I don’t like mosquitoes any more than anybody else, but I have nevertheless joined the ranks of insect-appreciators.
I realize this is a minority position. Many if not most Americans are indifferent to insects if not downright hostile to them.
One of the worst cases of insect-aversion I ever encountered was that of “Olga” (not her real name), a graduate student in a class that required a nature experience. One of the options was a prairie hike out here at Bird Runner, and that’s what Olga chose, along with ten other non-traditional students. The instructor invited students with families to include their children or grandchildren. Olga made the (to her) mistake of bringing along her nine-year-old daughter, Tanya. Four other students also brought youngsters, and the instructor gave the five children insect nets to play with while their elders concentrated on the class.
From time to time, Olga looked up from her assignment sheet to see Tanya running back and forth with the other children, sweeping her net through the vegetation. Olga heard Tanya exclaiming as she examined the creeping and flying creatures in her net and laughing as she released them back into the wild.
When class was over, Olga wrapped Tanya in a blanket and then removed every item of her clothing. Olga pitched everything Tanya had been wearing into a trashcan—jacket, jeans, shirt, underwear, shoes. When asked why she was throwing away perfectly good clothes, Olga replied, “Bugs are filthy! And this place—“ (she gestured at the surrounding Flint Hills) “--is full of them!”
What Olga didn’t know was that “this place” isn’t as “full of them” as it used to be. “Insects around the world are rapidly declining,” concludes a review article in Biological Conservation.
Nor did she realize that this decline isn’t a good thing for human beings. The loss of insects is creating “negative cascading consequences on ecosystem functioning and services vital to sustaining civilization,” according to a study cited in the New York Times Magazine.
What are some of those services? Pollination, of course—some 75% of our food crops and 80% of wild flowering plants on earth require insect pollination; but also lesser known “services,” such as water-filtration, soil-building, nutrient recycling, waste-disposal, pathogen control, carbon-sequestration, and pest control.
But Olga’s hostility to insects isn’t to blame for the threats to the natural systems on which humans depend.
The culprit is the constant expansion of human activities resulting in habitat loss. One overview of multiple studies concludes, “Habitat loss by conversion to intensive agriculture is the main driver of [insect] declines. Agro-chemical pollutants, invasive species and climate change are additional causes.” Other meta-studies name light pollution, lawn chemicals, and industrial wind turbines as further vectors of destruction.
But though no one individual is responsible for insect decline, individuals can help to reverse it. The Xerces Society recommends that 10% of each lawn be converted to native plants. Homegrownnationalpark.org echoes that call (See Junction City Union, May 4, 2021, C1,7). And we can all speak up for native plants on road rights-of-way and on the grounds of places of worship, schools, and public buildings.
We need to give insects the native plants they’re missing.
But what about what Olga’s missing?
Learning about insects can be delightful. She’s missing that experience!
But how does one learn about insects?
There are many ways, and these are just the steps I’ve taken (I am an English major with no scientific background and poor eyesight--if I can learn, anybody can!) :
- Tag along with people who know more. This is what I did with the late great Richard Pitts, founder of Manhattan’s Wonder Workshop, and a self-described “insect enthusiast.” Through field trips and public talks, Richard taught many of us about insects. And these days we can “tag along” with experts virtually, by joining Facebook groups such as Kansas Arthropods.
- Actually look at the insects you encounter. This is harder than it might seem, especially if you are like me and grew up with your nose in a book, tuning out the real world. If I am lucky enough to get a photo with my phone, I take it home and magnify it on my computer. Invariably, I see things I missed with the naked eye, often dramatic things, such as the spider creeping up on the colorful butterfly I was trying to photograph.
- Ask for help with identification. I use bugguide.net, a website based at Iowa State University, where anyone can post a photo of an insect and receive expert identification. Once I know the name, I Google the species to learn more about it.
- Notice where the insects appear. My camera and I lurk beside native plants, and I try to learn who comes to which plants. Some insects are only found on certain species; others are generalists and can be found anywhere.
As I learned about a few of these relationships, I began to anticipate them. I learned to look for Cobra Inchworms on Climbing Buckwheat, Clouded Crimson caterpillars on Velvet Gaura, and Silvery Checkerspot caterpillars on Black-eyed Susans. I looked for specialist Monarch caterpillars on milkweed leaves and generalist insects drinking nectar from milkweed’s flowers.
Bit by bit my awareness changed—from a view of the insect world as random and chaotic and so vast that someone like me could never learn about it--to an awareness of orderly relationships that could reveal themselves one by one.
However, we humans haven’t even identified most of the insect species in the world, let alone described their interactions.
That’s part of the thrill—that each new bit of knowledge is connected to what’s still unknown.
If it’s exciting to learn a part, it’s even more exciting to feel the energy of an ever-mysterious Whole.
Will Olga ever entertain such experiences?
But Tanya—call any time!