Buggin' out
November 17, 2023 1:02 AM   Subscribe

In North America, nearly all songbirds feed insects to their young. But since 1970, the number of birds in the United States and Canada has fallen by 29%, or roughly 2.9 billion, which scientists theorize is tied to having fewer insects in the world. Some research also has linked insecticide use with declines in barn swallows, house martins, and swifts .... “Nature is just eroding away very slowly,” Wagner said. As insects disappear, “we’re losing the limbs and the twigs of the tree of life. We’re tearing it apart. And we’re leaving behind a very simplified and ugly tree.” from The collapse of insects posted by chavenet (36 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Very nice graphics, tyfs. Not only North America. BBC More or Less put numbers on the windscreen splat phenomenon [9m, shorter at 1.5x speed] last month. The end of that report, and a paragraph in the Reuter's piece, claims that fresh-water insect abundance is ↑up↑.
posted by BobTheScientist at 1:48 AM on November 17 [2 favorites]

Welcome to Collapse. It's cascading and accelerating now, quite markedly.
posted by cats are weird at 3:00 AM on November 17 [6 favorites]

the graphics for this are brilliant visual rhetoric — possibly the best use of the utopian scholastic revival aesthetic that i’ve seen to date. it’s a real twist of the knife to see a style so strongly associated with the optimism of the 1990s — look, all you smart kids, at all the things you’ll learn on your voyage into the bright and shining future! — used to depict that future’s demise.
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 3:24 AM on November 17 [8 favorites]

This is beautiful and horrifying and majestic and frightening. A friend of mine is an entomologist and I think I'll take her to tea soon to listen and learn.
posted by lextex at 3:47 AM on November 17 [4 favorites]

It makes so much sense when it the idea snaps in: we need the whole food chain. Natives are crucial. Another good presentation I heard was from the Stats and Stories podcast episode “Homegrown National Park” about a scientist’s journey from “hey, why do I use less windshield washer fluid now” to these conclusions.
posted by drowsy at 5:34 AM on November 17 [5 favorites]

If all of humanity were to disappear, the remainder of life would spring back and flourish. The mass extinctions now under way would cease, the damaged ecosystems heal and expand outward.

If all the ants somehow disappeared, the effect would be exactly the opposite, and catastrophic. Species extinction would increase even more over the present rate, and the land ecosystems would shrivel more rapidly as the considerable services provided by these insects were pulled away.

- E.O. Wilson & Bert Hölldobler in Journey To The Ants (intro version of their Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece: The Ants)
posted by fairmettle at 5:35 AM on November 17 [7 favorites]

We just read the 1962 book Silent Spring in an 'ecocriticism' class, and it is still so very relevant -- its big points are that the environment is a system as a whole and if you start poisoning big chunks of it, the rest will die off too, and that there's no real reason to be poisoning so many things because the actual losses to crops is very small especially given how overproductive modern agriculture is as a whole. It gets a lot of reputation as 'the DDT book' but that's really just an example of how humans are slashing wildly at nature and getting consequences for it.

This link also points out how this is death by a million cuts, and the problem there is humans have difficulty managing a bunch of things that only do 1% damage -- like how can glyphosate (Roundup) be the problem if all it kills is weeds, which pollinators and other insects need to live, and birds need underbrush for their nests and insects to eat, and the weeds sustain all the rodents which would rather eat green broadleaf weed shoots than grass-family crops but if all there is are crops that's what they're going to eat...raking and mowing my tiny weird human lawn in October can't be the problem even though leaf litter and long grass are where insects overwinter and lay their eggs, and those eggs which feed other creatures so they survive the winter, etc., etc., and if everybody for miles is doing the same thing it's more catastrophic.

But, one bright thing about Silent Spring is that animals bounce back relatively quickly if humans just...let them. The only problem there is that the things humans are trying to kill bounce back too, so the knee-jerk reaction is to just poison more.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:11 AM on November 17 [12 favorites]

Thanks for posting, though it is just more depressing news.
Yesterday, I was thinking about the fact that this year has been the wettest ever in recorded history. There are floods all over the place -- the reason I was thinking about it was that my local supermarket had water coming through the roof. Which is exactly the situation predicted more than 20 years ago my climate scientists: as the globe gets hotter, Denmark will become warmer and wetter, until the Gulf Stream system reverses. Then our weather will be a lot colder, more like a continental climate.
The same with the insects. I think it is just about 20 years ago we were offered a compensation from the EU in order to turn our family land into an insect habitat. The good thing is that now, after 20 years, I can begin to see the results. There are more insects, and more birds, including more birds of prey. So stuff can be done. But it took nearly 20 years, and a lot of work. I'd say I began to see the change 2 or 3 years ago, and I'm still not seeing the whole diversity of life I remember from my childhood.
On the other hand, during a short period of time while my grandmother was dying 10 years ago, my uncle ignored her instructions that I was the custodian of the land, and he spread round-up in our yard, killing my herbs (he is that stupid, he thought they were weeds), and still today, I can't get herbs to grow in my old beds, no matter what I do. 10 years of poison.
I have a dream of planting an orchard, now that there are insects for the pollination, maybe in spring.
posted by mumimor at 7:23 AM on November 17 [8 favorites]

We need to leave more corpses in the woods and meadows.
posted by pracowity at 8:30 AM on November 17 [7 favorites]

Remember to stop raking/blowing away your leaves! Insects needs leaves on the ground to reproduce. I tried...my neighbor keeps raking our yard without us asking. People are so strangely bothered by nature.
posted by tiny frying pan at 9:37 AM on November 17 [6 favorites]

I know this is a provoking and controversial thing to say but I do kind of wish the world could be freed from humans to bounce back to its wild glory.

Don't worry - we're well on our way to human extinction, in geological terms. I wouldn't give us another 10,000 years, at least. Maybe not even 1,000.
posted by tiny frying pan at 9:38 AM on November 17 [2 favorites]

tiny frying pan I just hope we are gone before the damage we do is beyond repair :(
posted by supermedusa at 9:40 AM on November 17 [1 favorite]

The damage to most of what we know will be beyond repair. But I take solace in knowing there will be life after us. It's the way of this planet, as far as we know. It will shake us off and rebirth itself.

It is devastating though.
posted by tiny frying pan at 9:49 AM on November 17 [3 favorites]

This is a phenomenal piece of publishing.
I've been wanted to start some milkweed around my neighborhood. Wondering if it's too late for fall sowing.
posted by neuron at 10:00 AM on November 17 [3 favorites]

we just planted some milkweed for the first time!
posted by supermedusa at 10:16 AM on November 17 [2 favorites]

I had a delivery route where I drove a section of interstate that crossed a winding river something like 20 times in the stretch of 50 miles. This route was typically driven started at 5pm, so it was during evening hours during the summertime that I would be driving across these river crossings.

Across about 5 years, I feel like I watched the insect population in that part of the world collapse, tracked entirely by dead bugs on the windshield. The early years of doing this drive would regularly involve having to pull over at a gas station about halfway across the stretch with river crossings to clean off the bugs. They would be so thick you couldn't see out and the wipers would do nothing to fix the problem. Another round of cleaning would be required after the final river crossing before the route could be finished.

But across the years, this happened fewer and fewer times. By the end of those years it would be a rare night that I would have to do even one stop simply to clean off the bugs, often just waiting until I needed fuel at the end of the route.

It was such a dramatic drop-off in the insect population. I don't know if this is cyclical so maybe I just caught one part of a normal waxing and waning, or if this is a permanent thing. It isn't a drive I'm likely to do without being paid for it. But it was so so so very evident to me that things had changed in a very major way.
posted by hippybear at 10:20 AM on November 17 [6 favorites]

I know there are a ton of factors which are wiping out the bugs, from insecticides to rising CO2 and heat, but every time I see a story like this I can't help but wonder how much of the insect apocalypse is caused by the windshields themselves. We've had bright lights luring insects to their deaths on roadways worldwide for a century now; surely that's had an impact.
posted by MrVisible at 10:33 AM on November 17 [2 favorites]

Mod note: One comment deleted. While it is undeniable the amount of damage humankind has done to the world, wishing for the entire human race to be extinct goes against our content policy.
posted by loup (staff) at 11:02 AM on November 17 [5 favorites]

Remember to stop raking/blowing away your leaves! Insects needs leaves on the ground to reproduce. I tried...my neighbor keeps raking our yard without us asking. People are so strangely bothered by nature.
posted by tiny frying pan at 12:37 on November 17 [4 favorites +] [⚑]

You can leave some leaves on your lawn but not really get away without raking them entirely. Not if you don't want to have to do a lot of extra work in the spring and fall to get your lawn healthy again. This week we likely had our last bit of nice weather for the year so I raked the leaves, mulched them, and then dumped most of it in my flower beds where it won't do any harm and still might provide some habitat for insects.
When I look at the ground in the forests here in Ontario its all just dirt, decaying leaves and branches, moss, and maybe some small seedlings trying to grow if a hole in the tree canopy has opened up. Trees don't really naturally fit with having a lawn, whether that's grass or some other groundcover plant, or even a garden. I agree that it's the lawn or garden that's the unnatural part, and I've been replacing my front and side yard lawns with other plants over the years but the lawn of grass and clover I've got in my backyard is still going to be raked, as are the other plants, because the leaves drop in quantities that will kill them if left alone.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:32 AM on November 17 [4 favorites]

You can leave some leaves on your lawn but not really get away without raking them entirely. Not if you don't want to have to do a lot of extra work in the spring and fall to get your lawn healthy again.

I CAN get away with it! I don't care about lawn.> Grass is useless to me and the environment, it can go ahead and die. :) Currently encouraging low ground cover in the backyard, and it's going well.
posted by tiny frying pan at 11:55 AM on November 17 [15 favorites]

It's been years since I've had to clear a bug from my car windshield. I saw two lightning bugs this summer, the first I've seen in years. This has been happening slowly over time, slow enough for us to ignore, at least until now. Maybe it's because we "don't like bugs" so we don't miss them, but they're essential to life on the planet and we need to do something about them, like it or not.
posted by tommasz at 11:58 AM on November 17 [2 favorites]

Let this be a reminder to those with lawns to allow for more natural growth to help sustain local healthy populations of our beautiful insects that contribute to the diets of creatures of all kinds. It does make an impact!
posted by KathyAnn61 at 12:21 PM on November 17 [3 favorites]

A friend in Denmark volunteers doing counts of birds in the forest since they can infer insect populations from them. He says it's more depressing year after year since there's basically nothing left.

I live on an acre and a half and we do our best to let it grow wild except for what we need to do as a firebreak. We generally try to mow no earlier than May to give everything in the leaves and grass a chance to hatch. No raking leaves, no caring about a lawn, when we plant, we try to plant native plants and it's great walking out there in spring and seeing snakes and spiders and bees and butterflies and dragonflies and grasshoppers and deer and rabbits and coyotes and birds.

Meanwhile some of our neighbors seem to want to keep things as dead as possible, raking leaves into plastic bags all fall long and they have a thriving lawn on what's otherwise a graveyard. And they get to water it all summer long to try to keep it alive.
posted by mikesch at 12:30 PM on November 17 [4 favorites]

I have basically let birdsfoot trefoil and white clover take over my lawn; the birdsfoot is wild but I've been scattering the clover seed. Bees love it, neither get very tall so no urgency to mow, both are nitrogen fixers, and I like how it looks. This is also largely because grass just doesn't grow in the yard, but these are happy. My neighbors probably don't agree, I have some 'manicurists' nearby. Another interesting side effect: these squeeze out the dandelions.

My neighbor across the street has wild snapdragon in his grass and I am so jealous.

I tried planting milkweed amongst an ancient lily flowerpatch in the backyard but it didn't take. Maybe next year.
posted by AzraelBrown at 12:38 PM on November 17 [7 favorites]

I planted some milkweed seedlings last year and they didn't die but didn't grow very much or flower or have seed pods. I thought that was the end of them but they came back this year and grew a bit more but still no flowers or seed pods. Hopefully they'll come back next year and will be even bigger and maybe even flower. Fingers crossed.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:44 PM on November 17 [4 favorites]

Yeah, no, the population of birds in Canada has not fallen 29% since 1970. Or if they have there are some enormous untouched bird preserves somewhere that have experienced a massive population increase. There is no way the bird population has only fallen 29%. Now I have only been in six different provinces in the last three decades, but I've been in urban areas, rural areas and nature preserves and I would be surprised if there are 29% of the bird population left.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:47 PM on November 17 [2 favorites]

If you're looking for the soundtrack for this post, it's Bo Burnham's That Funny Feeling.
posted by verbyournouns at 2:06 PM on November 17 [3 favorites]

I came back to the US, and driving, in 2015. I noticed quite quickly how I no longer needed to always have means on hand to extra-clean my windshield. Didn't think much of it, until I read about the bugpocolipse. ::sigh:: Can't we just be rid mosquitos and ticks, and be get on with Life?
posted by Goofyy at 2:41 PM on November 17 [1 favorite]

Is it not possible that the bugs have just learned to avoid fast roads or at least fly higher than 6 feet/2m over them over the last 100 years? That's quite a lot of bug generations for either learning or natural selection to take hold so that they aren't dying on windshields en masse. Insect populations have drastically declined in the last 50-100 years but that doesn't need to be the whole story behind our cleaner windshields today.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 3:07 PM on November 17 [1 favorite]

I'm fairly certain that the decline in the insect population has very very little to do with windshield holocausts and much more to do with a lot more of the environement. The road crosses a river for a very tiny bit of its length, and the insects aren't only swarming along the water where the road crosses it. They're there for the water, not the asphalt.
posted by hippybear at 3:13 PM on November 17 [2 favorites]

Oh, sure. There's the direct effect of greenhouse gases, plus temperature and rainfall patterns, and even the scarcity of microbes that they eat. So, even the base of the bees' food chain is being threatened.

I was just speculating about the prevalence of highways and roads, and how all the millions of cars worldwide that used to have to stop frequently to wipe bugs off their windshields weren't doing the bugs any favors. That road you were on only crossed a little bit of a river, but how many cars a day use the road? How many insects die per passage? How many crossings like that are there in the world? I don't think it compares to the damage done by pesticides, but it still really sucks for the insects.

I'm kind of hung up on just how bad an idea cars were to start with. I mean, they were sort of inevitable, but I still really want to go back in time and yell a lot of very mean things at Henry Ford.
posted by MrVisible at 3:39 PM on November 17 [3 favorites]

it still really sucks for the insects

I'm sorry, but all of existence sucks for the insects if you take their existence in aggregate. Most of them are eaten even before they become insects, still in larval or pupal form. Those that reach insect form, most of them end up as food for something else. Birds, fish, amphibians, bats, small mammals, larger mammals, other insects, I'm sure I'm forgetting things... they all eat you.

And you're stupidly designed. Six legs is not a good design. It's only a good design because you can lose up to half your shitty breakable limbs and keep on walking. Do you have any sense of pain if any part of you is actually broken off? Nobody knows. But you keep functioning. Right up until you're finally eaten.

Or, if you're the male in many species, you survive to fuck and then you die, either from hormonal overload after orgasm or from being eaten by your fuck partner or just because it uses up all your energy stores and you have no chance to eat again after a good cum.

Life as an insect is not a happy thing. Maybe there are things going on, because at a smaller scale maybe time moves slower for you so your 3 days of life feel like three years for you? And if you're in my house you've spent at least a year bumping up against my window endlessly hoping the solid air will magically allow you to pass through this next time?

I can wax eloquent with empathy for the insects for eons. I can also mock them. What I cannot do is begin to fathom the number of them upon the face of this planet, because for all the ones you think you're mourning dead upon your windshield there are probably 10K living under the soil that you will never ever even know about.
posted by hippybear at 3:49 PM on November 17 [2 favorites]

I've been a casual birder for 30 years, a serious one for about 10 years. I believe my long-term birder friends that tell me things are different now. Even in just 10 years, I feel like I've noticed a decline, but I'm willing to admit that could be due to other factors. The overall trend is not good.
posted by mollweide at 5:48 PM on November 17 [2 favorites]

One fascinating aspect of the first wave of the Pandemic was that Chicago Parks stopped working. The grass in the parks grew long and everything was unkempt. The beach sand completely covered the lakefront trail at points. The large concrete revetments along the lake which are incredibly lifeless looking inhospitable surfaces sprouted trees in their cracks some growing to over 8 feet high in about 6 months. Nature can move really fast when left alone.

It drives me nuts when I watch things like Walking Dead. Those highways would be completely overgrown by Season 3.
posted by srboisvert at 6:41 AM on November 21 [3 favorites]

Now. hippybear, let's not make mountains out of anthills.
posted by y2karl at 12:26 PM on November 21 [1 favorite]

As planetary boundaries go, insects come under "biosphere integrity", but all the plastics and fertilizers killing them fall under "novel entities". I suppose the novel entities being rated more dangerous than everything else includes relationships like this, although novel entities could kill us off by themselves in principle.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:22 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]

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