Archive for August, 2020

Insect Apocalypse

For every species of pest, there are 1,700 species of insects we can’t live without.”

-John Lundgren, farmer and entomologist

“Anyone that gets two dollars worth of gas or more gets their windshield washed,” growled George, the owner of Georges 66 gas station in my home town of North Branch. 

The locals knew this glass cleaning practice and many of them depended on gas jockeys to keep their windshield clean of the smeared insect gore.

It was the early 1970s and I had just started working weekends pumping gas and doing other light auto maintenance duties such as tire repair, oil changes and grease jobs. There was not self pumping at the gas stations nor did you wash your own windows.

Cleaning the windshields on some nights was almost like a cardio workout. We used cotton rags, a spray bottle of glass cleaner and plenty of elbow grease. Many windshields resembled Jackson Pollack paintings with a smearing of colors and textures hiding the identity of the driver until they stepped out of the car. The worst windshields were those that had been ignored for a few days and the bug parts were baked in by the midday sun. Sometimes we had to use a scraper along with the spray cleaner and rag. 

It occurred to me recently that I haven’t seen a windshield like that in some time. I can drive hours on a summer night and have only a spattering of bug corpses.

One night this summer, I had stepped out of the house to the edge of the woods to listen to coyotes socializing and a slow flying firefly blinked its way past me. Back in the woods I spotted a couple more. Returning to the house, I mentioned the sighting to Nancy and then in the same breath I pined for the old days when there were so many fireflies that it looked like restless constellations on the move. 

I have an indelible memory of camping with fellow cub scouts on a local farm where we chased and captured fireflies. We filled an old pop bottle with blinking bugs and brought it into our tent for an amazing strobe light show.

Even insect noise is less prevalent.  The August nocturnal cricket concerts no longer pulse with the same intensity.  

Pollinating insects, responsible for the production of one third of our food, are declining and in the meantime I hear folks almost giddy when they observe, “mosquitoes sure haven’t been bad.”  

No group of animals, birds, mammals, fish, reptiles or amphibians is declining as rapidly as insects.  The ramification of an insect apocalypse is horrific to consider. 

One recent study looked at 73 historical reports on insect populations. The researchers conclude that nearly half of all insect populations could disappear in decades.  Such a crash will send other life systems into a cascading collapse. Our survival depends on healthy natural systems. Without insects, life as we know it will go extinct.

According to the April, 2020 journal of Science, roughly a ¼ of the world’s terrestrial  insects have disappeared in thirty years. The Midwest alone has experienced a decline of 4% of its insect population.  What is becoming clear is that the chemical intensive monocultural agriculture is playing a major role in the insect demise. 

According to a recent article in The Land Stewardship Project (vol. 38, #1, 2020), South Dakota farmer and entomologist, Jonathan Lundgren, says that agriculture should not be painted as the “bad guy” but instead should be seen as a key part of the solution. Lundgren is a retired scientist for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  

More and more research shows that striving for biodiversity is the most significant action farmers can take for not only the health of their farm but for the insects that are part of that natural system. Most insects are beneficial and in fact many of them will control numbers of the so-called “pests.” The problem is that many insecticides kill indiscriminately, killing the targeted pests as well as those that are important for pollination or naturally controlling insects that feed on crops.  According to Lundgren, “For every species of pest, there are 1,700 species of insects we can’t live without.” 

Turns out that farmers that practice regenerative methods turn out a larger profit than the conventional, chemical dependent farms. While their yield might be less per acre, without the input costs of herbicides and pesticides, there is more girth in their wallet.  It’s all about building soil health. 

Lundgren is effectively educating farmers, particularly young farmers, that industrialized systems of farming leave no room for biodiversity. This is not only a disaster for bugs but for humans. 

Hurrah to Jonathan Lundgren and others like him who understand the big picture of the necessity of healthy natural systems. Bugs are simply too important in the cog of life for us to ignore their disappearance.

I want my grandchildren to have the opportunity to net a few fireflies, place them carefully in jars and bring them into our tent for the coolest camping light ever.  And then to watch their faces define joy and wonder as they release the fireworks back into the night sky.

The idea of “lights out,” is too tragic for me to consider.

I Have Known a Frog

I’ve formed a bond with a gray tree frog this summer. The first meeting was on the deck while I enjoyed my morning coffee. I noticed its head sticking out of the wren nesting box that sits at eye level on the edge of the deck. The frog faced due east as if to greet the rising sun. This ashen blotchy frog was an adult rather than a bright green juvenile.

I know there are several tree frogs that hang out around our deck because at dusk I often hear their musical trills. In my opinion, their song is the most melodious of all local frogs.  

I was inspired to write a few lines of poetry. I decided to allow no more than two minutes to write a few lines. No editing or revisions. I found the following:

This house is mine. All mine!
No wren wants it 
but to me it’s sublime.

From my lounging perch, 
I watch sipping humans with hands
wrapped around a mug like a prayer in church.

And me on my pulpit of divine!

The next morning, I returned to the deck and was delighted to find the frog in the bird house waiting for the warmth of the sun. Being amphibians, their body temperature is the same as their surroundings rather than a constant like our 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Since we were acquaintances, I decided to name the frog. I landed on the genus of tree frogs: Hyla. It’s easy to say and is gender neutral.

I placed a black-eyed Susan flower on the tiny ledge outside the birdhouse entry only a couple inches from the expressionless frog. Did Hyla even care about my gift?

Minutes later a small fly hovered in front of the flower and in a flash Hyla’s tongue rocketed out and the fly became breakfast! I hurried in for a scrap of paper and pencil to scratch out a second two-minute poem: 

Ethologist Konrad Lorenz called it “holistic contemplation.”
I set the prairie bloom on the step, not for decor,
but for pollinating insect temptation.

With the patience of Buddha 
the tree frog practiced being.
A bug buzzed in, a tongue flashed and all was gooda.

On the third morning, I stole a glance from inside the house through the deck window for my little friend. Nothing. Really?

I opened the door for a better look. As it swung, I felt something brush my head. I thought it was the lilac branch that is starting to bend over the deck. But the feeling was not a gentle stroke as much as it was a plop. I looked at my feet and there was a sprawled Hyla, legs and toes extended on the deck. 

I had obviously disturbed the frog from its narrow hideout between the top of the door and the door jamb.

Tree frogs use their sticky toes to gain nocturnal hunting perches on glass windows and doors. Attracted to the indoor lights, nighttime insects will hover or sit on the exterior of the glass, making easy pickings for the frogs.

There was no Hyla on the fourth day . In fact each following day was made more lonely as I sipped my coffee.

A week later, I was pleased to find Hyla sitting at the entrance of the wren house. I ached to have a human-to-amphibian chat. I would have asked, “Where did you go? A pilgrimage? Chasing the opposite sex? An escape from . . . me?”

Then there was another series of days without a Hyla spotting.

Until the other night when Miss Nancy and I were relaxing on the deck, reading aloud. I was seated only a couple feet from the wren house.

I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. Turning my head I met the wide-eyed gaze of Hyla who had just poked out of the wren house. The frog bore the sagacious look of an ancient philosopher as it tilted its head towards me. It was as if the frog was shifting to better listen to Scott Russel Sanders’ thoughts on stewardship of natural systems. 

I could swear Hyla tipped its head in agreement.

Note: None of these photographs have been digitally altered. Hyla is not shy.