For the Birds: Disappearing insects are cause for alarm

We swat them, stomp them, spray them, do anything we can to keep them away from us. We are annoyed by them, vilify them, wish them away, and created a multi-billion dollar industry to get rid of them. But we can’t live without them.

No, I’m not talking about the Kardashians. I’m talking about insects.

A summary of several recent independent studies has revealed that insects are dying a “death by a thousand cuts,” according to the world’s top insect experts and that the earth is losing 1 to 2 percent of its insects each year. The news isn’t entirely surprising, but it’s always good to be reminded of the fragile state of our environment from time to time.

According to the studies — and the summarizing article led by University of Connecticut entomologist David Wagner — climate change, insecticides, changes in agriculture and light pollution are major contributors to the marked decline of our insects. Some scientists refer to it as the “insect apocalypse,” and in some respects, that sounds about right.

Why am I writing about insects in a column about birds? Because without insects we wouldn’t have birds — at least many of the birds we love. Insects, while they may be pests and drive us nuts on so many levels, are an integral part of nature. Wagner told The Associated Press insects are the “fabric by which Mother Nature and the tree of life are built.”

So true.

Insects are food for birds. They are also food for fish, reptiles, amphibians, arachnids and mammals, many of which are fed upon by birds.

Directly or indirectly, insects are vital for birds’ survival — and the survival of many living things, including us. Larger birds may not eat insects, but they eat smaller birds that do eat insects. For example, a Carolina wren eats beetle larvae and a sharp-shinned hawk eats Carolina wrens. It’s part of the food chain. Without insects, many smaller birds don’t grow. Without some smaller birds, some larger birds don’t grow.

Similarly, a great blue heron may not eat insects, but the fish upon which the heron preys does.

Their role in the food chain is an obvious example of why insects are so important. Just as critical, but not as visible, is their role in pollination. Without pollination — and insects are the primary pollinators — plants would not grow seeds and fruit. Then the earth would really be in trouble.

Honey bees and monarch butterflies are the two most well-publicized insects in serious decline. Both are pollinators, of course. Thankfully, their decline has been recognized and steps are being taken to restore their populations.

We can all play a role in saving insects. I’m not saying we should allow termites to ravage our homes or let those blood-sucking mosquitoes, black flies or deer flies have a feast at our expense. What we can do is eliminate, or at least reduce, the use of pesticides in our gardens. We can plant native flowers. Those are the plants our insects have evolved with and rely on. We can allow some of our property to grow wild. A perfectly manicured lawn is not good habitat for insects.

Major changes on a global scale, of course, will have the greatest impact on saving insects. Those decisions are up to politicians and other policymakers, but we can let them know how we feel. We fully recognize that insects are declining and their role in nature is irreplaceable. Recognition is the first step. Let’s make sure our policymakers follow through with the next steps.

Photo by Chris Bosak A cedar waxwing eats an insect on a branch in Brookfield, Conn., spring 2017.
Photo by Chris Bosak A cedar waxwing eats an insect on a branch in Brookfield, Conn., spring 2017.

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