Chances are, unless you’re an entomologist or an exterminator, you don’t spend much of your day thinking about bugs. But if you spend a few minutes a day, or even more than a few minutes, you’re probably worried about our natural world. So am I.
The lowly bug, so often viewed with derision, trampled underfoot, sprayed with poison, swatted, and ridiculed – just so happens to be supporting life on this planet, and that includes us. It’s beyond time for us to give insects the overdue love, nurturing, and attention they deserve – because they are in deep trouble. And it’s all out fault.
The Insect Apocalypse
Insects around the world are facing an apocalypse as a result of toxins we humans put into the environment and as a result of anthropogenic (yep, that’s us too) climate change. Like plants, insects are a foundational contributor to sustaining life on Earth. And it’s up to use to save them.
I must say, writing this post was like pulling a thread on a sweater that slowly began to unravel. One link to one piece of research led to another and another. As I learned more about insects, I understood even more acutely how they personify the interdependence of life on Earth – how fully we all depend on biodiversity.
And it’s our own hubris – our self-involved preoccupation with our own species, how we fetishize our own wants, politics, and neuroses – that has caused us to totally drop the ball, to miss the big picture and allow this catastrophe to happen. Time to wake up and take stronger action.
How do insects support life on Earth?
As explained by the e-learning site CK12, insects perform many important functions that sustain life on our planet:
- They aerate the soil.
- They pollinate flowering plants. (Thanks bees, wasps, butterflies, and ants!)
- They help control the size of other insect populations, such as aphids and caterpillars, who eat plants. (Thanks lady bugs, spiders, and praying mantises!)
- They feed birds, fish, reptiles, other animals, and other insects.
- They scavenge, eating fallen trees and dead animals, and then recycle those nutrients back into the soil. (Thanks, beetles!)
- They create top soil, which is the nutrient-rich layer of soil that is fundamental to helping plants grow. (Thanks, all bugs for fertilizing the soil with your droppings!)
- They burrow and dig, creating underground tunnels that help provide water to plants. (Thanks beetles and ants!)
Pollinating insects help at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of our wild plants to thrive. Without bees to spread seeds, many plants, including food crops, would die off (NRDC).
In essence, Nature has things dialed down. She’s been doing this for a very long time, and insects are part of her creation. They deserve to be here as much as we do. And clearly, we need each other!
Many Species of Insects, but an Alarming Drop in Their Populations
According to Scientific American, there are close to one million species of insects on Earth, and some entomologists think there could be 30-times that number that are yet to be discovered. By comparison, there are only 5,416 species of mammals.
But report after report is showing that insect populations are in staggering decline all over the world:
- A study published in PLOS ONE in 2017 conducted research that spanned the past three decades. It found that 75% of flying insects have vanished from 63 nature protection areas studied in Germany.
- A study published in Science in 2014 reported that there was a 45 percent drop in the number of invertebrates worldwide, most of which are insects.
- A 2018 census found an alarming decline in monarch butterflies on the California coast. Scientists in Australia were also shocked by similar decline in there.
- In 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bumble bee on the Endangered Species List for the first time in history because there’s been an 88 percent decline in their numbers and an 87 percent loss in the amount of territory they inhabit.
- And by no means a side note (though I’m trying to stay focused on insects here), 40% of the world’s bird populations are in decline, according to a study released by the nonprofit BirdLife International.
This is not acceptable and its solely our responsibility to fix this. Here are some ideas for how we can all help.
What You Can Do to Help Bees, Butterflies, and Other Insects
1. Eat certified organic and non-GMO verified foods.
This one’s a biggie. According to the nonprofit Pesticide Action Network (PAN), herbicide-resistant, genetically modified (GE) seeds “have driven a massive increase in pesticide applications since they hit the market in the 1990s — and that’s no accident.”
Genetically modified seeds are causing farmers to use more pesticides and herbicides, which kill all kinds of insects, including pollinators on whom our food supply is dependent.
According to PAN, GE crops have not delivered on their promise of producing higher yields and reduced reliance on pesticides. Instead, they’ve dramatically driven up the use of harmful chemical inputs, which has put a burden of health risks and higher costs on farmers and their local communities.
- Adoption of GE seeds and crops in the U.S. has resulted in a 527 million pound increase in herbicide use between 1996 and 2011, according to USDA data.
- And in 2011 alone GE crops used 20 percent more pesticides on average than non-GE crops.
GE seeds that require an increase in pesticide use has increased the market share for corporations, including Bayer, which now owns Monsanto, and DowDuPont – companies that make pesticides and that are responsible for genetically modifying seeds. Bayer buying Monsanto has created a giant seeds and pesticides company. Why else would a pesticide company want to own a seed company? It makes financial sense for them.
Let’s always keep in mind: Pesticides are poison.
As poisons, pesticides should be an exception. Why have they become the norm and organic the exception? I get that it’s a complicated issue. Some studies show that GM crops have resulted in a decrease in the use of some chemical insecticides. But that’s a rarity. And insects and birds are still facing a threat of mass extinction.
A class of pesticides called neonicotinoids have been found to cause entire colonies of honeybees to collapse.
The nonprofit Beyond Pesticides provides a variety of resources that explains how this works, such as this video:
According to the Organic Consumers Association, GM seeds are drenched in neonicotinoids. Furthermore, Monsanto’s Roundup (glyphosate), which is used to grow GMO crops as well as to kill weeds in yards, gardens, schoolyards, and public parks, are killing bees and other pollinators. In addition, its impacting birds and other wildlife, and not to mention – us. (Gluten sensitivity is not just a fad. It’s directly tied to the increased use of Roundup on wheat fields.)
I’m all for capitalism and making money – but only if it’s done in a way with minimal health, animal, and environmental impact – not greed. You don’t have to be a scientist to know that:
Less Poison in Our Environment and Less Death of Living Creatures = Good
More Poison and More Death = Bad
What’s good for the birds and bees is good for us.
Look for the USDA Certified and Non-GMO Verified labels.
In the U.S., all USDA certified organic foods are non-GMO. Different countries have their own organic certification programs (if they have them at all), so it’s important to be familiar with the standards for the country in which you live.
The Non-GMO Project is a certification system that ensures that a food contains less than 0.9% genetically modified ingredients. However, there’s no rule that says non-GMO foods must also be grown without pesticides. In fact, according to the Food Babe, non-GMO crops like wheat can be pre-harvested with Roundup and still be considered non-GMO.
In an interview on iHealthTube, Jeffrey Smith, a world-renowned expert on GMOs and the author of the book Seeds of Deception, says that the only problem with going with straight USDA organic certification is that USDA certified organic, while it prohibits the use of GMOs, does not actually test for GMOs. Whereas, Non-GMO Verified does.
Here’s a video where Jeffrey Smith explains the difference between USDA Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified:
So, long story short, for your health and the health of the birds, bees, and everyone else, eat certified organic foods whenever possible, and look for the two seals on your food products. Yes, organic and non-GMO foods can be more expensive, but of all the investments you can make, investing in your health and life on this planet is a no-brainer.
2. When you wear cotton, make sure it’s organic cotton.
- Cotton accounts for 24% of the insecticides and pesticides used globally, while just comprising 2.4% of the world’s crop land (Pesticide Action Network).
- 94% of the cotton grown in the U.S. is genetically modified (USDA).
In addition, non-organic, commercial cotton has a host of other problems associated with it.
3. Use sheets, towels, dish towels, and other textiles that are made with organic cotton.
If you look around your home, you can probably find a lot of cotton besides your clothing. For the same reason you want organic cotton clothes, you should opt for other organic cotton textiles. The more of us who demand only organic cotton, the less pesticides will be used. In addition, increased demand will help drive the cost of organic cotton down. Let’s make organic cotton the norm instead of the exception.
4. When gardening and growing food, don’t use pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, or artificial fertilizers.
There are a number of ways you can create a healthy garden while avoiding the use of toxic and artificial fertilizers. The “But is it vegan?” question does come into play with some organic fertilizers, such as manure, sea bird and earthworm castings, and bat guano, so you’ll have to make a decision on whether you want to go with those options are not. Kitchen compost can also be a great source for organic fertilizer, providing you’re eating organic foods.
Natural, vegan fertilizers that provide a good source of nitrogen include organic alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, and soybean meal. While rock phosphate can be a good source for phosphorus, which helps with root development, flowering blooms, sturdy stems, and winter hardiness. And kelp meal is a good source of potassium, which also promotes flower blooms as well as fruit production and resistance to pests.
Planting companion plants in your garden can also naturally repel pests. For example, garlic repels aphids and basil helps to protect tomatoes.
5. Plant native plants in your yard and garden.
Planting different types of native plants provides food and refuge for insects. According to an article in The Guardian, 97% of the wildflower meadows in the UK alone have been destroyed.
And a study published in the Smithsonian found that the lack of native plants in people’s yards has led to a decline in suburban bird populations. “Insect-eating birds that depend on the availability of high-calorie, high-protein cuisine — namely caterpillars and spiders — during the breeding season to feed their young are finding the menu severely lacking in backyards landscaped with even a small proportion of nonnative plants.”
National Geographic recommends having some kind of native plant blooming for each season, or at least in spring, summer, and fall, to support pollinators, as some species are active for a couple months each year, while others are active year round.
In addition, a variety of types of native plants that are different heights and shapes encourage a diversity of insects.
The nonprofit BugLife provides useful information for planting with insect health in mind.
And if you like to grow some non-native fruits, vegetables, and other plants, National Geographic recommends planting native plants on borders in your garden. This will improve pollination of your crops and will attract and support a variety of pollinators, such as wasps and hover flies, which control crop pests.
6. Create mini habitats on your roof, balcony, or windowsill.
The majority of people in the U.S., about 63%, live in metropolitan areas, and about 77% live in detached, single family homes. But whether you live in the city or suburbs, in a mobile home or an apartment on the 20th floor, you have the opportunity to create a mini habitat to help insects and other species.
Naturalist bloggers Nancy Lawson of The Humane Gardener and Kelly Brenner of The Metropolitan Field Guide provide a plethora of ideas for creating sanctuaries where insects can thrive, even outside a high-rise in the big city.
Window flower boxes, potted plants on balconies, vertical gardens on walls, and rooftop gardens planted with native plants can all help insects and birds to survive and thrive.
7. Support insect corridors.
Connecting your own yard or balcony to those of your neighbors and other green spaces in your neighborhood, whether they be parks or road median, can all contribute to creating safe havens for not just insects, but birds, bats, amphibians, and reptiles.
8. Provide water.
Insects need water just like we do, so every garden, including those on balconies, should have a source of water.
The YouTube channel Wild About Nature also provides some useful gardening tips that help insects. This video has a great example of how easy it is to provide a simple water source for insects:
9. Provide bug hotels.
Bees and other insects need homes just as we do.
Or, they’re fun and easy to build too.
This video by Grow Veg shows you how to do it:
10. Plant milkweed.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation recommends planting milkweed that’s native for your area in your garden and other locations. Milkweed provides an essential habitat and breeding ground for caterpillars and monarch butterflies, and it supports a diversity of pollinators with its nectar. Xerces provides a useful directory of milkweed seed providers so you can find seeds that are native to your area.
11. Don’t buy flowers that have double blooms.
Another argument for native plants is that that mouthparts of native pollinators have adapted to accessing the nectar in native plants to their natural habitats, whereas nonnative flowers and those with double blooms may make it impossible for them to access the nectar.
12. Don’t rake or mulch.
Fallen leaves offer benefits to insects, other animals, and the environment, says the National Wildlife Federation. Leaves and other plant yard debris account for more than 13 percent of the nation’s solid waste, which equates to 33 million tons per year. And much of it is discarded in plastic bags, making it difficult to biodegrade.
Then, it’s disposed of in solid-waste landfills, which are the largest source of man-made methane emissions in the U.S. – a potent greenhouse gas. (And this doesn’t even include the CO2 emitted from leaf blowers and the trucks transporting the yard debris to the landfill.)
Seventy percent of bee species dig nests in ground and raise their young there, which they can’t do if there’s no ground cover or mulch is in the way, says National Geographic. If you do need to get rid of some yard debris, better to compost it and use it as fertilizer.
13. Don’t use bug zappers.
It goes without saying that big zappers kill insects, including beneficial insects. But they’ve been proven to not work for killing mosquitoes.
According to Science Daily, mosquitoes are more attracted to the CO2 emitted by people, so they’re usually not going near the bug zapper anyway.
And a study conducted by researchers at Kansas State University found that the insects that are electrocuted produce a shower of airborne bacteria and virus-laden particles, which humans then breathe in.
The issue is so problematic that healthcare professionals recommend bug zappers not be used in food handling areas, hospitals, daycare facilities, or anywhere else that control of microorganisms and insects is important.
Besides purchasing organic products and creating insect-friendly habitats around your home, there are a variety of ways that you can volunteer your time to help insects, including taking part in citizen science programs. Here are a few:
15. Invest in life on Earth – Donate.
Whether you have time to volunteer or not, you can always donate to organizations that are doing the research and heavy lifting to conserve insect populations around the world. You can find local nonprofit or larger, global ones.
A number of charities are listed on the UK’s Amateur Entomologists Society website, and here are few more: