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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Now for the bad news: 75% decline in insect biomass over 27 years

In a nutshell, no insects = no ecosystem.

I recently took a trip to the Brazilian Cerrado and Pantanal. Click on this link to see photos and videos of some insects I saw there. I'll add a few random insect photos from other places I've been as well. Click on any photo to open a higher-resolution slideshow.

Just in from youngest daughter
doing research in Madagascar

Monbiot's article is worth a quick read unless you're prone to depression (last of the above links):
Every year I collected dozens of species of caterpillars and watched them grow and pupate and hatch. This year I tried to find some caterpillars for my children to raise. I spent the whole summer looking and, aside from the cabbage whites on our broccoli plants, found nothing in the wild but one garden tiger larva. Yes, one caterpillar in one year. I could scarcely believe what I was seeing – or rather, not seeing.
He suggested a few solutions, like limiting pesticide use (while acknowledging that we still need to grow food). GMO corn has reduced the use of insecticides for rootworm and the corn borer, but the anti-GMO crowd (similar in many ways to the anti-nuclear one) will resist that idea to their graves. And then there are the layers of complexity, like the permanent mandated consumption of corn ethanol put into place via rare bipartisan cooperation.

He made a salient point about the growing of food for livestock. From The Breakthrough Institute (co-founded by Shellenberger) Where’s the Fake Beef? Eating Meatless Meat Is Safe for You and the Planet:
The Impossible Burger—the meatless burger that bleeds—has recently been lambasted by some environmental activists for using genetic engineering to make the burger taste and look like meat. It’s a strange accusation, to say the least. The environmental impacts of meat production are large and complicated; reducing them will require modern tools and technologies. And few innovations have as large a potential as meatless meat to mitigate ecological impacts while meeting global demand.
Click on the video below which I shot in the heart of the Pantanal "nature preserve."

Some recent papers are finding that pesticides are killing far more than just their target insects. Monbiot's observations parallel my own (and many others) on this side of the pond. Clearly, for whatever reasons, we are losing the insects.

A few weeks ago two neighborhood kids (ages 7 and 9) visited our house on a sunny day. I gave each a bug net and told them where they could catch red-legged grasshoppers in the yard. They both went home with a pet grasshopper in a Tupper (likely the only grasshoppers they have ever seen). A love of nature has to be taught from an early age. Below is a photo I received in a text message from my oldest daughter who is now a neurology resident. It's a praying mantis that lives in her garden. Sometimes she lets it ride on her shoulder like a pet parrot.

A father of one of those children said that he had never seen a grasshopper in Seattle. I get that reaction every time I mention the small isolated population in my yard. I allow parts of my "lawn" to grow wild, letting whatever is best evolved to grow there to grow there (except blackberries) which explains the existence of grasshoppers. There is unending subtle pressure to clean up my weed patches by the likes of in-laws, and neighbors. Why? Because they're unsightly (aka, they are a sign of low status; displaying an inability or unwillingness to control my environment, lowering the stature of members of my social network by association).

I was delighted a few years ago to have a second insect species appear in my yard; katydids. I've seen dozens of them now. I've recently started documenting the more interesting insects that appear around our house that I suspect, are the result of letting portions of our yard go wild.

What about mosquitoes? Nobody likes mosquitoes. Rachel Carlson (author of Silent Spring) has been vilified for years by conservatives who hold her responsible for the malaria-related deaths of millions of people. Her book was based on research at the time suggesting that unrestricted use of DDT was responsible for the decline in many raptor populations. In reality, the use of DDT is typically restricted, not banned. It has always been available for limited application, and if any restrictions in poor countries actually are to blame for deaths, the blame for that falls on the government or NGO that restricted it or failed to find a substitute, not the author of a book that warned the world about the unrestricted use of pesticides.

Genetically modified mosquitoes are proving effective in some parts of Brazil. But again, you can expect resistance simply because the acronym GMO now elicits an automatic knee-jerk negative reaction in many environmentalists.

Dragonflies have been around about 150 million years longer than our species. In an earlier article I mentioned a rare, still intact, nature preserve I once visited in Argentina where the dragonflies would rise up at dusk and smite any mosquito that reared its head (3:17 into following rather poor video):

How's this for an idea; dragonfly hatcheries (think salmon hatchery)? Develop the science of raising and releasing millions of dragonflies in rural villages and towns that have mosquito problems. Ah, you may say, that's why most mosquitoes are nocturnal. They run into each other only at dusk. OK, with bountiful affordable low carbon electricity from nuclear and LED lighting, periodically illuminate the villages through the night to let the dragonflies do their thing.

Some potential solutions:

  • GMO food yields requiring less land
  • GMO plants that resist insect attack without pesticides
  • GMO mosquitoes
  • Artificial meat
  • Dragonfly hatcheries

One might argue that because bats eat insects, wind turbines help insect populations by killing about seven times more bats than birds, and of course, lots of birds also eat insects.* I spent a week in the Adirondacks this summer. Didn't see a single bat. They used to be seen at every outdoor light, swooping to catch insects that swarmed around them. Many night lights seem to have very few insects attracted to them anymore.

*Sarcasm alert.

I'm making light of this but my heart is pretty heavy right now, video, slide show for video. This might be hard to believe, but climate change isn't even our most pressing ecological problem.

This is the overarching reason I spend so much effort promoting nuclear energy. It is, hands down, the most environmentally benign of all energy sources.

Next up, ideas to minimize impact on bird and insect populations from pet cats.

Neighbor's cat with summer haircut

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