Citizen curiosity useful in insect conservation

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By Dale Woodard on March 13, 2021.

Participation and personal interest can be helpful in promoting the protection of insects and spiders in our region.
The not-so-creepy and crawling topic was when the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs held its weekly Zoom conference on Thursday morning.
The guest speaker was Dan Johnson – BSc, Sask; MSc, PhD, UBC, Institute of Animal Resource Ecology and Department of Plant Sciences – Promoting public understanding of science, particularly about ecosystems and biodiversity, and promoting appreciation for insect life.
Johnson said citizens don’t necessarily need a degree or piece of paper to have a better understanding of the insects around us.
“How would you like to go to Mars and search for life and find a tiny remnant of past life on Mars?” asked Johnson. “You can do it right here. You can look at the ancient life of the earth and see the amazing, incredible biodiversity that results from it, especially in the world of arthropods. There are some examples of wild and wacky things that you can find right outside the door. “
Johnson commented on the decline in insects, saying the bigger problem is that there isn’t a lot of data.
“In many cases, we know that certain insects are not losing weight and others may, but the biggest problem is that we don’t really have the surveillance that we would need to be able to detect it in the first place,” he said .
“Everyone’s heard about the windshield inspections, but when you suddenly drive past the wetland you get a lot of insects and that’s not a really good database, although there are clues.”
Johson addressed five needs, common sense and the rational evaluation of evidence and data, a geographic approach to better records, reliable time series and understanding of species, multidisciplinary and insect education and involvement citizen science.
The last is the most important, said Johnson.
“If we can get people as amateur scientists and entomologists who are aware of the world around them and keep an eye on the species, we can have a vastly better database for answering those questions.”
Johnson cited the monarch butterfly as an example
“I found exactly two this year,” he said. “I usually find zero because we were on the northern edge of the range, but it’s an interesting story in North America.
“The monarch butterfly migrates and hibernates together. When they get this far north they have many challenges, like a short season. “
But Johnson said the biggest challenge is eating the monarch, the showy milkweed that grows on the side of the road and can be covered in dust.
He cited an example of a pupa that looked like it was spawning a butterfly that was in trouble in that situation.
Johnson pointed out that he usually doesn’t interfere, but he and his son helped the otherwise doomed butterfly.
“My son packed up this doll and took it to a nearby lake and let it emerge and fly away.”
Johnson spoke of the long-term data on the monarch.
“With agriculture and the way we till the soil, it has likely increased the number of monarch butterflies due to the weeds and better growing conditions. But lately, since the 1990s, there have been ups and downs, but mostly downs. It looks like they’re down. Some say half or two thirds. They talk about habitat loss, pesticides, forest fires, and changes in the food crop. If the climate continues to warm, there will be differences in the availability of the food crop and so on. So that’s a problem. “
Early data from the annual Thanksgiving Census of Western monarchs shows the monarch population of fewer than 10,000 monarchs has fallen to another record low, compared to millions in the 1980s and 300,000 just five years ago.
The butterflies have become so rare that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now deciding whether or not to list the monarchs as part of the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
“There are companies out there that track it and it has fallen to a record low,” Johnson said. “Other butterflies are mentioned and they refuse. We don’t know what’s going to happen to them. They may be fine, but in our lives some of them may just be lost. “
Johnson talked about what people on the northern edge of the monarch’s area can do, including planting showy milkweed.
“I caught some before fall and winter, so I plant them and hand them out,” he said. “If we were to plant it in the river valley and in the parks, on golf courses, etc. – and there is a program in the US to do it on golf courses and we could do it here – that would probably help because if they did If they find a food crop, they stand a chance. If they can’t find a food crop, that’s the end of the road. “

Johnson referred to an article in the Chicago Tribune that it was not too early to plan an urban monarch’s garden.

“So, try to find some milkweed seeds.”

Johnson referred to a science paper that summarizes what citizens and scientists can do to protect themselves from global and local declines.

“Not all insects decrease, but we have to find out which ones they are, and that is the problem. We don’t know, ”he said.

The paper suggested converting lawns into different natural habitats, growing indigenous plants, reducing the use of pesticides and herbicides, limiting the use of outdoor lighting, reducing soap and salt runoff from washing vehicles and outdoor buildings, counteracting negative perceptions of insects and getting involved in local politics, science support and voting.

But the most important thing, Johnson said, was becoming an educator and ambassador on the subject.

“You don’t have to have a degree and you don’t even have to have a course. If you read, study, and keep your eyes open you can become a very useful citizen / scientist in entomology and ecology. “

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