Part 1: Insects and People
Are insects in decline? I am 74 years old and have lived up here in the High Peaks for the last 20 years, after spending a good chunk of every Summer up here as a kid. Starting in the fifties, when our dad drove us up to the Adirondacks, one of the rituals while stopping for gas, was cleaning the smashed bugs off the windshield. Today… not so much. If you are less than 40 or 50 years old, you may find this confusing, as you tend to compare the present to a much shorter past.
Speaking of subjective observations, I believe there are far fewer skeeters and black flies today than when I was a kid. Granted, the BTI program to go after black fly larva dates back only about 35 years, but still, it seems to me that when you are out there fishing, hunting, or hiking, there are fewer bugs in the Adirondacks than there used to be.
There are also personal factors at play, starting with the fact that skeeters and no-see-ums are initially attracted to the carbon dioxide exhalation of mammals, the relative strength of the odor of lactic acid emitted by your skin pores, your blood type (mosquitoes are more likely to target the odor of type O blood than type A), what colors you wear (avoid darker colors) and how you personally smell to these critters. I’ve been hiking with my late wife Wendy and observed that she was much more heavily targeted by skeeters and black fly than I was, a frustrating situation for which she would provide less scientific explanations, often related to speculation as to how long ago my ancestors came down from the trees.
Another factor in drawing mosquitoes are the fragrances we like to slap on, perfume, cologne, fragrant body wash, deodorants, and any other odor which might attract female mosquitoes, which are the gender that needs your blood as a key component of their reproductive process, namely their ability to lay eggs. Male skeeters are lucky to live a week, and do not draw blood from mammals, while the female skeeter can last up to two months, depending on which of the 3,500 species of mosquito we are talking about.
Mosquitoes have been around over 200 million years (as opposed to homo sapiens 200,000 years), so they obviously did not evolve just to target us, though I’m sure they’re grateful for the billions of walking blood banks. They are also a critical part of the food chain, as practically every flying creature eats them. Little brown bats, in decline in the Adirondacks since the advent of white nose syndrome, and just starting to recover, can eat their weight in mosquitoes every night. Some mosquitoes are excellent pollinators, as they sip nectar and pollinate goldenrod and orchids to give two examples. Cocoa trees, from which we get chocolate, are pollinated by a type of midge, one of the most annoying biting no-see-ums anywhere, principally in Africa, and other tropical regions.
All this matters, because more citizen-oriented cultures, such as modern-day Germany, as opposed to our more business-oriented culture, believe that insect decline should be measured and understood in a wider context, in how it affects human beings. Why do we need insects anyway?
Food Chains and the Balance of Nature
Carbon and water are the basis of life on earth. You are about 18% carbon, and 60% water if you are a male, and 55% water if you are a woman. The base of all food chains, the first trophic level, are autotrophs, such as plants and single cell organisms, which start with sunlight, carbon dioxide and water to create themselves, the food everything else in the food chain depends on. Plants, phytoplankton, and algae are examples of autotrophs, and their primary consumers are herbivorous invertebrates, mostly insects, who in turn are consumed by members of the next trophic level, the predators. Like it or not, there would be no food chain without bugs.
Insects are like mammals in the sense that prey greatly outnumber predators. Red foxes, for example, are greatly outnumbered by their prey such as birds, rodents, and other small mammals. When a fox dies its remains are recycled with the assistance of detritivores such as vultures and decomposers, such as several species of beetle. In the circle of nature, solutions develop and evolve for every step of the process, for example, dung beetles recycle excrement.
When Australia introduced cattle, they discovered that native dung beetles were effective at recycling the dung of marsupials, but not our cattle. They imported several species of dung beetles which were effective in working with the cattle, which prevented Australian pastures from being covered in cattle dung which did not easily break down. On the other hand, when they imported cane toads to control cane beetles, the toads proved poisonous to their predators, including dogs and cats, and were not as effective as hoped in the cane plantations.
When we disrupt a natural process in favor of more short-term goals, we set ourselves up for a more challenging future. As Aldo Leopold said, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise…. If the land mechanism as a whole is good then every part is good, whether we understand it or not…To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
Insects are responsible for pollinating about three quarters of what is on your dinner plate, and as we have seen, they also take us through the whole cycle of life, as food for everything from songbirds to mammals such as bears and other omnivores, to other insects, and as the recycling crew for every organism which dies. Over 150 plants rely on seed dispersal by insects, often involving ants. It is estimated that the insect services to Americans is worth 57 billion dollars annually, and that does not include pollination. Overuse of bee killing pesticides, and/ or the cost of using traveling beehives in some Chinese provinces, such as Sichuan Province, has resulted in many fruit trees having to be pollinated by hand, at enormous expense.
Some insects are harmful to our crops. Termites will do a number on the framework of your house, while other insects, such as mosquitoes can spread disease. Be that as it may, the fact is, we cannot live without insects.
There are probably a billion and a half insects for each person on earth, but now for the scary part: the German studies indicate that insect decline in Germany ranges from half to three quarters of insects over just the last fifty years.
What has led to the decline in insects? Half of it is due to heavy overuse of insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, which poison the soil with toxins which don’t break down easily and affect animal species far beyond what manufacturers claim will be affected. Think of the $9.6 billion dollars in lawsuit settlements involving Monsanto’s Round Up, whose main ingredient, glyphosate, causes cancer, lymphoma, and leukemia. Other factors include introduced species and pathogens, along with urbanization and deforestation, elimination and alteration of wetlands, and climate change.
The war against invasive species is hampered by the fact that we live in a global economy in which importing and exporting foods, timber, and other organic products, carries with those processes the supporting cast of soon-to-become invasives which live off those products directly and indirectly. Even the transportation itself results in organisms foreign to a given ecosystem brought into a world in which their natural enemies are absent, while local species of plants and animals face predators and competitors for which they have not evolved to defend against.
The simple process in which cargo ships pick up sea water as ballast in European or South American ports, and then discharge that water in American ports, means the introduction of tiny exotic invasives, just as when you go to the nursery to purchase plants for your garden, many of these are Asian exotics which proceed to compete with the local plant base, having the advantage that their consumers are not present, and it can take years for local plant eaters to start eating the invasives.
What is strange about human culture is that we live in a world with exploding population, but instead of trying to plan how to raise crops sustainably and without devastating the ecosystems we depend on, we tend to implement the quick fix, what’s good for you and the market this week, without planning and regard for our grandkid’s future.
A good example of how self-defeating this can be is how some insect pests develop immunity to our pesticides, leading us into a destructive cycle in which we keep adding more and more toxic chemicals, collaterally damaging soil and water systems, while many of us end up slowly poisoning our bodies through bioaccumulation, the increasing concentration of toxins in animals and people, which cannot be excreted, the higher up the food chain you look.
Bioaccumulation in turn leads to biomagnification in which these toxins pass up the food chain. The most common example of biomagnification is when runoff of agricultural toxins such as DDT, turned up in the base of the lake and river food chains, in animal and plant plankton, which were taken in by mollusks, crustaceans and fish, which in turn are eaten by larger predators, while still larger fish are taken by osprey and eagles, which leads to elevated levels of mercury poisoning in those raptors. We have rehabbed eagles with mercury poisoning, and it is a sad process with a low level of success, as the toxins affect the nervous and reproductive systems.
Another example affecting our national symbol, the bald eagle, is that while their numbers have almost fully recovered, half of eagles show elevated levels of lead. This is because eagles are major scavengers, who ingest the lead from gut piles left by hunters using lead ammunition. We could fix this simple issue by banning lead ammunition, which the NRA naturally tells their followers is an attempt to take their weapons, even though several states have banned or are on the verge of banning lead ammunition, and their hunters have switched to copper ammo, and are still getting their deer.
Feeding People as opposed to Profits
What is most disturbing is that we are seeing an exploding world population of eight billion people today, which could go from 10 to 15 billion by the end of this century, with most growth in urban centers, where it is challenging to grow your own food. Just as we have an expanding gulf in income between the rich and poor in the U.S., so we’re seeing similar trends in third world nations. The bottom line is a quickly expanding population, the growth of middle classes in these countries, and the increasing consumption of fast foods, which encourages the rise in obesity because of the increasing sugar levels, not to mention the lack of vitamins and minerals in most fast food.
A Big Mac today has three times the sugar it had thirty years ago, and that includes the increase in sugar in the bun. Most fast food has followed a similar path to getting us addicted to sugar and flour, making us crave and purchase more fast food. Isn’t it curious that we don’t want our young people to understand history, but we have no problem allowing the corporate food producers to get them more and more addicted to sugar.
As with other mammals the taste bud receptors in the tongue send “sweet” messages to the pleasure receptors in the cerebellum which release dopamine, the reward we also experience when we have sex or take mind altering drugs. Similarly, your digestive system also sends signals, which gets around the message that you are full and satiated, instead encouraging the brain to crave more sugar.
Nature and evolution work hand in hand. Just as pollinators and seed dispersers may be attracted to bright colors of flowers and fruit which signal food, so we return to our sources of pleasure, which is why it is so hard to quit smoking or taking drugs. Plants may not speak English and they not only attract pollinators and seed dispersers, but trees can release chemicals internally which discourage eating by making leaves taste more bitter, and externally, to alert other trees that that an herbivore is feeding among them.
No one is going to lose weight and stay healthy eating hamburgers and fries daily, but the odds are good they will develop diabetes and other conditions which may weaken their immune systems and leave them more vulnerable to disease, which has a dramatic impact on morbidity. In the language of COVID, people are dying not only because they are unvaccinated, but because they have serious often self-inflicted comorbidities working against recovering from COVID. In our politically correct culture, just as we see alcoholism and obesity as diseases, and while they can have a physiological basis, we are very reluctant to say that they can also be the result of a long series of poor choices.
Part of the problem is that many of us eat much more meat than is healthy for us, while the logistics of raising cattle indicate that they require too much land and water to serve as a solution for feeding the worlds hungry. Raising livestock, principally beef and secondarily mutton, uses 80% of global land allocated for agribusiness, yet produces only about 20% of the calories consumed by people. Fruit and vegies produce far more calories per acre than meat does, but to complicate matters, it does not follow that all land used for pasture could be converted for growing vegies and fruit in a multicultural system.
To further complicate matters, 40% of all corn and 60% of all soybeans raised in the U.S. are fed to livestock, increasing the impact of raising cattle on land. Growing monocultures like soybeans, corn, rice, and wheat, not to mention your lawn, with their attendant fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, poisons and degenerates soil and discourages diversity. All corn is sprayed with glyphosate, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer, calls a probable carcinogen, but corn is now found in everything in America from soda to potato chips to hamburgers and fries, so the EPA says its safe if used properly, while countries like Mexico and several in the European Union and South America have banned its use. Glyphosate is the principal component in Roundup, which not only kills microbes in the soil, but also kills microbes in your gut microbiome, and is now showing up in your drinking water..
If you believe in evolution, note that Cattle and their bovine ancestors, aurochs, had not naturally evolved or entered North America through Beringia before Europeans introduced them. Was Mother Nature trying to tell us something about ecosystems, and what works where and what does not?
There are also regional factors which impact how beef is produced, for example, the sweetheart deal between our heavily lobbied Congress and the cattle ranchers, which allows ranchers to lease public owned lands at about 15% of the cost they’d incur if they were leasing land for grazing livestock from private landowners, which results in a giant rip off of the American taxpayer. This goes on no matter who is in the White House, and who controls Congress. I own two small businesses. Can you imagine the peals of derisive laughter if I asked Congress to subsidize those businesses? Lobbying for beef ranching attempts to eliminate what the rest of us call “the cost of doing business.”
Should we all become hunters?
Unlike bison, deer and elk, whose meat is leaner, lower in carbs, higher in protein, lower in cholesterol and saturated fats, cattle, because of the way they are raised, have devastating impacts on land particularly in terms of erosion and runoff, as well as the fact that 100 million dollars of your federal taxes fund shady government services such as USDA’s “Wildlife Services”, which eliminate natural predators such as bears, cougars wolves and coyotes on publicly owned lands, while compensating ranchers for livestock killed by predators, another sweetheart deal between ranchers and Congress.
One way to look at the problem is to determine how much available habitable land would have to be allocated to raising beef, such that folks in developing countries could eat as much beef as we do. Argentina leads the world in per capita beef consumption, followed by Australia, the U.S., Brazil, Mongolia, Canada, Scandinavia, and France. If everyone in the world wanted to eat as much per capita beef as the citizens of these countries, there would not be enough land for pasture or grazable land to raise cattle, even if we eliminated all towns and cities and turned all space suitable for pasture for raising cattle. This means that providing enough beef for poorer nations would require that wealthier nations change their diets and eat less beef, as has happened in the U.S. with beef consumption peaking in 1971, with average beef consumption of 135 lbs. per person, and steadily declining ever since, with the average American eating about 105 lbs. of beef in 2019.
Cattle are slaughtered for their meat when they are between one and two years old, and generally spend about half their lives in feed lots, where they are stuffed with grains to encourage dramatic weight gain. It used to be common practice to put antibiotics in their grain and water, which also encourages weight gain and fights against the unhealthy conditions set up when cattle, who should be eating grass and living in large open ranges, spend much of their lives in feed lots, overcrowded and wallowing in their own dung. In other words, if we eliminated feed lots, while increasing the number of cattle raised, the cattle would be healthier, smaller, and happier, but expanded consumption of beef would not be sustainable, if everyone in the world wanted to eat hamburgers.
Politics and Climate Change
Politics always plays a role in prejudicing us against opposing philosophies, so anti meat partisans complain that the methane belched by cattle amounts to a larger impact on climate change than the CO2 emitted by fossil fuel engines. Ungulates have multi chambered stomachs, and the process of fermenting what has already been swallowed, regurgitating it and “chewing the cud,” results in methane release. Partisans, including me in past writings, ignore the fact that all grazing and browsing ungulates, including deer, elk, moose, and hundreds of other other wild species, also belch methane.
Other sources of methane are climate change warming the arctic through snow and ice cover loss, reducing sun light reflection, which raises temperatures, causing tundra to soften, releasing methane (while causing houses and other structures built on tundra to sink), and sea warming in the north, which releases methane from the sea floor. It is estimated that sixty per cent of methane emissions are anthropogenic in nature, and methane has thirty times the impact on our atmosphere as CO2 has. At the same time, methane accounts for about ten percent of green house gas emissions, and only lasts about ten years in the atmosphere, while CO2 lasts a couple of hundred years. “According to a recent U.S. EPA study, the largest methane emissions in the U.S. come from transportation (28.5%), energy (28.4%) and industry (21.6%). Total livestock emissions account for 3.9%, with beef’s portion about half of that (2%).”
Cattle are also commonly believed to use too much water, but again, when opponents measure how much water is wasted, it is often based on how much rain falls. Rain is called “green water” as it moistens the soil, enabling it to support life, and its runoff provides the water in streams, rivers, and aquifers, which allows natural and essential human uses. The point is that precipitation falls whether cattle are present or not, so it doesn’t seem fair to call rain falling in pastures or anywhere else to be wasted water when the rain would fall whether cattle were grazing or not.
“Blue water” is the water used to irrigate crops, and we still employ methods of irrigation which waste most of the water. Healthy soil is soil containing moisture, and a single handful of healthy soil supports more microorganisms than there are people on earth. Dry soil is caused by drought and poor irrigation processes, and becomes dirt, which not only releases sequestered carbon, but washes away or blows away causing dust bowl like effects.
I stopped eating almonds and drinking almond milk because the growth of each almond requires over a gallon of water. We also need more efficient ways to reuse “gray water.” The real problem is that cattle are not continuously moved from pasture to pasture, causing overgrazing and the erosion which destroys streams and rivers.
Cattle would have far less impact on climate change if ranchers and farmers practiced regenerative agriculture, which focuses on soil regeneration, a critical process hampered by growing monoculture crops like corn, wheat and soy, which is more profitable in the short term for the farmer, but the over fertilizing, and heavy application of herbicide, insecticide and bactericide lessen plant and animal biodiversity and biosequestration.
Soil holds four times as much carbon as does trees and three times as much as the atmosphere, and plowing the soil causes much more carbon release than burning Amazon forests to clear land for cattle. Carbon sequestration in the soil will have the largest impact in the battle against anthropogenic climate change. As physicist, environmental activist and author, Dr Vandana Shiva said, “Soil, not Oil, Holds the Future for Humanity.”
The value of multiculture, the growing of multiple crops through the growing seasons leads to an increase in nutrients for the crops grown there, and a wider range of insects to pollinate and control those destructive insects which may become concentrated in monoculture, and lead to crop failure, as happened with corn back in 1971. Moving cattle around, before a pasture is completely denuded of grazing vegetation, say from pasture to harvested corn fields and so on, and growing cover crops to deliver more nutrition to the soil, will produce a fuller range of agricultural benefits, or as Robb and Rogers put it in “Sacred Cow,” “It’s not the Cow, but the How.”
Photo: Black fly, from Wikipedia
Great article! A lot to digest…
“…55% carbon if you are a woman.”
Pretty sure that should read “water,” not “carbon.”
You’re right… sorry I missed that. Melissa, can we fix this?
Steve, thank you, this is a keeper. You write so convincingly on this topic – I too remember all the mayflies that were once on my windshield – that you clearly are representing both you and your lovely, eco protective Wendy Hall, bless her memory. And where there are two or more, you move people.
Thanks Dave. Wendy was a great inspiration….
I am in agreement that insects have taken a dramatic crash in numbers. In the adirondacks we used to say we had summer, fall, winter and Black fly season. As soon as it started to warm up in march, the blackflies would be in clouds, so thick and heavy, in your hair, ears, eyes, sleeves, inhaled and coughing. The Black flies during opening day of trout season would see people with netted hats. Bites all over blood trickling some times. after the 1980’s they gradualy disappeared and seem extinct now. In summer day light was deer flies, horse flies driving one mad, with occassional swarms of no see-ums. night shift was mosquitos in such numbers at times i couldnt sleep with the buzzing and sometimes felt like they might lift the tent up. look over a meadow and see hundred butterflies, after a rain storm, sulfer butterflies by the hundreds drinking puddles for salts.
In modern times, there are basically zero blackflies, mosquitos, deer flies, horse flies, no see-ums, or butterflies. Years ago the first thing you checked to go fishing was Bug dope, now i dont even use it anymore, theres just nothing left to fend off.
If every insect is almost gone, what will pollinate plants for food and what will birds eat?
In my area we have been having drier Spring weather which cuts down on the classic hordes of black flies and skeeters. But when we do get rains, I do have plenty of skeeters – but black flies are typically fone for good by then. I have very few bats anymore, so how much is due to white-nose disease and how much is due to lack of food? I usually see a couple bats returning to my roost earlier in spring that are starving from WNS, but are hunting through the day and finding little to eat. I assume they end up starving. Shame.
Boreas you are right in that springs are much drier, the snow just never builds up over entire winter like when we were kids. no longer 6-8 feet of snow melting, but much less snow and it melts off usually within a week of snowing.
I remember as a kid fishing in the evening or camping by a lake with hundreds and sometimes thousands of bats flittering all over, by Penfield pond i used to sit by tree where at night thousands of bats would rest in that tree, by rich pond, lake Harris, Cheney pond, Newcomb Lake all over the water, they were everywhere, sadly it has become a very very rare sight to see a bat or two…..i think lack of food was a start or poisoning insects, the decline in bats really seem to start in the mid to late 1980’s, so the white nose syndrom was much later, but it certainly seem to basically wipe out the few bats left. My bat boxes have been empty now for about 4 years and i stopped putting them out now.
WOW! A lot to digest for sure! Very comprehensive article Steve. We have a lot of work ahead if we are going to have a better world for our decedents.
And: May Wendy’s memory be a blessing.
Grew up in Star Lake.
Black Fly season is alive and well. What we call Deer flies bite you and leave a went the size of a quarter.
Wanakena is worse. If you have a baby with you there I recommend putting weights in their diapers so the bugs don’t carry them away.
Again bugs are alive and well in the Star Lake area please feel free to leave your email so that I can let you know when to come and clean the bugs off my vehicle.
The bees are pretty fierce too.
I am not a global warming denier. My poor dog won’t even leave the car to run into the house.
Truly I am told Town of Fine sprays for bugs but you can’t prove it by my experience. I mean really!!!
*Leave a welt
Ya–we switched from almond milk to oat milk several years ago for the same reason. We’re happy with that and a vegetarian diet –still consuming a bit of cheese though.
the current bugs are a mere shadow of what they were back in the 70’s, maybe 5% now adays. now it’s seem to be the decade of the darn TICKS!!! i dont remember ever getting ticks as a kid or even the dogs or cats getting ticks. now i have a hike down to Rich lake and come back with 10 or more ticks on my cloths now.
I know little about the natural history of insects and less about arachnids. But one must wonder if some of the insects that are in decline were predatory or competitive with ticks somewhere in their life cycle. Sure seems like more than a coincidence between the demise of one type of organism contributing the rise of another. But invertebrates are so poorly understood that we may never know.