Disappearing Insects and Why We Should Care

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The article below appeared Dec. 2, 2018, on Page 41 of the Sunday Magazine, The New York Times. I have shortened it and added bold highlights. As we care for Creation we show that we care for our Creator. So while Christmas time may seem an odd season to think about bugs, spend a few minutes reflecting on what our world will be like if we lose them — and what you can do to protect their habitat and our climate. 

The Insect Apocalypse Is Here

What does it mean for the rest of life on Earth?

Illustrations by Matt Dorfman

By Brooke Jarvis

Sune Boye Riis was on a bike ride with his youngest son, when it suddenly occurred to him that something was missing.

It was summer. He was out in the country, moving fast. But strangely, he wasn’t eating any bugs.

Riis watched his son, flying through the beautiful day, not eating bugs, and was struck by the melancholy thought that his son’s childhood would lack this particular bug-eating experience of his own. It was, he granted, an odd thing to feel nostalgic about. But he couldn’t shake a feeling of loss.

Riis had not been able to stop thinking about the missing bugs. The more he learned, the more his nostalgia gave way to worry. Insects are the vital pollinators and recyclers of ecosystems and the base of food webs everywhere. Riis was not alone in noticing their decline. In the United States, scientists recently found the population of monarch butterflies fell by 90 percent in the last 20 years, a loss of 900 million individuals; the rusty-patched bumblebee, which once lived in 28 states, dropped by 87 percent over the same period. With other, less-studied insect species, one butterfly researcher told me, “all we can do is wave our arms and say, ‘It’s not here anymore!’ ” Still, the most disquieting thing wasn’t the disappearance of certain species of insects; it was the deeper worry, shared by Riis and many others, that a whole insect world might be quietly going missing, a loss of abundance that could alter the planet in unknowable ways.

Because insects are legion, inconspicuous and hard to meaningfully track, the fear that there might be far fewer than before was more felt than documented. The feeling was so common that entomologists developed a shorthand for it, named for the way many people first began to notice that they weren’t seeing as many bugs. They called it the windshield phenomenon.

To test what had been primarily a loose suspicion of wrongness, Riis and 200 other Danes were spending the month of June roaming their country’s back roads in their outfitted cars. They were part of a study conducted by the Natural History Museum of Denmark, a joint effort of the University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University and North Carolina State University. The nets would stand in for windshields as Riis and the other volunteers drove through various habitats — urban areas, forests, agricultural tracts, uncultivated open land and wetlands — hoping to quantify the disorienting sense that, as one of the study’s designers put it, “something from the past is missing from the present.”

When the investigators began planning the study in 2016, they weren’t sure if anyone would sign up. But by the time the nets were ready, a paper by an obscure German entomological society had brought the problem of insect decline into sharp focus. The German study found that, measured simply by weight, the overall abundance of flying insects in German nature reserves had decreased by 75 percent over just 27 years. If you looked at midsummer population peaks, the drop was 82 percent.

Riis learned about the study from a group of his students in one of their class projects. They must have made some kind of mistake in their citation, he thought. But they hadn’t. The study would quickly become, according to the website Altmetric, the sixth-most-discussed scientific paper of 2017. Headlines around the world warned of an “insect Armageddon.”

How could something as fundamental as the bugs in the sky just disappear? And what would become of the world without them?

Anyone who has returned to a childhood haunt to find that everything somehow got smaller knows that humans are not great at remembering the past accurately. This is especially true when it comes to changes to the natural world. It is impossible to maintain a fixed perspective, as Heraclitus observed 2,500 years ago: It is not the same river, but we are also not the same people.

A 1995 study, by Peter H. Kahn and Batya Friedman, of the way some children in Houston experienced pollution summed up our blindness this way: “With each generation, the amount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation takes that amount as the norm.” In decades of photos of fishermen holding up their catch in the Florida Keys, the marine biologist Loren McClenachan found a perfect illustration of this phenomenon, which is often called “shifting baseline syndrome.” The fish got smaller and smaller, to the point where the prize catches were dwarfed by fish that in years past were piled up and ignored. But the smiles on the fishermen’s faces stayed the same size. The world never feels fallen, because we grow accustomed to the fall.

By one measure, bugs are the wildlife we know best, the nondomesticated animals whose lives intersect most intimately with our own: spiders in the shower, ants at the picnic, ticks buried in the skin. We sometimes feel that we know them rather too well. In another sense, though, they are one of our planet’s greatest mysteries, a reminder of how little we know about what’s happening in the world around us.

We’ve named and described a million species of insects, a stupefying array of thrips and firebrats and antlions and caddis flies and froghoppers and other enormous families of bugs that most of us can’t even name. The ones we think we do know well, we don’t: There are 12,000 types of ants, nearly 20,000 varieties of bees, almost 400,000 species of beetles, so many that the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane reportedly quipped that God must have an inordinate fondness for them. A bit of healthy soil a foot square and two inches deep might easily be home to 200 unique species of mites, each, presumably, with a subtly different job to do. And yet entomologists estimate that all this amazing, absurd and understudied variety represents perhaps only 20 percent of the actual diversity of insects on our planet — that there are millions and millions of species that are entirely unknown to science.

With so much abundance, it very likely never occurred to most entomologists of the past that their multitudinous subjects might dwindle away. As they poured themselves into studies of the life cycles and taxonomies of the species that fascinated them, few thought to measure or record something as boring as their number.

 

When entomologists began noticing and investigating insect declines, they lamented the absence of solid information from the past in which to ground their experiences of the present. “We see a hundred of something, and we think we’re fine,” Wagner says, “but what if there were 100,000 two generations ago?” Rob Dunn, an ecologist at North Carolina State University who helped design the net experiment in Denmark, recently searched for studies showing the effect of pesticide spraying on the quantity of insects living in nearby forests. He was surprised to find that no such studies existed. “We ignored really basic questions,” he said. “It feels like we’ve dropped the ball in some giant collective way.”

If entomologists lacked data, what they did have were some very worrying clues. Along with the impression that they were seeing fewer bugs in their own jars and nets while out doing experiments — a windshield phenomenon specific to the sorts of people who have bug jars and nets — there were documented downward slides of well-studied bugs, including various kinds of bees, moths, butterflies and beetles. In Britain, as many as 30 to 60 percent of species were found to have diminishing ranges. Larger trends were harder to pin down, though a 2014 review in Science tried to quantify these declines by synthesizing the findings of existing studies and found that a majority of monitored species were declining, on average by 45 percent.

Entomologists also knew that climate change and the overall degradation of global habitat are bad news for biodiversity in general, and that insects are dealing with the particular challenges posed by herbicides and pesticides, along with the effects of losing meadows, forests and even weedy patches to the relentless expansion of human spaces. There were studies of other, better-understood species that suggested that the insects associated with them might be declining, too. People who studied fish found that the fish had fewer mayflies to eat. Ornithologists kept finding that birds that rely on insects for food were in trouble: eight in 10 partridges gone from French farmlands; 50 and 80 percent drops, respectively, for nightingales and turtledoves. Half of all farmland birds in Europe disappeared in just three decades. At first, many scientists assumed the familiar culprit of habitat destruction was at work, but then they began to wonder if the birds might simply be starving. In Denmark, an ornithologist named Anders Tottrup was the one who came up with the idea of turning cars into insect trackers for the windshield-effect study after he noticed that rollers, little owls, Eurasian hobbies and bee-eaters — all birds that subsist on large insects such as beetles and dragonflies — had abruptly disappeared from the landscape.

The signs were certainly alarming, but they were also just signs, not enough to justify grand pronouncements about the health of insects as a whole or about what might be driving a widespread, cross-species decline. “There are no quantitative data on insects, so this is just a hypothesis,” Hans de Kroon, an ecologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands, explained.

Then came the German study. Scientists are still cautious about what the findings might imply about other regions of the world. But the study brought forth exactly the kind of longitudinal data they had been seeking, and it wasn’t specific to just one type of insect. The numbers were stark, indicating a vast impoverishment of an entire insect universe, even in protected areas where insects ought to be under less stress. The speed and scale of the drop were shocking even to entomologists who were already anxious about bees or fireflies or the cleanliness of car windshields.

The results were surprising in another way too. The long-term details about insect abundance, the kind that no one really thought existed, hadn’t appeared in a particularly prestigious journal and didn’t come from university-affiliated scientists, but from a small society of insect enthusiasts based in the modest German city Krefeld.

When it was founded, in 1905, the society operated out of another building, one that was destroyed when Britain bombed the city during World War II. Nowadays, the society uses more than 6,000 square feet of an old three-story school as storage space. Ask for a tour of the collections, and you will hear such sentences as “This whole room is Lepidoptera,” and, in an even larger room, “every bumblebee here was collected before the Second World War, 1880 to 1930”; and, upon opening a drawer full of sweat bees, “It’s a new collection, 30 years only.”

On the shelves that do hold books, I counted 31 clearly well-loved volumes in the series “Beetles of Middle Europe.” A 395-page book that cataloged specimens of spider wasps — where they were collected; where they were stored — of the western Palearctic said “1948-2008” on the cover. I asked my guide, a society member named Martin Sorg, who was one of the lead authors of the paper, whether those dates reflected when the specimens were collected. “No,” Sorg replied, “that was the time the author needed for this work.”

Amateurs have long provided much of the patchy knowledge we have about nature. Those bee and butterfly studies? Most depend on mass mobilizations of volunteers willing to walk transects and count insects, every two weeks or every year, year after year. The scary numbers about bird declines were gathered this way, too, though because birds can be hard to spot, volunteers often must learn to identify them by their sounds. Britain, which has a particularly strong tradition of amateur naturalism, has the best-studied bugs in the world. As technologically advanced as we are, the natural world is still a very big and complex place, and the best way to learn what’s going on is for a lot of people to spend a lot of time observing it. The Latin root of the word “amateur” is, after all, the word “lover.”

The Krefeld society is volunteer-run, and many members have other jobs in unrelated fields, but they also have an enormous depth of knowledge about insects, accumulated through years of what other people might consider obsessive attention. Some study the ecology or evolutionary taxonomy of their favorite species or map their populations or breed them to study their life histories. All hone their identification skills across species by amassing their own collections of carefully pinned and labeled insects like those that fill the society’s storage rooms.

The society members’ projects often involved setting up what are called malaise traps, nets that look like tents and drive insects flying by into bottles of ethanol. Because of the scientific standards of the society, members followed certain procedures: They always employed identical traps, sewn from a template they first used in 1982. (They always put them in the same places. (Before GPS, that meant a painstaking process of triangulating with surveying equipment. “We are not sure about a few centimeters,” Sorg granted.) They saved everything they caught, regardless of what the main purpose of the experiment was.

Those bottles of insects were gathered into thousands of boxes, which are now crammed into what were once offices in the upper reaches of the school. When the society members, like entomologists elsewhere, began to notice that they were seeing fewer insects, they had something against which to measure their worries.

“We don’t throw away anything, we store everything,” Sorg explained. “That gives us today the possibility to go back in time.”

In 2013, Krefeld entomologists confirmed that the total number of insects caught in one nature reserve was nearly 80 percent lower than the same spot in 1989. They had sampled other sites, analyzed old data sets and found similar declines: Where 30 years earlier, they often needed a liter bottle for a week of trapping, now a half-liter bottle usually sufficed. But it would have taken even highly trained entomologists years of painstaking work to identify all the insects in the bottles. So the society used a standardized method for weighing insects in alcohol, which told a powerful story simply by showing how much the overall mass of insects dropped over time. “A decline of this mixture,” Sorg said, “is a very different thing than the decline of only a few species.”

The final study looked at 63 nature preserves, representing almost 17,000 sampling days, and found consistent declines in every kind of habitat they sampled. This suggested, the authors wrote, “that it is not only the vulnerable species but the flying-insect community as a whole that has been decimated over the last few decades.”

For some scientists, the study created a moment of reckoning. “Scientists thought this data was too boring,” Dunn says. “But these people found it beautiful, and they loved it. They were the ones paying attention to Earth for all the rest of us.

The current worldwide loss of biodiversity is popularly known as the sixth extinction: the sixth time in world history that a large number of species have disappeared in unusually rapid succession, caused this time not by asteroids or ice ages but by humans. When we think about losing biodiversity, we tend to think of the last northern white rhinos protected by armed guards, of polar bears on dwindling ice floes. Extinction is a visceral tragedy, universally understood: There is no coming back from it. The guilt of letting a unique species vanish is eternal.

But extinction is not the only tragedy through which we’re living. What about the species that still exist, but as a shadow of what they once were? In “The Once and Future World,” the journalist J.B. MacKinnon cites records from recent centuries that hint at what has only just been lost: “In the North Atlantic, a school of cod stalls a tall ship in midocean; off Sydney, Australia, a ship’s captain sails from noon until sunset through pods of sperm whales as far as the eye can see. ... Pacific pioneers complain to the authorities that splashing salmon threaten to swamp their canoes.” There were reports of lions in the south of France, walruses at the mouth of the Thames, flocks of birds that took three days to fly overhead, as many as 100 blue whales in the Southern Ocean for every one that’s there now. “These are not sights from some ancient age of fire and ice,” MacKinnon writes. “We are talking about things seen by human eyes, recalled in human memory.”

What we’re losing is not just the diversity part of biodiversity, but the biopart: life in sheer quantity. While I was writing this article, scientists learned that the world’s largest king penguin colony shrank by 88 percent in 35 years, that more than 97 percent of the bluefin tuna that once lived in the ocean are gone.

Finding reassurance in the survival of a few symbolic standard-bearers ignores the value of abundance, of a natural world that thrives on richness and complexity and interaction. Tigers still exist, for example, but that doesn’t change the fact that 93 percent of the land where they used to live is now tigerless. This matters for more than romantic reasons: Large animals, especially top predators like tigers, connect ecosystems to one another and move energy and resources among them simply by walking and eating and defecating and dying. (In the deep ocean, sunken whale carcasses form the basis of entire ecosystems in nutrient-poor places.) One result of their loss is what’s known as trophic cascade, the unraveling of an ecosystem’s fabric as prey populations boom and crash and the various levels of the food web no longer keep each other in check. These places are emptier, impoverished in a thousand subtle ways.

Scientists have begun to speak of functional extinction (as opposed to the more familiar kind, numerical extinction). Functionally extinct animals and plants are still present but no longer prevalent enough to affect how an ecosystem works. Some phrase this as the extinction not of a species but of all its former interactions with its environment — an extinction of seed dispersal and predation and pollination and all the other ecological functions an animal once had, which can be devastating even if some individuals still persist. The more interactions are lost, the more disordered the ecosystem becomes. A 2013 paper in Nature, which modeled both natural and computer-generated food webs, suggested that a loss of even 30 percent of a species’ abundance can be so destabilizing that other species start going fully, numerically extinct — in fact, 80 percent of the time it was a secondarily affected creature that was the first to disappear. A famous real-world example of this type of cascade concerns sea otters. When they were nearly wiped out in the northern Pacific, their prey, sea urchins, ballooned in number and decimated kelp forests, turning a rich environment into a barren one and also possibly contributing to numerical extinctions, notably of the Steller’s sea cow.

Conservationists tend to focus on rare and endangered species, but it is common ones, because of their abundance, that power the living systems of our planet. Most species are not common, but within many animal groups most individuals — some 80 percent of them — belong to common species. Like the slow approach of twilight, their declines can be hard to see. White-rumped vultures were nearly gone from India before there was widespread awareness of their disappearance. Describing this phenomenon in the journal BioScience, Kevin Gaston, a professor of biodiversity and conservation at the University of Exeter, wrote: “Humans seem innately better able to detect the complete loss of an environmental feature than its progressive change.”

In addition to extinction (the complete loss of a species) and extirpation (a localized extinction), scientists now speak of defaunation: the loss of individuals, the loss of abundance, the loss of a place’s absolute animalness. In a 2014 article in Science, researchers argued that the word should become as familiar, and influential, as the concept of deforestation. In 2017 another paper reported that major population and range losses extended even to species considered to be at low risk for extinction. They predicted “negative cascading consequences on ecosystem functioning and services vital to sustaining civilization” and the authors offered another term for the widespread loss of the world’s wild fauna: “biological annihilation.”

 

It is estimated that, since 1970, Earth’s various populations of wild land animals have lost, on average, 60 percent of their members. Zeroing in on the category we most relate to, mammals, scientists believe that for every six wild creatures that once ate and burrowed and raised young, only one remains. What we have instead is ourselves. A study published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that if you look at the world’s mammals by weight, 96 percent of that biomass is humans and livestock; just 4 percent is wild animals.

We’ve begun to talk about living in the Anthropocene, a world shaped by humans. But E.O. Wilson, the naturalist and prophet of environmental degradation, has suggested another name: the Eremocine, the age of loneliness.

Wilson began his career as a taxonomic entomologist, studying ants. Insects — about as far as you can get from charismatic megafauna — are not what we’re usually imagining when we talk about biodiversity. Yet they are, in Wilson’s words, “the little things that run the natural world.” He means it literally. Insects are a case study in the invisible importance of the common.

Scientists have tried to calculate the benefits that insects provide simply by going about their business in large numbers. Trillions of bugs flitting from flower to flower pollinate some three-quarters of our food crops, a service worth as much as $500 billion every year. (This doesn’t count the 80 percent of wild flowering plants, the foundation blocks of life everywhere, that rely on insects for pollination.) If monetary calculations like that sound strange, consider the Maoxian Valley in China, where shortages of insect pollinators have led farmers to hire human workers, at a cost of up to $19 per worker per day, to replace bees. Each person covers five to 10 trees a day, pollinating apple blossoms by hand.

By eating and being eaten, insects turn plants into protein and power the growth of all the uncountable species — including freshwater fish and a majority of birds — that rely on them for food, not to mention all the creatures that eat those creatures. We worry about saving the grizzly bear, says the insect ecologist Scott Hoffman Black, but where is the grizzly without the bee that pollinates the berries it eats or the flies that sustain baby salmon? Where, for that matter, are we?

Bugs are vital to the decomposition that keeps nutrients cycling, soil healthy, plants growing and ecosystems running. This role is mostly invisible, until suddenly it’s not. After introducing cattle to Australia at the turn of the 19th century, settlers soon found themselves overwhelmed by the problem of their feces: For some reason, cow pies there were taking months or even years to decompose. Cows refused to eat near the stink, requiring more and more land for grazing, and so many flies bred in the piles that the country became famous for the funny hats that stockmen wore to keep them at bay. It wasn’t until 1951 that a visiting entomologist realized what was wrong: The local insects, evolved to eat the more fibrous waste of marsupials, couldn’t handle cow excrement. For the next 25 years, the importation, quarantine and release of dozens of species of dung beetles became a national priority. And that was just one unfilled niche. (In the United States, dung beetles save ranchers an estimated $380 million a year.) We simply don’t know everything that insects do. Only about 2 percent of invertebrate species have been studied enough for us to estimate whether they are in danger of extinction, never mind what dangers that extinction might pose.

When asked to imagine what would happen if insects were to disappear completely, scientists find words like chaos, collapse, Armageddon. Wagner, the University of Connecticut entomologist, describes a flowerless world with silent forests, a world of dung and old leaves and rotting carcasses accumulating in cities and roadsides, a world of “collapse or decay and erosion and loss that would spread through ecosystems” — spiraling from predators to plants. E.O. Wilson has written of an insect-free world, a place where most plants and land animals become extinct; where fungi explodes, for a while, thriving on death and rot; and where “the human species survives, able to fall back on wind-pollinated grains and marine fishing” despite mass starvation and resource wars. “Clinging to survival in a devastated world, and trapped in an ecological dark age,” he adds, “the survivors would offer prayers for the return of weeds and bugs.”

 

But the crux of the windshield phenomenon, the reason that the creeping suspicion of change is so creepy, is that insects wouldn’t have to disappear altogether for us to find ourselves missing them for reasons far beyond nostalgia. A study just out from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences referred to as “Krefeld comes to Puerto Rico” included data from the 1970s and from the early 2010s, when a tropical ecologist named Brad Lister returned to the rain forest where he had studied lizards — and, crucially, their prey — 40 years earlier. Lister set out sticky traps and swept nets across foliage in the same places he had in the 1970s, but this time he and his co-author, Andres Garcia, caught much, much less: 10 to 60 times less arthropod biomass than before. (It’s easy to read that number as 60 percent less, but it’s sixtyfold less: Where once he caught 473 milligrams of bugs, Lister was now catching just eight milligrams.) “It was, you know, devastating,” Lister told me. But even scarier were the ways the losses were already moving through the ecosystem, with serious declines in the numbers of lizards, birds and frogs. The paper reported “a bottom-up trophic cascade and consequent collapse of the forest food web.” Lister’s inbox quickly filled with messages from other scientists, especially people who study soil invertebrates, telling him they were seeing similarly frightening declines. Even after his dire findings, Lister found the losses shocking: “I didn’t even know about the earthworm crisis!”

The strange thing, Lister said, is that, as staggering as they are, all the declines he documented would still be basically invisible to the average person walking through the Luquillo rain forest. On his last visit, the forest still felt “timeless” and “phantasmagorical,” with “cascading waterfalls and carpets of flowers.” You would have to be an expert to notice what was missing. But he expects the losses to push the forest toward a tipping point, after which “there is a sudden and dramatic loss of the rain-forest system,” and the changes will become obvious to anyone. The place he loves will become unrecognizable.

The insects in the forest that Lister studied haven’t been contending with pesticides or habitat loss, the two problems to which the Krefeld paper pointed. Instead, Lister chalks up their decline to climate change, which has already increased temperatures in Luquillo by two degrees Celsius since Lister first sampled there. Previous research suggested that tropical bugs will be unusually sensitive to temperature changes; in November, scientists who subjected laboratory beetles to a heat wave reported that the increased temperatures made them significantly less fertile. Other scientists wonder if it might be climate-induced drought or possibly invasive rats or simply “death by a thousand cuts” — a confluence of many kinds of changes to the places where insects once thrived.

Like other species, insects are responding to what Chris Thomas, an insect ecologist at the University of York, has called “the transformation of the world”: not just a changing climate but also the widespread conversion, via urbanization, agricultural intensification and so on, of natural spaces into human ones, with fewer and fewer resources “left over” for nonhuman creatures to live on. What resources remain are often contaminated. Hans de Kroon characterizes the life of many modern insects as trying to survive from one dwindling oasis to the next but with “a desert in between, and at worst it’s a poisonous desert.” Of particular concern are neonicotinoids, neurotoxins that were thought to affect only treated crops but turned out to accumulate in the landscape and to be consumed by all kinds of nontargeted bugs. People talk about the “loss” of bees to colony collapse disorder, and that appears to be the right word: Affected hives aren’t full of dead bees, but simply mysteriously empty. A leading theory is that exposure to neurotoxins leaves bees unable to find their way home. Even hives exposed to low levels of neonicotinoids have been shown to collect less pollen and produce fewer eggs and far fewer queens. Some recent studies found bees doing better in cities than in the supposed countryside.

The diversity of insects means that some will manage to make do in new environments, some will thrive (abundance cuts both ways: agricultural monocultures, places where only one kind of plant grows, allow some pests to reach population levels they would never achieve in nature) and some, searching for food and shelter in a world nothing like the one they were meant for, will fail. While we need much more data to better understand the reasons or mechanisms behind the ups and downs, Thomas says, “the average across all species is still a decline.”

Since the Krefeld study came out, researchers have begun searching for other forgotten repositories of information that might offer windows into the past. Some of the Radboud researchers have analyzed long-term data, belonging to Dutch entomological societies, about beetles and moths in certain reserves; they found significant drops (72 percent, 54 percent) that mirrored the Krefeld ones. Roel van Klink, a researcher at the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research, told me that before Krefeld, he, like most entomologists, had never been interested in biomass. Now he is looking for historical data sets — many of which began as studies of agricultural pests, like a decades-long study of grasshoppers in Kansas — that could help create a more thorough picture of what’s happening to creatures that are at once abundant and imperiled. So far he has found forgotten data from 140 old data sets for 1,500 locations that could be resampled.

In the United States, one of the few long-term data sets about insect abundance comes from the work of Arthur Shapiro, an entomologist at the University of California, Davis. In 1972, he began walking transects in the Central Valley and the Sierras, counting butterflies. He planned to do a study on how short-term weather variations affected butterfly populations. But the longer he sampled, the more valuable his data became, offering a signal through the noise of seasonal ups and downs. “And so here I am in Year 46,” he said, nearly half a century of spending five days a week, from late spring to the end of autumn, observing butterflies. In that time he has watched overall numbers decline and seen some species that used to be everywhere — even species that “everyone regarded as a junk species” only a few decades ago — all but disappear. Shapiro believes that Krefeld-level declines are likely to be happening all over the globe. “But, of course, I don’t cover the entire globe,” he added. “I cover I-80.”

There are also new efforts to set up more of the kind of insect-monitoring schemes researchers wish had existed decades ago, so that our current level of fallenness, at least, is captured. One is a pilot project in Germany similar to the Danish car study. To analyze what is caught, the researchers turned to volunteer naturalists, hobbyists similar to the ones in Krefeld, with the necessary breadth of knowledge to know what they’re looking at. “These are not easy species to identify,” says Aletta Bonn, of the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research, who is overseeing the project. (The skills required for such work “are really extreme,” Dunn says. “These people train for decades with other amateurs to be able to identify beetles based on their genitalia.”) Bond would like to pay the volunteers for their expertise, she says, but funding hasn’t caught up to the crisis.

Thomas believes that this naturalist tradition is also why Europe is acting much faster than other places — for example, the United States — to address the decline of insects: Interest leads to tracking, which leads to awareness, which leads to concern, which leads to action. Since the Krefeld data emerged, there have been hearings about protecting insect biodiversity in the German Bundestag and the European Parliament. European Union member states voted to extend a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides and have begun to put money toward further studies of how abundance is changing, what is causing those changes and what can be done.

Stemming insect declines will require much more than this, however. The European Union already had some measures in place to help pollinators — including more strictly regulating pesticides than the United States does and paying farmers to create insect habitats by leaving fields fallow and allowing for wild edges alongside cultivation — but insect populations dropped anyway. New reports call for national governments to collaborate; for more creative approaches such as integrating insect habitats into the design of roads, power lines, railroads and other infrastructure; and, as always, for more studies. The necessary changes, like the causes, may be profound. “It’s just another indication that we’re destroying the life-support system of the planet,” Lister says of the Puerto Rico study. “Nature’s resilient, but we’re pushing her to such extremes that eventually it will cause a collapse of the system.”

Scientists hope that insects will have a chance to embody that resilience. While tigers tend to give birth to three or four cubs at a time, a ghost moth in Australia was once recorded laying 29,100 eggs, and she still had 15,000 in her ovaries. The fecund abundance that is insects’ singular trait should enable them to recover, but only if they are given the space and the opportunity to do so.

“It’s a debate we need to have urgently,” Goulson says. “If we lose insects, life on earth will. ...” He trailed off, pausing for what felt like a long time.

In Denmark, Sune Boye Riis’s transect with his car net took him past a bit of woods, some suburban lawns, some hedges, a Christmas-tree farm. The closest thing to a meadow that we passed was a large military property, on which the grass had been allowed to grow tall and golden. After three miles, he turned around and drove back toward the start. His windshield stayed mockingly clean.

Riis had four friends who were also participating in the study. They had a bet going among them: Who would net the biggest bug? “I’m way behind,” Riis said. “A bumblebee is in the lead.” His biggest catch? “A fly. Not even a big one.”

There was also a single butterfly, white-winged and delicate. Riis thought of the bet with his friends, for which the meaning of bigness had not been defined. He wondered how it might be reckoned. What gave a creature value?

“Is it weight?” he asked, staring down at the butterfly. In the big bag, it looked small and sad and alone. “Or is it grace?”

Brooke Jarvis is a contributing writer for the magazine. She last wrote about American children of undocumented parents.

Photo illustrations by Matt Dorfman

A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 2, 2018, on Page 41 of the Sunday Magazine, The New York Times with the headline: The Insect Apocalypse Is Here.

 

Happy Thanksgiving

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We sometimes get to see a wild Eastern turkey in our local woods. As you count blessings this Thanksgiving, remember all the wonderful creatures and plants that bless our world. I pray that we’ll find a way to preserve enough habitat and a relatively stable climate that future generations will enjoy an hospitable world as well.

If you happen to be in Utah for Thanksgiving, check out the tree planting event on the Jordan River that’s planned for Black Friday — 90 trees will be dug in by members of LDS Earth Stewardship. www.ldsearthstewardship.org

Vicky Clark, Earth Steward

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Many of us will miss greatly our dear friend Vicky Clark who passed away last week in her sleep. Though a great shock to her family and friends, Vicky left this life full of joy having just been present at the birth of her 31st grandchild. As recently as our September Day to Serve we benefited from Vicky’s willingness to help as she arranged for us to get a free truckload of shredded mulch for our Pleasant View project. I will miss Vicky’s smile and spirit. She inspired me through her exceptional energy. She served her large family of 3 daughters and 3 sons, taught school full-time for many years, and cared for her beloved husband who had Parkinsons. She shared her many talents generously. Vicky loved serving her God, her family, and her community.

In lieu of flowers Vicky’s family has asked that we do an act of service in her memory. We learned in her son’s eulogy that Vicky met her husband Brent during a canoeing event. She dropped her paddle and Brent was impressed as she dove into the river after the paddle. This is typical of her approach to life — dive in and do your best.

https://www.dignitymemorial.com/obituaries/apex-nc/vicky-clark-8043030?fbclid=IwAR3P7fOTMdRQOFBYaZ3bT5OfoiaXK_-BYMuRxRLFp-tMezwmelWH7Jci3QQ

 Ida Mayer and Vicky Clark at the Anacostia River tour with Earth Stewardship East, 2016.

Ida Mayer and Vicky Clark at the Anacostia River tour with Earth Stewardship East, 2016.

Stewardship and Creation

This post is related to the photos of the ancient pine and hemlock of Cook Forest (my previous post). The 350 year old trees were preserved because of the foresight of a man who made a fortune cutting trees but wanted to save one area so future generations could experience the woods.

Excerpts from an essay by Thomas Alexander, Professor of Western American History at Brigham Young University.

"The Mormon view—as taught by Joseph Smith and reinforced by Brigham Young and his colleagues—bore little relationship to classic American agrarianism or to nineteenth-century capitalism. The earth and its animal and vegetable inhabitants were living organisms with souls—not possessions, much less commodities. Every living thing occupied a place in God’s domain, and while each creation—the earth, the animals, the plants, and human beings—relied on one another, none owned the earth. As a living creation of God, the earth belonged only to Him, and it had an end in itself."

 "The Mormon settlers’ need for timber, which they satisfied by cutting free timber on the public lands, subverted doctrines of stewardship, the living earth, and the sanctity of life. Increasingly after the first decade, the prophets seemed unable to infuse the membership and the concepts of the unity of all living things that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young had taught, and Brigham Young seems to have become less conscious of it himself."

Thomas outlines the negative impact of excessive timber logging, grazing of herds, farming of sugar beets, smelting mined ores, and the burning of coal all of which led to environmental destruction.  He also briefly explores the positive response of later generations to counter this led by Church President Joseph F. Smith and others in the early 1900s:

"Relinking the wanton destruction of living things with personal morality while relying explicitly on the theological position that animals had eternal souls, President Smith condemned the needless destruction of fauna."

" In practice, Mormons seemed unable in many cases to follow the dictates of the most environmentally creative tenets of the prophetic teachings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young: ecological stewardship, sacralized entrepreneurship, and the fellowship of all living things under the fatherhood of God. On the other hand, the commitment of the second generation to the values of stewardship that derived from these teachings, coupled with the progressive sentiment in the community, facilitated the attack on some of the worst damage."

Though Alexander's essay extends only to 1930, his insights apply to us today.  The divide remains between Restored teachings of ecological stewardship and our culture's destructive consumerism.

Thomas G. Alexander, “Stewardship and Enterprise: The LDS Church and the Wasatch Oasis Environment, 1847–1930,” in Stewardship and the Creation: LDS Perspectives on the Environment, eds. George B. Handley, Terry B. Ball, and Steven L. Peck (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center), 2006.

Read the entire essay here: https://rsc.byu.edu/archived/stewardship-and-creation/stewardship-and-enterprise-lds-church-and-wasatch-oasis

 

Old Growth Trees

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Cook Forest Pennsylvania

Ancient white pine and hemlock cover 2,300 acres in this PA park. There are beautiful trails in the Forest Cathedral, considered the finest stand of tall white pine and hemlock in the Northeast US. Some trees are 350 years old and 200+ feet tall.

If you have a favorite “local” camping area, please tell us about it. We can post about it as a blog or under “Our Nature” where we have posts on local trails and parks.

I love old trees so when I learned of Cook Forest in Pennsylvania, I decided we had to visit this park of 8,500 wooded acres. By visiting in the fall we were the only ones using the state park camp site (mid-week) on the first night with only one other cabin used the second night. There’s a two night minimum for the cabins ($40/night). I’d guess this is a very busy area in the summer from all the tourist signs and services in the area near the park.

Above photos are from the trail we walked just behind our cabin. My hiking is limited these days due to an ankle injury but for the more able, there are many trails nearby. Another option is to float down the Clarion River which borders the park. Water was running too high when we were there but canoes can be rented for $30 which includes being dropped off at a launch site.

Camp cabins were built by the CCC in the 1930s and retain the charming furniture created then. I forgot to pack dishes and spoons but could improvise with a piece of apple and recycled paper bowl. Part of the fun of not staying in a hotel is getting to improvise. I hope you consider doing a local vacation and stay in our many area parks — no need to go far for nature. — Merikay

Click on photo above to see slide show. First photo shows a tree that has died at least in part because someone cleared a substantial area of bark to carve.

If you have more time, another great wooded outing in that area of PA is the beautiful Fallingwater, the masterpiece by Frank Lloyd Wright designed in 1935. It’s near the Youghiogheny River and waterfall. More adventurous kayakers enjoy this river for its rapids. Another nearby site is the historic Ft. Necessity where George Washington’s battle leading British troops against the French led to what we know as the French and Indian War. For us the highlight of the trip was seeing the Kirtland Temple and associated historic sites like the N.K. Whitney store. It’s only a few miles from Lake Erie which is an awesome sight too.

New Website and Logo for LDS Earth Stewardship

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LDS Earth Stewardship has launched a new website at www.ldsearthstewardship.org. We also have a simple new logo. Please take a few minutes to visit this new website — it’s more than an attractive update. You will definitely want to explore the new searchable database of scriptures, teachings, and articles that bring together in one place teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regarding Creation and earth stewardship. Carlee Reber with the help of others spent many, many hours gathering and cross indexing to create this tremendous resource. I plan to spend time exploring and learning from what has been gathered together for our benefit.

Day to Serve, Sept. 22

Join us on Saturday, September 22 at 9:30 am for a light breakfast then service. Help complete our native plant garden at historic Pleasant View (11810 Darnetown Road, Gaithersburg) by planting native trees and perennials.  We'll also weed and mulch to prepare for winter. Former students of the historic school will be available to answer questions about the fascinating past of Pleasant View. Members of the Potomac/Bethesda Wards of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will join us. Bring shovels, hand spades and work gloves if you have them. 

Visit "Pleasant View" on our home page to see how much we have accomplished since April of 2017. 

 It helps immensely if I know in advance how many people to expect -- RSVP to Merikay at merikays@verizon.net.

To learn more about the region-wide Day to Serve events:  www.daytoserve.org.

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Par Rasmussen, "Let's Do Service"

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Par's personal journey to earth stewardship inspires me.  What you don't see in the video below is that Par has spent his life in service caring for Creation.  His motto, "Let's do service!", isn't just a tag line on his emails, it is what he does daily. I hope you'll enjoy this video he has created -- the first of what we hope will become many as we lift each other in our efforts to serve our Creator and creation.

Sky Gratitude

 Image photo from Benjamin Davies.

Image photo from Benjamin Davies.

My father taught us to marvel at the changing cloud patterns and sunrise and sunsets with gratitude to our Creator. Have you been inspired by the sky's molten mirror?  Here are some sky images to inspire -- please send me a photo of a sky that has inspired you and I'll post it here.  (merikays@verizon.net)  

Click on the photo below to see slideshow.  Photos from Terri Pitts, Ralph Johnson (2), Matthew Wahlquist, Merikay Smith (4).

Venus Flytrap

A young friend has asked me to post about the Venus flytrap, a carnivorous plant that is native to our region.  I remember on one of our beach trips walking on a trail where signage indicated we might see the Venus flytrap which is found in North and South Carolina, primarily within a 60 mile perimeter of Wilmington.  This unusual plant speaks to me of the amazing diversity within Creation.

Photos above show the open flytrap and the plant's small flower.   Dionaea muscipula catches its prey—chiefly insects and spiders—with a trapping structure triggered by tiny hairs on their inner surfaces. When an insect or spider crawling along the leaves contacts a hair, the trap prepares to close, snapping shut only if another contact occurs within approximately twenty seconds of the first strike. Triggers may occur if one-tenth of the insect is within contact. The requirement of redundant triggering in this mechanism serves as a safeguard against wasting energy by trapping objects with no nutritional value, and the plant will only begin digestion after five more stimuli to ensure it has caught a live bug worthy of consumption. If the prey is too small it will escape and the trap opens again within 12 hours.  If the prey squirms vigorously this triggers faster digestion.

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Most carnivorous plants selectively feed on specific prey. This selection is due to the available prey and the type of trap used by the organism. With the Venus flytrap, prey is limited to beetles, spiders and other crawling arthropods. In fact, the Dionaea diet is 33% ants, 30% spiders, 10% beetles, and 10% grasshoppers, with fewer than 5% flying insects. When the trap is shut it seals forming a "stomach" and digestive enzymes are released. 

Carnivorous plants specialized to survive in places that were poor in nutrients like bogs. You can purchase a Venus flytrap but keeping it is more like having a pet than a plant in some ways.  It's important to know the source of any purchased native plants, especially those that are vulnerable.  In the case of the Venus flytrap, it is a felony to remove it from a natural area in North Carolina. (summarized from Wikkipedia where you can learn more)

There's a local nursery that specializes in carnivorous plants, owned by Michael Szesze. There are more than 650 carnivorous plants in the world and Michael Szesze guesses he’s got about “four to five hundred” of them growing outside his house in Derwood, Maryland.   Szesze is a science educator who has created a business from his life-long interest in carnivorous plants.  His website has useful information if you want to create a bog garden with carnivorous plants. It also includes some free educational kits related to the Venus flytrap.

 https://carnivorousplantnursery.com/blogs/education/

For info on other interesting plants and animals that live in our region, select "Our Nature" from the Eartheast main menu.

Summer Sunshine

This is a great week to visit McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area to see the fields of sunflowers.  Helianthus annuus, the common sunflower is one of 70 Helianthus species, 67 of which are native to North America.  Sunflowers are grown for oil and seeds as well as its sunny yellow flowers.  There are three large fields of sunflowers at McKee-Beshers and all are in full bloom now.  Park to the side of River Road just before Hunting Quarter Road to walk to the main field which is not visible from the road. There's a wood sign at the entrance. Photos above were taken on July 8, 2018.

If you visit plant to take the side roads nearby (Hunting Quarter Road and Sycamore Landing) to explore the wetlands which provide great birding and a variety of native water plants including hardy hibiscus which are beginning to bloom.  There are miles of trails through forests, fields and wetlands as well as the C&O canal.  Nearby is an interesting Buddhist temple with two large stupas.  They welcome visitors and it's worth stopping by, about a mile north of the main parking area for McKee-Beshers. 

For lots of other great ideas of places to visit nearby, select "Our Nature" from the home page and you'll find posts on trails and other natural areas to visit.

Local photographer Terri Pitts shares her sunflower shots, including one with goldfinches and her photos from the nearby wetlands. Click below to see slideshow. 

"We've Come This Far By Faith"

Looking ahead at Pleasant View it's helpful to remember the song sung at the 150th celebration, "We've Come This Far By Faith."  Leaders at Pleasant View are working to renovate the historic church and school so they can teach local history and be a resource for the community.  Our group will continue to care for the native plant garden we have created as a place to educate others on sustainable habitat creation.  Our efforts are making a difference.  Many of our ~250 Pleasant View volunteers have also begun to increased their efforts to plant natives on their own properties. 

Merikay and Jeff continue to work in the garden as they can. If you have even just 30 minutes to share please pull weeds at the garden or around our trees. It makes a difference as small weeds pulled now don't mature to spread or drop seeds.  If you want company when you're there contact Merikay and she will join you.  merikays@verizon.net

We've added plant tags for many of the plants so visitors and volunteers can learn from our garden.  Volunteers who don't know anything about gardening are very welcome to help and ask questions.

Grateful to Dara who is arranging for another 100 donated native plants from Pope Farm.  Thanks also to the Chesapeake Bay Trust and the Montgomery County Watershed Protection Fund for the $25,000 grant which has provided for the plants and supplies to create our native plant garden.

Click on photo gallery to see more.

150th Celebration

Pleasant View, June 23, noon to 4 pm

Our native plant gardens are looking good and will be an added attraction during the festivities celebrating Pleasant View's 150th anniversary.  Hope to see you there.

To RSVP visit http://pleasantviewsite.org/junefest/

Photos are from last year's JuneFest at Pleasant View.

You Can Do It

Control flooding, replace lost habitat, remove pollution from our waterways, sequester carbon, moderate local weather:  You can do it!

Replacing lawn (or part of our lawns) with native trees, shrubs and other native plants helps hold water during rain events to control flooding and improve water quality.  Plants are great at holding and breaking down pollutants that would otherwise do harm if washed into streams.  Trees are powerful at capturing carbon and releasing oxygen -- they can also reduce nearby temperatures by 10 - 15 degrees.  Their roots and leaves hold water during rain greatly reducing flooding and during drought their roots can bring water up through their leaves into the atmosphere.  Millions of acres a year in the U.S. are developed -- going from natural habitat to impervious surfaces (roads, roofs, driveways) and lawn -- lots of lawn.  If each of us chooses to we can help moderate the loss of habitat by planting native plants.

Check out this diagram showing the difference between turf grass root depth and other plants.  Think about the difference this has for land use -- when much of our surface in developed areas is either impervious or lawn.  Recent storms and resultant flooding are reminders of the need for better stewardship.

You Can Do It!

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Ninebark (that lovely shrub with very long roots) and black-eyed susans shown above are planted in our Pleasant View garden.  Come check out the various native plants we have there and get ideas for your own home garden.  Check our posts under "Pleasant View" for volunteer dates.

James Baird Tree Planting

James Baird passed away this past February unexpectedly after serving only a relatively short time as President of the Washington DC Stake.  He was much loved, not just by family and friends but throughout our Stake and in the community beyond our faith.  Below is part of a talk given by James Baird to his congregation when he was their bishop.  As I prepared for the native tree planting to honor James, I had the text of this talk in mind.

"One of my weaknesses that I’m aware of, is the fact that I am basically a telestial man. I love this earth. I like to work in the dirt. I love to watch the sunset on warm beaches. I love the taste of a fresh toasted tomato sandwich with mayo, sea salt, and fresh-ground pepper. I love to stand in cold streams and try to outsmart the fish who have a brain the size of a pea. I love all of the physical sensations that my physical body experiences, like the way my stomach feels when you go over a rise too fast in a car. I love so much of what comes into my ears, my mouth, my nose, on my skin. I have spent much of my life pursuing these pleasures, and trying to provide them for others. I justify all this by reading in Genesis that God created all this for the use and benefit of man, to gladden his eye and lighten his heart. Certainly He wants us to appreciate His beautiful creations. While not a complete epicurean, I am well aware of how much I love all that God has placed for me on this earth, and have trouble imagining that it is any better up there.
Maybe there are a few of you who feel this way too. Then why should we work to get off this planet that God placed us on and created for our use and happiness? How can we enjoy all this beauty and still... try to rise above it all?"

James is no longer a telestial man. Knowing how marvelous our natural world is, we can have confidence and complete faith that our loving Heavenly Father has prepared for James joys and experiences beyond our ability to imagine. I feel much as James, that God wants us to appreciate His beautiful creations. To do that we need to spend time in nature, learn more about and show greater care for Creation. We can enjoy all this beauty and in the process, we are often inspired "to rise above it all".

Some of the stalwart volunteers who arrived two hours early to get our trees planted before a major storm hit.  We were joined by about 30 volunteers with others who certainly would have been there except for the storm and change in schedule.

Photos from Merikay Smith and Chalice Leaman.  Thanks to everyone who came to help honor James Baird by planting an area of native redbud trees.  If you missed this activity, join us in the fall as we add native ground cover plants, remove more invasive plants, and continue to make this an area of the DC Stake Center where people will remember James Baird.

Earth Day 2018

We had ten young people join us for our Earth Day project on April 21 at Pleasant View (and 19 adults).  They were all helpful and seemed to enjoy the day.  What an opportunity for the SSL student who got to work side by side with Bill Phillips (Nobel Prize in physics, 1997).  Turns out we're all about equal when it comes to working at Pleasant View.  Even young weeders can recognize and dig out wild onion and teens are great at moving mulch by wheelbarrow.  More details and photos under "Pleasant View".

Click on photo to see more.

Free Native Trees

 Redbud and white pines in Merikay's garden -- mature examples of some of the trees available.

Redbud and white pines in Merikay's garden -- mature examples of some of the trees available.

FREE TREES: Just got word that my order of 350 native trees from the Maryland DNR is available this week. I'll pick up the trees on Thursday and will be distributing them from my house at 14909 Spring Meadows Drive, Germantown, MD on Friday from 9 am to 11 am and Saturday from 10 am to noon and 2 pm to 4 pm (between conference sessions for our time zone). Each person/family can take up to ten. I distribute them on a first-come basis and can't guarantee that I'll have particular trees. 

What I expect to be getting are:

50 white pine
50 willow oak
50 swamp white oak
50 eastern redbud
50 redosier dogwood
50 hazel alder
50 southern magnolia

Please note that these are small bare root seedlings, about one to two feet tall. They should be planted as soon as possible after pickup. Though it has been cold if the ground is not frozen it's a good time to plant the trees. They'll have more time to get established before summer heat arrives. Bring a bucket or plastic bags, also newspaper if you have some -- it helps to wrap trees in wet newspaper for transport.

Some of you live too far away to benefit from this tree give away, but I'd encourage you to check online -- it's likely that your city or county offers some kind of incentive to plant native trees.  You might even consider helping distribute native plants to your community.  It's a great way to meet neighbors as well as to make a positive and lasting impact on your local habitat. 

'Popsicle' Wood Frogs

We've jumped from winter to spring in the past few days. Wood frogs, AKA 'Popsicle' frogs have thawed out and are croaking like crazy. About two dozen have been croaking night and day calling to their mates in my garden pond. It's a case of build it and they will come -- adding a water feature to your garden, especially if you have plentiful native trees, shrubs and ground cover means you'll have lots of wildlife, including frogs. I love how the season unfolds in frog time, first with the wood frogs then the spring peepers and on until fall with a new batch of eggs and tadpoles arriving to the pond just as the last hop out.

When my energy to do earth stewardship starts to fail, I spend some time outside and am awestruck by Creation.  Imagine, these wood frogs create an antifreeze from their body fluids in the fall and are able to stop their hearts and freeze entirely then thaw out again as temperatures rise.

Learn more about wood frogs at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fjr3A_kfspM
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLPeehsXAr4