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.

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