Here’s an unpopular view: I miss being bugged by insects.
Honestly, that take is fairly unpopular even with me, at least to an extent. I don’t miss constantly swatting away insects and feeling compelled to cover myself with repellent just to buy me a little relief from those hungry hordes.
However, there’s something about the lack of that misery that’s also unsettling.
I’ve noticed this frequently the last couple of years: The gnats, mosquitoes and other pests don’t seem as bad as they used to be. Perhaps part of this is due to the relatively dry weather, which impacts the breeding conditions. Or perhaps I’ve just been lucky.
Unfortunately, it may also fit into a larger, more disturbing pattern. For instance, we see fewer bees these days, monarch butterfly migrations have become easy to miss and the arrival of early autumn was once a siren for box elder bugs, which I rarely en-counter anymore.
It forces me to wonder if this decline in insect life is a fleeting experience, or is it something much more.
We live in an age in which chemicals are used rampantly to control insects in communities and to eliminate pests in our crops. Is this working too well?
This prospect harks back to the 1962 book “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, which pondered the effects of large-scale pesticide use on our environment. The book was controversial in its day, stirring major criticism from chemical companies, but it left a major imprint on the environmental movement.
As the book’s title suggests, the excessive use of pesticides and other chemicals can generate a grim silence where spring-like life should be, literally, abuzz. Regarding solutions, Carson’s book didn’t advocate eliminating pesticide use altogether, but argued instead for a very spare, careful application of such chemicals to not only protect the environment but to also safeguard our own health.
Today, pesticides have become an important tool in agricultural production as well as maintaining urban quality of life.
But there can be many consequences beyond convenience.
Last summer, for instance, I went for a hike with some family members near the Gavins Point unit at the Lewis & Clark Recreation Area. We walked along a trail through a wooded area that wound its way down toward the shore of the lake. There were no insects bothering us at all, which was pleasant. Unfortunately, we also saw or heard very few birds, which tend to feed on those insects to survive. If there are no in-sects, there is less food for the birds and little reason for them to stay. It’s possible that the lack of insects that day was by human design to make for a more comfortable experience for the campers and hikers — but ultimately, at what cost?
According to the website “New Scientist,” there are 25% fewer terrestrial insects in the world now than there were three decades ago. There are numerous reasons for this, but the use of chemicals was cited as a major cause.
Ironically, the use of pesticides dropped by about 40% between 2005-2015, but the chemicals used now are much more toxic — in some cases, 10,000 times more toxic than some of the pesticides banned back in the 1970s — and work much longer where applied. In other words, less is not always less.
The impact is especially precarious for pollinator insects, which in turn threatens the health of crops and our own food supply. There’s a reason why Science Times in 2019 declared the bee the most important living thing on the planet, since 70% of our agricultural supply counts on bees doing their thing.
So, are we facing the dawn of our own “Silent Spring”?
Neither the question nor the answers are easy to decipher, but those answers are vital.
Insect control certainly does a lot for our lives, from protecting crops to curbing the spread of West Nile Virus and so on. Such benefits are obvious.
But the fallout from overuse and abuse of chemicals cannot be swatted away like a gnat buzzing by your ear.
Otherwise, the silence of a spring without bugs could grow deafening and worrisome.
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