Bugs face a deadly decline. Here is why that is harmful for us.

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“If we go on the way we have, the fault is our greed and if we are not willing to change, we will disappear from the face of the globe, to be replaced by the insect.”

                      —Jacques Yves Cousteau 

“If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” 

                      —E. O. Wilson

The English poet Siegfried Sassoon knows how we started the 20th century, with the most ignoble war humanity had ever experienced — WW1. “The soldier is no longer a noble figure. He is merely a writhing insect among this ghastly folly of destruction.” He helped foster a post war fascination with insects. Wyndham Lewis, the writer, who was an artillery officer also noted “These battles are more like ant fights than anything we have done in this way up to now.” The resemblance of mankind with insects, especially on the battlefield led to a slow, inexorable war against the smallest of beings. Mosquitoes, lice and fleas were plaguing soldiers everywhere during the first world war. Slowly insect extermination became part of the human drama and it has continued up to our time, but today, if we lose the insects, due to misguided agricultural practices or plain habitat destruction, we lose the planet. 

Some say there are at least six million species of insects. Everywhere we have been dazzled by the life of the most miniature of warriors, angels, predators, nomads, architects, troubadours and musicians of the insect world. We have been welcomed since the beginning of time by the insects, which apart from microbes and plankton, dominate our lives more than any other beings on Earth. But of late we have taken them for granted; we have bombarded them with toxins and industrial grade poisons and chemicals to the extent that 30 percent of their population worldwide has diminished. Their structure, their color, their songs astonish us. We should be indebted to them and one can imagine in the not too off future, we will miss them, not only for their grand bewildering morphology and ability to hold the world together, but especially because without them, we will quite simply starve and ultimately vanish as a society.

They have been disappearing at a rate of .92 percent a year or 9 percent a decade. Bees, ants and beetles, butterflies and damselflies are the groups among the most affected and are vanishing eight times faster than birds, mammals or reptiles. But freshwater insects seemed to have increased by over 10 percent in the same period. While some like the mythic monarch butterfly and its migration might be dwindling, cockroaches and flies will proliferate. Some 75 percent of the world’s crops are pollinated by insect.

Big agriculture’s fertilizers and pesticides have been the greatest culprits. Companies continue to believe that their neonicotinoids are harmless and have even silenced their researchers on their findings about substances that should have been banned decades ago. Already in the early 1990’s some neonicotonoids were shown to irreversibly impair the nervous systems of flies. And not just insects but also fish and crabs. All in the name of profits. Most of the proof how toxic these insecticides are have come from insect populations in Europe and America where large-scale farms have yearly bombarded crops with one billion pound of insecticides every year. And there are more than 34,000 different kinds of insecticides, which have a direct effect on people’s health, including more than 2 million farmers who come into direct use with chemicals. 

One billion pounds of pesticides are used every year just in the U.S. and almost six times that number in the world. Is there a direct relationship between pesticides and increasing cancer rates? Even the very fertility of the Earth itself is endangered by the use of manmade chemicals, its depletion rates accelerating yearly, affecting the very survival of so-called lowly worms. Some 24 billion tons of soil are lost every year, over three tons for every person on Earth. In September 2018, the French, in response to declining bee populations, had the common sense to impose a blanket ban on all neonicotinoid pesticides, which of course farmers and manufacturers of the poison protested. Bees pollinate nearly a third of our fruits, vegetables and even nuts. In response to the crisis the Entomological Society of Krefeld, Germany initiated “An action program for insect Protection,” German agriculture being one of the most intensely farmed and pesticided countries in the world, having seen a 27 percent reduction in flying insects over the last generation. In 2014 a study showed that there was a 45 percent decline in monitored sites worldwide, an alarming number whose direct cause has yet to be determined. But we can probably guess what is the culprit.

We started the 20th century with fascination but also the slow bombardment of insects, just as we had done to ourselves. We continue our technological arsenal in the 21st century with the added scourges of extermination and extinction. The nature documentary Percy Smith released in 1908, “The Acrobatic Fly,” meant to engage us with the wonders of a fly juggling miniature items in its front legs. In 1922 a series called the “Secrets of Nature” showed the secret lives of beetles, wasps and, of course, ants. Writers as varied as Virginia Woolfe, DH Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield were captivated by insects and were inspired by the French naturalist’s Jean-Henri Fabre’s 10-volume “Souvenirs entomologiques.” One of Virginia Woolfe’s characters in her classic “To the Lighthouse,” even longs for the vision of ants. “One wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with.” 

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

 

The dung beetle moved DH Lawrence to write the “Ladybird,” a novella inspired by Fabre’s account of the insect that is able to transform death and decay into new life. How many times have we been captivated by the dung beetle’s passage across the dirt roads of Africa waiting for the inevitable lion or elephant or giraffe to appear? There they were rolling their dung heaps and fertilizing the land like mobile tanks of ingenuity. Or been surrounded by miniature helicopter sized flies in the Arctic, or wished the mosquito or Tse tse flies of the Serengeti could somehow find somewhere else to feed. The fantastic rhinoceros beetles were some of the first insects to greet us in Central America years ago. And the ethereal cosmic blue of the Morpho butterflies are a blue so transcendent in their shimmer that one wonders if one is beholding a dream.

When our son was only four months, we had the urge to visit the nursery for the monarch butterflies in Michoacan in western Mexico. Some may know that the ancient Greek word for soul psyche is also the word for butterfly. Who in North America does not know the imponderable courage and mythic venture of the monarch butterfly? The western monarch numbered over a million in the 1980’s and have been severely reduced in the last few years to a low of several hundred thousand in 2017 and as low as 30,000 in 2018. But although the eastern monarch population seems to have done very well in 2019, the overall migration numbers have plummeted. It may be pesticides or loss of habit, but one thing is for sure, if we were to lose their migration, the most remarkable insect spectacle on Earth will be no more. Watching the drama of several hundred thousand butterflies with close winged, clustered on their sanctuary branches, huddled in their giant lair is, one of the most exalting sights in the invertebrate world. Illegal loggers who have cut some of the oyamel fir trees in the monarch butterfly reserve have to deal with unprecedented bark beetle infestations, which have devastated the trees. Pesticides such as carbaryl would kill the beetles but would also kill the butterflies, so conservationists have had to treat each tree individually in a bid to stop the beetles, which have also caused havoc in North America from Colorado all the way to the Yukon. So far only a few hundred acres of the 33,000 acres have been infected, but with summer rainfall predicated to decrease by 15 percent between now and 2080, the monarch’s future remains precarious. As we left the monarch butterfly sanctuary, driving down the mountain with our guide, we were met with local rangers who insisted we keep our speed to a maximum of 5 miles an hour, so we wouldn’t hurt or accidentally kill even a single butterfly.

The estimated biomass of ants is 10 billion billion tons, whereas for humans, it is 350 million tons. The six-legged ones that have clamored all over our imaginations and science fiction scenarios about the future of the planet have already engaged murder wasps from Asia to start their invasion of the New World prompting actions to stop the giant wasps from becoming entrenched in the U.S., insects which may also affect local bee populations. Everyone knows that bee populations worldwide have been afflicted by colony collapse disorder, most likely due to big ag. The plummeting of the bumblebee population in the last few years due to climate change, insecticides and rising temperatures has been catastrophic. The locust invasion, like dark storm clouds from a Biblical plague that started in India, made its way to Sudan in the last year, with numbers sometimes reaching over 80 million per square kilometer. One such swarm that covered an area of 900 square miles ate the equivalent of food that normally feeds 35,000 people. Over 25 million people have been affected. In all, hundreds of billions of locusts have overwhelmed the area, and while the swarms will leave, eventually, no one can say if this is the last visitation the locusts will make or when the next generation will spawn. As in in direct defiance of Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution, locusts, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, could destroy the livelihood of 10 percent or more of the world’s population. 

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

 

Whether we learn anything from this overarching pandemic is that we can no longer take Nature and her smallest arsenal the insects for granted anymore. While many of us believe we may have the upper hand, the insects are the true architects of the world. The prescient, prophetic and unmatched Loren Eiseley wrote in his essay, “Coming of the Giant Wasps,” “I believe my great backyard sphexes (cicada-killer wasps) have evolved like other creatures. But watching them in the October light as one circles my head in curiosity, I can only repeat my dictum softly; in the world there is nothing to explain the world. Nothing to explain the necessity of life, nothing to explain the hunger of the elements to become life, nothing to explain why the stolid realm of rock and soil and mineral should diversity itself into beauty, terror and uncertainty. To bring organic novelty into existence, to create pain, in justice, joy, demands more than we can discern in the nature that we analyze so completely…The equation that can explain why a mere sphex wasp contains in his minute head the ganglionic centers of his prey has still to be written. There is nothing below a certain depth that is truly explanatory. It is as if matter dreamed and muttered in its sleep. But why, and for what reason it dreams, there is no-evidence.”

Several thousand years ago, Chinese sage Change Tse once dreamed that he was a butterfly. It would indeed be a criminal shame if one day children were to ask what butterflies looked like and what they felt like when they alighted on one’s hand. In a time when humanity threatens to unleash artificial intelligence upon the world, it may be time to honor the littlest beings whose minds are quite literally the foundation of the world. Without them we would become quite powerless homunculi. The pandemic is a time to reformulate the world in honor of those who uphold it, not just the charismatic megafauna of the world, but even the seemingly most humble insects, because as Franz Kafka’s great fable knew, ours is a time of remarkable metamorphosis. We can only hope we heed the lessons of the infinitesimal ones and realize that we are not only outnumbered but that we are being held for ransom, so that our consciousness rises to the occasion of not just survival but transcendence. 

In Greece, in olden times, bees were associated with prophecy and soothsaying, one example being the original temple at Delphi said to have been built of beeswax and tended by none other than bees. Although bees are said to be deaf, it is humans that seem to be unable to hear the frail song and dirge of the world. Or to tend to them as Sherlock did when he retired and kept bees. Or Sir Edmund Hillary who did the same. The large-scale transportation of bees for pollination has helped spread diseases like varroa and tracheal mites. Bees, perhaps more than most, have become the proverbial canary in the coal mine of environmental disease and neglect, a lot of which can be remedied. But if we continue our ways, like the vandals who willfully destroyed the stone bees carved by the sculptor Bernini in Rome in 2004 at the Fountain of the Bees, we will dissipate and like the short lifespan of most insects, ultimately wither. We have already destroyed so many of the giants, the elephants, the whales, the predators over the last few hundred years that the insects seem to have been forgotten. Or purposely eradicated. 

We can no longer afford to wage war on them, or neglect those who came to earth at least 412 million years ago during the Devonian period. We are but upstarts in the grand evolutionary game. We as a species had better learn who we really are, and an increasingly large part of the answer lies in who we are in relation to the real landlords of the Earth — the insects. Already two billion humans eat insects on a regular basis. If we are not careful, one day the tables might turn. It is from the animal world and the insects, above all, that we will be forced to learn humility if we hope to survive. 

“Indeed, our everyday world presents intellectual challenges just as daunting as those of the cosmos and the quantum, and that is where 99 per cent of scientists focus their efforts. Even the smallest insect, with its intricate structure, is far more complex than either an atom or a star.” 

                                   —Martin Rees

 

Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson’s work at their website.

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