To Bee? Or Not To Bee?

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I read a very disturbing story in Science magazine this month. A German amateur scientific group, the Krefeld Entomological Society, has conducted surveys of insect populations since 1989. These surveys show that the total mass of flying insects collected has declined by almost 80% in this time. Though the story in the May 10 issue of Science (Where Have All the Insects Gone?) does not make an assertion as to the cause for the decline, or whether the decline is limited to the European sites monitored by this society, they do mention the windshield effect. That is, are drivers encountering fewer bugs as they drive in the summer months, and is that symptomatic of a decline in insect populations?

If the monitored decline is widespread, then what does that say about potential effects on wildlife populations and diversity? At this time of year, we are very aware of the insect population, especially as we watch parent birds deliver squirming loads of protein to the next bird generation. If flying insects are in decline, then it indicates a decline in overall insect populations, and that has to be harmful to the species that live off of the abundance of insects in the warmer months.

The story does go into potential causes of the decline in population. Habitat loss in particular is mentioned as a potential contributing factor. But the story implies that a class of pesticides already identified as a factor in bee colony collapse, may also be contributing to the observed flying insect population declines. Neonicotinoid pesticides were developed in the 1980’s and were used for seed coatings beginning in the 1990’s. These pesticides have extremely low mammalian toxicity. But they are mobile in the environment, and are water soluble. Studies have shown that wildflowers adjacent to crop plantings can have concentrations of neonicotinoids higher than on the crop plants.

So this clearly is an issue that requires swift study, and if studies indicate it is justified, then it necessitates new regulations for this class of pesticide. Now let me state something from a personal perspective. I worked for a company that manufactures both herbicides and pesticides. For a good part of my career, the Ag Products division was my work home. I believe that agricultural chemicals provide benefits that outweigh their risks to the environment. I am not one who is chemophobic. And herbicides and pesticides are already among the most heavily regulated chemicals ever manufactured. But occasionally, a class of compounds is commercialized, only to discover decades later that there were unintended harmful consequences to non-target species. This happened with the chlorinated hydrocarbons like DDT. They had low direct mammalian toxicity, but when they accumulated in animals, they caused reproductive harm.

Another series of articles in Science recently discussed the ongoing extinctions that are occurring in the new anthropocene era. The anthropocene is the new geologic era defined by the effects that humanity is causing to our planet, and is now officially recognized by scientists. One of the points of the articles was that the inter-relationships between species are complex, and it is difficult to predict the effects on the system as a whole if one of the pieces disappears (becomes extinct).

What this means is as humanity continues to impose its will on the earth, resulting in the extinction of more and more species, the unexpected effects will continue to grow. At some point, a step-change in the system will show up, and suddenly a large portion of the ecosystem will not work. Bee colonies are a good example of this. Humanity is reliant on bees serving as pollinators for a wide variety of foods. So if we continue to use insecticides that harm bee colonies, then sometime soon we will not have many of our fruits and nuts and oil seeds available as our food sources. We are all related in life on this earth, and we are not immune to the ills of the ecosystem as a whole.

Unfortunately, within the US, the ruling political class has grown hostile to considering the health of natural systems as one of the inputs to making laws or regulations. Since flying insects do not contribute to dark money PACS, they have no advocate in the US Congress or in the administration. Instead, there are efforts to roll back science-based regulations within the EPA. Already the EPA has put a hold on a recommendation from a science advisory committee within the EPA that would have banned the use of the insecticide chlorpyrifos. See, with this administration, money and economic growth are the only things worth considering. All of this science stuff, well, how much money is donated to politician’s campaigns from scientists anyway? Not nearly as much as from chemical companies. So who should we listen to? Those who say that there is statistical correlation (though not proven causation) between exposure to a class of pesticides, and children with increased frequency of ADHD? Or those who donate?

Simplistic thinking breeds simplistic solutions. The natural world though, is complex, and is shaded not in black and white, but in a rainbow of bright hues. When you have an administration that looks at a problem solely in economic terms, and views regulations as barriers to economic growth, then you will develop solutions that cause great harm to the natural systems we rely upon. At some point, the hubris of the human race will cause us to be dashed against the rocks of reality as nature has its way. If only we can recognize our folly and act to reverse it before it determines our fate!

It’s Easy Being Green (in May)

 

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Green overwhelms the drab browns and grays of winter. What was barren only weeks ago is now hidden behind a facade of new leaves everywhere. The new growth comes so quickly, and the rains come so frequently, that it is nigh unto impossible to keep the grass trimmed. Tall shafts of green topped with pollen-bearing flowers stick up throughout the portion of the lawn awaiting its next shearing.

Spring reinvigorates me. My activity goes up as it is necessary to tend to all of the tasks that a semi-managed landscape requires. Weeding is chief among these tasks. At this time of year, if I diligently attempt to rid all of the flower beds of weeds, by the time I finished the last bed I’d need to go back and tackle the first bed again. But that is not a concern as I listen to the incredible song of the mockingbirds. Our neighborhood has been invaded by these wondrous birds, who have the remarkable ability to spin out a stream of birdsongs from our woods. I have often wondered about the evolutionary pathway that led to a mockingbird having this instinct imprinted in its genes. Most birdsong serves simple purposes. Hey, I’m wonderful, come mate with me. Hey, this is my turf, stay out. Hey, you, get away from my babies. But a mockingbird starts singing its aria for no apparent reason that I can tell. And that aria can continue for an incredibly long time.

It’s only the middle of May, but our bluebirds appear to have already fledged. We didn’t see them go, we only noticed that we had not heard the excited chirping of the chicks as their mother arrived with yet another morsel for them. It’s funny how it takes a while for you to notice the absence of something. You will always notice when something happens, but if something goes away, it may take days or weeks before you realize that there’s been a change. Speaking of something coming back, I’ve heard the distinctive call of the pileated woodpecker for the first time in a couple of years.

The daffodils that graced our gardens in early spring now are fading away. Many of the clumps have fallen onto the ground, looking like someone had sat down on them. They will slowly wither, and by June I will be clearing out the browning stems, as their work of feeding the budding bulbs below ground is completed. Later this year I will scout to see which clusters of bulbs have pushed up to the surface. I will fill buckets with bulbs as I work to keep the bulbs healthy. Then the progeny of these bulbs will grace other landscapes as I share the wealth. But that will happen in August and September, when this year’s growth has gone stale, and the ground cracks open from the heat and dryness of late summer.

Next week we will be planting new trees in our front yard. We lost a large hemlock last year when we had it taken down. That tree grew large enough to engulf our electric lines, and we were fortunate to never have had it take the power out due to a limb falling. But the tree got topped in the derecho of 2012, and had been dying from the top down. So we are coming back with much smaller trees, a flowering cherry and two dogwoods, as replacements for the one that is gone. The grass I seeded on the grave of the hemlock has sprouted, and is sticking through the straw placed to help keep the ground and young grass moist. We’ve had enough rain that I’ve only watered the straw once since it was planted. Within a week or two it will be strong enough to mow. Early spring does wonders for all growing things.

But with the growth, also comes victims of spring. Our hunting cat Blinky showed up with a chipmunk in its mouth. Cats have a very distinctive cry when they want to get your attention because they have prey. If you’ve heard the guttural sound, you know instantly what you are in for. In this case, the chipmunk was not quite dead yet, and we had to move it outside, where our cat found it and finished it off. Just a reminder that the cycle of life also includes death, and the brilliant greens and bright colors of spring flowers will also meet their end as our planet spins around to the other side of the sun and we lose the benefit of the summertime length of day and head towards another winter.