The Fly in the Ointment at the Talbot County Free Library
by Bill Peak
Remember how, when you went on a long road trip, you used to have to
clean all the bugs off your windshield every time you pulled into a
gas station? Have you ever wondered why we have to do that so
Well, it turns out that, since 1972, the earth has lost three-quarters
of its insect biomass. If there were some way you could have weighed
all the insects on the planet fifty years ago, and then could weigh
all the insects on the planet today, the second number would turn out
to be 75% smaller than the first.
Now this may sound like little more than an interesting factoid—and
who wants to have to clean all those windshields anyway?—but it turns
out such a massive die-off has ramifications for all of us. Earth's
food chain is just one example, but a very good one. If tiny krill
are what keep giant whales alive and kicking, on dry land it's the
insects that provide the same service for an entire host of
terrestrial beasts. If you picture the food chain as a pyramid, that
pyramid's foundation stones are insects; remove them and the entire
edifice comes tumbling down.
But providing a base for the food chain is just one of the essential
services insects perform. Think about pollination. About 145 million
years ago, flowering plants first appeared on our planet. In addition
to bringing color to the world, they also produced earth's first
fruits. Angiosperms (as scientists call the flowering plants) were so
successful there are now some 300,000 different species of them, the
vast majority of which depend upon insects for pollination. No
insects: no apples, no pears, no strawberries, no beans, no peas, no
melons, no coffee, no onions, no squash … the list goes on and on.
But no coffee?! Civilization would come to an end.
Actually, of course, it very well might. The late, great Harvard
entomologist E. O. Wilson once famously pointed out that if all
humanity were to suddenly disappear, the world would return quickly to
the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago, but
if all insects were to vanish, the planet's entire ecosystem would
I learned all this from Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse
by Dave Goulson. Silent Earth is, of course, a reference to Rachel
Carson's ground-breaking indictment of DDT: Silent Spring, first
published in 1962. If you, like me, thought Carson's book had removed
both the scales from humanity's eyes and the indiscriminate use of
dangerous chemicals from our environment, well, I'm afraid Goulson has
a lot to teach the both of us.
DDT was quickly replaced on the market by a host of intentionally
unpronounceable chemicals that farmers—their profit margins falling
year by year toward absolute zero—had little choice but to utilize if
they were to keep their heads above water. Goulson writes, “Today,
about 900 different … chemicals that are toxic to some sort of
pest-are licensed for use in the USA.” These chemicals, once they've
killed whatever pest they were designed to kill, don't just magically
go away. For instance, despite the fact DDT has now been banned
globally for years, Goulson reports that numerous studies have found
that “human milk is still very often contaminated with DDT and its
relatives, typically containing ten to twenty times more
organochloride insecticides than cow's milk.”
Sometimes being at the top of the food chain has its drawbacks.
But all is not gloom and doom. To give us some sense of the world
insects inhabit, Goulson intersperses his fears about an apocalypse
with profiles of his subjects' remarkable, if Lilliputian, lives. My
personal favorite was the story of a miniscule female wasp that hunts
cockroaches much larger than herself. When the little beastie finds
one, she uses a neurosurgeon's care to insert her stinger into the
precise part of the animal's brain that controls its escape reflex.
She then takes hold of her victim's antennae and, using them as one
would reins, steers the hapless creature to her nest, where she lays
an egg upon it. The rest, of course, is history as far as the
cockroach is concerned.
So far as I'm concerned, the world will get along just fine minus a
cockroach or two, but Goulson has convinced me that, en masse, insects
are the sine qua non of our planet's terrestrial life … and they are
also, as he so admirably portrays them, worthy of our interest and
respect. You will find Goulson's book at 595.717 GOUL in the Talbot
County Free Library—an institution dedicated to improving, and
preserving, human life.
Oh, and if you'd like to help reverse some of the damage we humans
have caused, you should consider attending Master Gardener Coordinator
Mikaela Boley's Planting for Pollinators program at 10 a.m. on
Friday, May 20, in the Talbot County Free Library's Easton branch.
The program is free and open to the public, but registration is
required at: go.umd.edu/pollinators. Think of all the essential
little lives you and your garden might nourish.