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In search of creepy crawlies

Yesterday, as I stood next to a neighboring field, I realized I could hear individual bees. When you spend time with bees, you learn to recognize their sound. The buzz of a honey bee buzz is very different from that of a bumble bee, for example.

But as I observed this field—thick with oxeye daisies, St. John’s-wort, dandelions, and tall grasses—I realized it was missing the cumulative cacophony of a thousand species. As a kid I was overwhelmed—and rather intimidated—by that sound. Bugs were everywhere. Bees, beetles, flies, crickets—all manner of creepy crawlies calling to each other, threatening each other, eating each other.

The flowers were more varied too. Little and big, pink and yellow and blue. They were prickly, smelly, tickly, or icky. And, for the most part, they were native. Diversity of things goes hand-in-hand: more species of flowers means more species of bugs—and vice versa. So where did they go? Why did they go?

Here and abroad, our lands have lost the diversity that made them rich. Throughout the world countless numbers of species go extinct each year. I use the word “countless” deliberately because some of the species we are losing have not yet been recognized, classified, or named. In short, we don’t know what we are losing—only that we are losing it.

Future generations will not know the wonder of a wild meadow teeming with mysterious beasties. Kids will not be able to sweep a butterfly net through a hedgerow and scoop up terrifying creatures to store in mason jars beneath the bed. That is all history.

The why of it is complex:

  • The overuse of insecticides, which kill what?
  • The overuse of herbicides, which kill the plants that insects live in, on, and under.
  • Habitat fragmented by barriers that insects can’t easily cross. Barriers include cities, freeways, cultivated acreage, housing developments, and chemically-tended lawns and golf courses.
  • The introduction of non-native plants which have no natural enemies and so out-compete the native plants.
  • The introduction of non-native insects which may prey upon the native species or consume their food sources.
  • The introduction of non-native diseases, pathogens, and parasites against which the native species have no immunity.
  • The hybridization of flowering garden and crop plants. Many hybrids do not attract or support insects—particularly the pollinators—because they have reduced odor, nectar, or pollen.
  • Monoculture plantings—including row crops, grains, orchards, and commercial forests—that are not diverse enough to support complete communities of insects.

So what do we do? We cannot go back, we can only start from where we are now. But, please, go outside. Find a bug. Try to figure out what it is. What it eats. Where it lives. Only by understanding them can we ever appreciate them. And if we—collectively—can appreciate them perhaps we can find a way to save the remainder.


Native bumble bee on a lilac leaf. Photo by the author.

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