an indispensable role in our environment.  So as in everything outdoors, respect the complexity of the world in which we live, including the role of insects.