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Fearing the lack of flying insects

GAYS MILLS - This recent headline in the Wisconsin State Journal caught my good eye:  ‘Scientists fear lack of flying insects.’ I doubt that this is a named phobia (yet) but several scientists have simply noticed, casually, that flying insects are not as plentiful as they once were, and they are worried about it.

The insects they are beginning to be concerned about are the beneficial flying insects: native bees, moths, butterflies, fireflies, mayflies, and many more. Beneficial flying insects are helpful with pollination as well as helping to decompose life. And, wouldn’t you know, harmful pest insects like mosquitoes, aphids, ticks, gnats, and cockroaches seem to be doing quite well, thank you very much. 

We’re all aware of the current problems with honeybees, how hard it is to help them survive and thrive. Bees are the ‘poster-children,’ if you will, of pollination, that crucial, natural act that affects as much as 80 percent of what we eat.  But other, less noticeable species, are getting harder to find as well.

One of the problems with the situation is that very few scientists routinely study the huge and diverse group of beneficial insects. They are off of most scientists’ radar. Entomologists tend to specialize and study a narrow part of the huge insect world. A few studies have been done showing dwindling individual species in a specific area, say around a resort, but the big picture of insect populations goes largely unstudied.

From the WSJ article: “Last year, a study found an 82 percent mid-summer decline in the number and weight of bugs captured in traps in 63 nature preserves in Germany compared with 27 years earlier. It was one of the few, if only, broad studies of insect numbers.  Scientists say similar comparisons can’t be done elsewhere because similar bug counts weren’t done decades ago.” So, the phenomenon is not just being noticed here.  

The noted Harvard biologist, E.O. Wilson, once called bugs “the little things that run the world.”  He’s 89 now and last year decided to do an informal “windshield survey” on a trip from Boston to Vermont.  He was going to count the number of bugs that hit his windshield.  The result: one moth.

We have become accustomed to not having many, if any, bugs on the windshield during summer trips.  One theory is that modern cars are more aerodynamic and the bugs simply slip over the cars. Those of us that have been around a while remember inspecting radiators and finding all manner of insects.

Although it may seem pleasant not to have as many bugs around, they all have a place in the web of life. We’ll probably be hearing more about this development in the future.