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Preservation

Save the insects!

Bees are perhaps the most famous pollinators. While their disappearance has gained a lot of attention, they represent only a small portion of pollinating insects, and they’re not the only ones disappearing.

In May 2017, an article was published in Science Magazine entitled “Where have all the insects gone?” The article refers to a number of research projects that show that the insect biomass is in sharp decline in several places. In some areas of Germany, the population of flying insects has decreased by 75% over the last 27 years.

It is common, and completely normal, for the number of insects of a given species to vary greatly. Just think of wasps. Some years there are plenty of them, while there is little to see of them other years. When there are few individuals of one species, there may be abnormally many of another species. Such is the insect life. What is worrying about the trend we are seeing now is that the decline affects the total number of insects, not just a natural variation in some species from year to year. Since the aforementioned article was published, more research has been published that suggests the same thing: Insect populations are declining sharply, fast.

Insects are crucial to the biological process of pollination, in which an animal (usually an insect) feeds on the nectar offered by a plant. In the process of sucking up the sugary water from the plant’s flowers, which evolved with the purpose of attracting pollinating insects with bright colors acting like a “free food” signal, the insect is covered in the plant’s pollen, which contains its genetic code. When the pollen-covered insect moves on to feed on sexually compatible plant of the same species (or in some cases, even different species), reproduction occurs, and the sexually compatible plant produces seeds capable of growing into new plant individuals.

The decline of insects presents not only a natural crisis, but also an agricultural crisis.

Many plants produce tasty fruits or nuts that make up a great portion of the food we depend on. For this reason, a large portion of plants consumed by humans rely on pollination by insects to produce the fruit we seek. In fact, an article published on nature.com estimates that as much as 75% of agricultural crop species rely on animal pollination to some degree.

To be able to help preserve the insects, we need to identify the reasons for the decrease in number in insect populations. We know something about the causes, but much is still uncertain.

What threatens the insects?

Many pollinating insects are threatened by extinction. There are several, combined causes of the decline in insect populations: Both human activity and lack thereof are among the root causes of the problem. In many cases, there may be complex but known causes, and in other cases, we may not even know the cause. Fortunately, research is being conducted with the aim of uncovering at least some of the reasons why the number of insects is steadily decreasing.

For example, the use of pesticides in agriculture and in private gardens is one of the great threats to the insects. This is a well-documented fact. Many pesticides make the pollen and nectar of a plant poisonous, and insects that feed on it will die. It affects not only harmful insects, but also all insects we do in fact need, such as bees. Similarly, land changes (such as deforestation, reduction of wetland areas and large areas reserved for monocultures of grains and other food plants) threaten insect life.

The way we use land and run farms has changed in recent decades. For example, there are fewer animals grazing and fewer animals producing the nutritious feces on which some species depend. Some of our dung beetles are in sharp decline due to this grave lack of manure. Furthermore, when meadows are abandoned, tall plants displace smaller plants, and bushes and shrubs gradually take over the patches of land where wild flowers used to grow.

Evidently, there is a dependency relationship between plants and insects. If one disappears, a large portion of the other will also vanish, so the insects may face big difficulties when wildflower fields disappear, and vice versa.

Many insects are entirely dependent on special species of wild flowers, either because they specialize in eating pollen or nectar only from a few plants, or because their larvae require special plant varieties to feed on. If these plant species disappear, the insects that depend on them will also be gone. Wild flowers may disappear for several reasons, be it direct human influence (the intentional removal of wild plants) or climate change.

In some cases, there may also be lack of human intervention. For example, we may have failed to protect grazing animals or remove invasive species that out-compete the local wild flower population. When grass is no longer eaten or cut, high perennials will outperform the short, low-laying flowering plants.

Even new, introduced insect species can be harmful to the rest of the local insect populations. An example of this is introduction of the harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis), also called the killer ladybird, to Norway. It came to Norway as a passenger, probably on garden plants. The problem is that the harlequin ladybird eats other insects, and can displace other ladybug species. In the worst case, we risk that several of the Norwegian ladybird species become extinct due to one single introduced species. There are many other examples of alien species that have been imported, with or without intention, which are a threat to nature.

How can we help the insects?

While solving the insect crisis may seem insurmountable, the root of the problem consists of the sum of harmful contributions of all of us. Every individual’s insect sins contribute to the problem. Likewise, every individual’s insect virtues contribute to solving the problem. Let’s summarize some of the most effective insect virtues.

Shelter

Many insects rely on sheltered places to lay eggs and feed their larvae. In our often too neat gardens, such places may be low in number. This can be mended by having an “insect hotel” or two in the garden. Insect hotels can be purchased, or you can easily make them yourselves (learn how to make an insect hotel). A piece of wood in which you drill small holes is an example of a very simple insect hotel. Hollow stems from plants, cones, twigs and straws can be placed in a wooden box and give shelter to many different species. It is advantageous to attach a netting to the outside of the insect hotel, or the insects residing within it can easily be eaten by birds. You might also provide some natural, local clay for potter wasps and mason bees.

My collection of insect hotels
Potter wasps now inhabit the holes in this piece of wood I placed in my garden. They use use clay to hole themselves in.

Practicing natural gardening

A lot of insects live on the plants we consider to be weeds. Stinging nettle is one such plant. Several insect species depend on the nettles for food. This applies, among other insects, to the small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae) whose larvae feed on the nettles.

There’s no common list of weeds that help insects thrive. Different areas have different native weeds. A good rule of thumb is to only remove weeds if they appear to compete with flowers. If we want tortoiseshell butterflies and other insects to thrive, we must tolerate some weeds in the garden. This means less work, more time to enjoy life and more beautiful insects to look at. At the same time, you can enjoy the lazy feeling of going easy on the gardening with good conscience and a good excuse, knowing that you’re passively reducing the likelihood of a catastrophe happening. If you have restrictive covenants or HOAs getting in the way of the natural flourishing of plants commonly considered weeds, I urge you to bring up the problems of over-gardening to the responsible bodies.

Following is a list of the essentials of natural gardening.

Leave the debris

Detached twigs, logs, dead leaves and other garden waste are also good for many species. In decomposing plant matter such as these, insects can hide from carnivores, find food and survive the winter.

Plant matter that is no longer attached to the plant is no longer protected by the plant’s immune system, and can therefore be readily broken down with time. Plant matter is full of nutrients that a vast number of organisms depend on, including many insects. While rotting logs and withered leaves may not be the most aesthetically pleasing to the human eye, leaving them in that state means doing mother nature a tremendous favor. A large portion of the food chain depends on unprotected plant matter, and the expansion of human habitats (along with the peculiar need of humans for extreme neatness) has robbed large areas of the world of this essential food source.

Plant wild flowers instead of grass

A well-groomed lawn may be good looking and nice to walk on, but for the insects. it´s a sad affair. Few insects can make use of grass. If you want your garden to be haven for our precious insects, let some patches of the lawn display clusters of wild flower for them to feed on.

In order to acquire seeds of the plants that the local insect population requires, and in order to avoid planting invasive species, you can collect seeds from plants in the nearby area. Some organizations might even offer seeds for free if you do some digging around (no pun intended). Process the soil well by raking the top inch or so of soil and removing plant matter and debris. Don’t rake any deeper than that, or you risk activating dormant seeds of weeds. The area only needs to be prepared once, as wild flowers are hardy and used to weeds and compact soil. Sprinkle the seeds on top in early spring or just before the first frost in autumn (some flowers require a frost cycle to sprout in spring). Finally, compact the soil by walking on it or using a lawn roller. Wait, then enjoy the sight in spring. Cut flower fields once a year (after the flowering season) so that no bushes and tall perennials can take over. When you mow or cut your flowers, leave the flowers to decay on the ground for a week or two. This gives the plants a chance to reseed themselves. Don’t leave the plant matter to decay for too long, because this will release nutrients back into the soil. This might be a good thing in other growing operations, but wild flowers thrive in meager conditions and do not appreciate an abundance of nutrients. For this reason, you should also avoid fertilizing these areas.

Some of the flowers in my garden. Believe it or not, I haven’t performed any maintenance (besides an annual mowing) for years. Here, wild flowers make up about 90% of the plants. Cultivated flowers add an extra dash of color.

Many purchased plants are unfavorable to the insects, either because they produce scarce amounts of pollen, or because the pollen is difficult to get to. Filled flowers where pollen is hidden under several layers of petals, such as roses, are not particularly insect-friendly. Why not let wild flowers be a part of your garden? Bluebells, forget-me-nots and cranesbills can be just as nice as (and much cheaper than) the expensive garden plant variants commonly sold at gardening stores.

Do not use insecticides or herbicides

Insecticides kill a lot of insects. Not only do they eradicate the ones you want to get rid of, but also the useful insects that pollinate your plants. A garden does not have to be chemically clean! Weeds and aphids are food for ladybugs or lacewing larvae, which can be introduced to your garden (learn how) in order to combat these nuisances. Nature will often self-correct in the absence of poison. Nature’s equilibrium is, perhaps surprisingly, fairly comfortable for humans.

Insecticides, especially neonicotinoids, have been implicated as the main culprit in the massive global decline of insect populations. Insecticides are particularly harmful to insects residing in hives (such as certain species of bees) because they tend to bring back the poison to their hive, thus eradicating entire colonies of their species.

Herbicides (chemicals used to kill plants) kill plants that insects rely on, thus contributing to the problem, even in the absence of insect toxicity.

Vote and contact your representatives

If you live in a democracy, the rules and regulations surrounding the use of harmful chemicals is in part the product of your vote and political initiatives. I urge you to use your vote, and use it wisely. Find out if there is a candidate that supports the strict regulation of industrial pesticides and grant them your vote.

Sadly, there is too often no such candidate. Therefore, we must write our representatives (see our template and how-to-guide) and express our concerns with the unchecked use of pesticides with disastrous results. Here is a change.org petition to ban neonicotinoids. There are many other petitions to sign, even outside the US.

Spread the word

We will not achieve our goal of a sustainable future if the focus lies solely on global warming and plastic pollution (both very important issues that must be solved). Despite semi-common, basic knowledge of phenomena such as colony collapse disorder amongst honey bees, awareness of the issue of insect population is not nearly as widespread as it must be for us to stand a chance. Therefore, it is imperative that you talk about it. Bring it up at dinner, or share this article. If each reader spreads the word to just three people, we may be able to make meaningful change.

I find that people are open to changing their ways, especially when it involves doing less work, and when presented with facts backed up by science. You will find a list of scholarly articles reinforcing the certainty of the need for urgent action at the end of this article.

Read the book

If you want to learn more about insects, what makes them beautiful and important, how each of us can help halt the disastrous trend, and you happen to know Norwegian, you may be interested in my book, Ode til insektene (Ode to insects in English). If you’re not Norwegian, stay tuned for the English e-book, coming soon.

10% of profits go to projects that aim to preserve insect populations.

References

Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P. R., & Dirzo, R. (2017). Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(30), E6089–E6096. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1704949114

Hallmann, C. A., Sorg, M., Jongejans, E., Siepel, H., Hofland, N., Schwan, H., … de Kroon, H. (2017). More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLOS ONE, 12(10), e0185809. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0185809

Wong, S. (2017b, June 29). Strongest evidence yet that neonicotinoids are killing bees. Retrieved February 15, 2021, from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2139197-strongest-evidence-yet-that-neonicotinoids-are-killing-bees/

Stanley, D. A., & Raine, N. E. (2016). Chronic exposure to a neonicotinoid pesticide alters the interactions between bumblebees and wild plants. Functional Ecology, 30(7), 1132–1139. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.12644

Vázquez, D.E., Balbuena, M.S., Chaves, F. et al. Sleep in honey bees is affected by the herbicide glyphosate. Sci Rep 10, 10516 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-67477-6

Farina, W. M., Balbuena, M. S., Herbert, L. T., Mengoni Goñalons, C., & Vázquez, D. E. (2019). Effects of the Herbicide Glyphosate on Honey Bee Sensory and Cognitive Abilities: Individual Impairments with Implications for the Hive. Insects, 10(10), 354. https://doi.org/10.3390/insects10100354

Motta, E. V. S., Raymann, K., & Moran, N. A. (2018). Glyphosate perturbs the gut microbiota of honey bees. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(41), 10305–10310. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1803880115

About the author

Hjørdis Bakke is a Norwegian entomologist (a biologist that specializes in insects) who teaches at Queen Maud University College. After having previously authored curricular books, she now focuses her efforts on insect preservation.

Categories
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How to contact your representatives

This blog post is a work in progress.

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Insect sins and virtues

This blog post is a work in progress.

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DIY insect hotels to help insects survive

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Balanced Gardening

These insects will protect your garden naturally

With insect populations seeing catastrophic decline worldwide, researchers have confirmed, time and time again, what we were all thinking: Insecticides play a major role. At the same time, aphids — tiny, fast-spreading, garden-decimating herbivores — are running rampant on your precious plants. Do we have to choose between aphid infestations and a bad conscience? Not so fast. It’s possible to deal with your aphid situation in a way that actually helps insects thrive.

When reading about natural means of aphid control, two will reoccur: Ladybugs (also called ladybirds) and lacewings. Aphids make up a large portion of their diets, and introducing them to your garden has more benefits than just getting rid of pests.

A ladybug larva
A ladybug
A lacewing larva
An adult lacewing

If you are currently experiencing an aphid infestation, and ladybugs and lacewings are not around to help you out, it may be a sign that you have an unbalanced garden. Consider the infestation as a blessing in disguise: You have spotted a symptom of a deeper problem, and can now treat the root cause.

Before you go ahead, keep in mind that you may be able to find these insects sold online as eggs, larvae or adults. However, making sure that they are native in your vicinity may be difficult, and you may not get a healthy mix of species that represents the local diversity. Collecting them is free, makes for a good excursion into nature, and ensures that you’re bringing in the kind of native diversity found nearby.

Ladybugs

The diet of ladybugs consists largely of other insects and pollen. Conveniently, aphids are a favorite of theirs. A single ladybug can eat 5,000 aphids in its lifetime, according to Ric Bessin of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.

There are two ways of introducing ladybugs to your garden.

Ladybugs can be found and collected in your local area. By doing so, you can be sure that you are not introducing invasive, introduced species into your garden and helping them to spread and disrupt ecosystems. Just remember to poke holes in the lid of your capturing device, so that oxygen is accessible and the specimen doesn’t overheat. It’s also possible to buy ladybugs online, but keep in mind that you should ensure that they are native to your area.

Another way to help ladybugs find their way to your garden is to provide them with the plants they like the most. Pollen makes up a large part of their diet, so they are unlikely to establish themselves in a garden without this essential food source. If your garden contains the favorite food of ladybugs, the probability of them entering your garden is high.

You’re going to want to make your garden ladybug-accessible regardless, or your collected ladybugs will move on to greener pastures. Therefore, it’s a good idea to start by making your garden attractive to ladybugs, and then collect local ladybugs to be released near aphid-infested plants.

For your convenience, here’s a list of plants that can help attract ladybugs. There are surely many more plants that do, and the list will vary depending on the species of ladybugs found natively in your area.

  • Angelica herb (Angelica arcangelica)
  • Calendula flowers (Calendula officinalis)
  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
  • Dill (Anethum graveolens)
  • Marigold flowers (Tagetes sp.)

Lacewings and their larvae

Like ladybugs, adult lacewings eat pollen in addition to other insects. Additionally, they eat honeydew produced by aphids. The larvae eat other insects, and are especially fond of aphids. Plants of the Alyssum genus, umbellifers (Apiaceae) and catnip (Nepeta cataria) help attract lacewings.

There has also been made an insect «cologne» that attracts lacewings. Researchers isolated a compound of the catnip plant — iridodial — which lacewings are attracted to.

Some garden shops or online shops also sell different beneficial insects. Again, make sure the insects you buy are native to your local area.

General tips

Let’s go through some useful tips that will help you better understand and cater to the diets of both lacewings and ladybugs.

Offer some homemade honeydew

The honeydew produced by aphids attract their predators. This sugary solution is excreted by aphids as they feast on leaves. Among other things, it works as a reward for ants in exchange for protecting the aphid colony from predators. (Read more about this, and many other fun and interesting insect facts, in my book: English version coming soon.) If you still don’t have ladybugs and/or lacewings in your garden, you can try to mix some water and sugar and applying the solution to your plants. Beneficial insects may confuse this for honeydew and come to feast.

Don’t forget the (right kind of) pollen

Both ladybugs and lacewings need to eat pollen throughout the flowering season, so make that flowering plants are available in spring, summer and autumn. You can achieve this by having a healthy, diverse representation of wild flowers in your garden. Different species of flowers bloom and produce pollen at different times of the year, and the more diversity you have, the more choices will be available at any given time.

Native insects can rarely survive on foreign plants. Therefore, the more exotic or domesticated the species, the less likely it is to work for ladybugs, lacewings and other helpful insects and pollinators. Make sure you treat wild flowers as first-class citizens, and flowers that have been highly selected for aesthetics (such as roses) are prized guests in select spots.

You can purchase seeds of native plants online, find them in the wild, or you can carefully transplant wild flowers found nearby. If you choose to transplant any plants, make absolutely sure that the species is not endangered, that you are not in a national park or other protected area, and that you are carefully removing just one or two out of a healthy, established colony.

Be patient

It may take some time for a healthy population of ladybugs and lacewings get established. If you give it a week or two, fail to see any progress, and want to give up, try to resist the urge to use insecticides. This will make it impossible for your work to come to fruition, as most insecticides will also kill ladybugs and lacewings. Furthermore, seeds of many flowering plants must go through a frost cycle before sprouting. Pledge to go two whole years without any insecticides and continue to introduce the recommended plants and insects to your garden.

Leave the spiders alone

Some of you may object to this piece of advice, but spiders prey on aphids and many other harmful insects in your garden. Cobwebs may not be beautiful, but leave the hidden ones alone to give spiders a means of preying on invaders. Not all spiders spin webs, either. If you live in an area without spiders that are dangerous to humans, you will be better off conquering the fear of spiders and seeing them as allies in your fight against the aphids in your garden.

The balanced garden

Humans are neat freaks. We experience a primal need for order, clean lines and control. We are also collectors, and when it comes to the garden, many prefer the uncommon and spectacular over the familiar and subtle.

However, perfectly green, uniform and cut lawns are not hospitable to insects, and neither are most exotic flowers.

By trying to control nature in this way, and not fully understanding the multitude of fragile relationships in ecosystems, we are depriving predatory insects of their necessities. Aphids, on the other hand, are hardy and can feed on many exotic plants, and they multiply fast. Therefore, an overly controlled, unbalanced garden allows aphids to thrive, free from predators.

That is not to say that you shouldn’t mow your lawn. If grass and tall perennials are allowed to grow too tall, flowers cannot survive. An annual mowing of flower spots is good for the flowers. Just save it for when the plants are done flowering and have had time to complete their natural cycle.

By catering to ladybugs and lacewings, you’re also inviting a multitude of other insects to your sanctuary. This helps both the planet and local agriculture. (Learn how important insects are to humans and how you can help them recover.) You will also learn that self-sustaining fields of flowers are downright stunning.

About the author

Hjørdis Bakke is a Norwegian entomologist (a biologist that specializes in insects) who teaches at Queen Maud University College. After having previously authored curricular books, she now focuses her efforts on insect preservation.