The Buzz

Insects are disappearing, but you can help reverse the trend

A soldier beetle. (Photo by Chad Merda)

Insects both annoy and delight us. In the same breath, we can curse a mosquito while admiring a monarch. But while we may have mixed feelings about insects as a whole, there is no denying how crucial they are to our very existence. 

More than 80% of the land-living species on Earth are insects, according to the Penn State University Insect Biodiversity Center. Their numbers are vital because they play multiple key roles in the ecosystem. They are crucial for their work as pollinators, with humans relying on them for much of our food supply, and they also serve as the base of food webs in every ecosystem they inhabit. Insects also do important work as decomposers of organic material.

But these plentiful creatures aren't as plentiful as they once were. In fact, more than 40% of all insect species are threatened with extinction, according to a study published in Biological Conservation in April 2019. Why this is happening varies depending on the species, but the main factor is habitat loss as land is converted for agricultural use. Other contributing factors include chemical pollutants, invasive species and climate change.

When it comes to declining insect populations, the most important and recognizable insects get much of the attention. Honeybees — crucial to our food supply — have been the subject of many a headline. And so, too, have beloved monarchs.

The decline of insect populations could have devastating effects on food webs and ecosystems, but as with most things in science, the decline is not universal. While many insect species are experiencing devastating population losses and are threatened with extinction, not all are, National Geographic reports. Some defy the trend and are prospering. And this is a sign there are steps we can take to help insect populations rebound.

What can you do to help? Plenty. Here are a few ideas.

Reduce your lawn and plant native plants

Have you heard of food deserts? They're urban neighborhoods that lack access to affordable and high-quality fresh foods. Our lawns are food deserts for insects and other wildlife. They are monocultures — mainly one species of grass — that do not support a variety of species, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, or PNAS. We can reverse the effects of these so-called food deserts on insects by adding plant diversity to our yards, particularly by incorporating native plants, which are well adapted to the local climate and soil.

RELATED: A DOZEN NATIVE PLANTS THAT WILL BRING LIFE TO YOUR YARD

When it comes to converting our lawns to native plantings, no effort is too little and large efforts aren't required. If every home, park and school converted just 10% of their lawns to a natural habitat, it would increase usable insect habitats by more than 4 million acres, PNAS reports. Native plants are most beneficial to include because many of our native insect species have relationships with these plants dating back millions of years, relying on them for food and nesting.  

Reduce pesticide and herbicide use

Many of the pesticides and herbicides we use around our homes are strictly for vanity — that is to say they make our yards look nicer, but they aren't improving the health of our lawns, PNAS reports. One of the problems with the use of these products is that they often have unintended consequences, harming insect populations beyond what was intended. They also often travel far from where they were used, expanding the reach of their negative impact.

The use of pesticides aimed at controlling pesky insects like mosquitoes can be eliminated by modifying your yard and your practices, PNAS advises. Most importantly, get rid of any sources of standing water, such as play structures, pots, birdbaths and old tires. If you use herbicides around your yard to control weeds and other unwanted plants, use them selectively and always carefully follow all label directions. In many spots in your yard you can probably hand pull weeds rather than apply herbicides.

Another product we use around our homes that can have unintended consequences for wildlife are soaps and detergents we use to wash our cars, windows and homes. These soaps can contain high quantities of pollutants like ammonia, nitrogen, phosphorus and surfactants that can drain into our waterways when we use them, PNAS reports. As an alternative, look for biodegradable soaps that you can use around your home to help reduce the negative effects of these pollutants in the environment.

Cut the lights — especially outdoors

Light pollution can have devastating effects on insects for many different reasons, and reducing the light you use to illuminate your home, especially outdoors, can be helpful. Many insects are attracted to light, and this can be a fatal attraction for many, according to Smithsonian Magazine. In fact, some studies have estimated that about a third of the insects that are drawn to outdoor light will die by morning, either due to predation or exhaustion. 

Attraction isn't the only issue, though. Some insects may mistakenly lay eggs in an unsuitable spot because of light causing them to be confused by their location. Others, like fireflies, can have a hard time finding a mate when there's too much light in the environment, Smithsonian reports.

You can help reduce light pollution outside your home by installing covers on your exterior lights so they illuminate only the areas where light is needed and by using motion-activated lights, Smithsonian reports. In populated areas, switching the color of light can be beneficial. Insects are most attracted to white and blue light, with red, orange and yellow also known to attract them. Amber-colored light is the best choice for around your house. And of course, consider flipping the switch to off at times and places when lights aren't necessary.

RELATED: LIGHT POLLUTION ALTERS OUR VIEW AND OUR HEALTH

Be an advocate and a citizen scientist

Simply being aware of how vital insects are to our world is a good first step, but you can take that knowledge a step farther by advocating for them and educating others about their importance, according to PNAS. This can be as simple as teaching your kids not to squish bugs to more organized efforts, such as petitioning your homeowners association or local government not to use pesticides and herbicides as part of their property management plans or to incorporate native plants into landscapes.

You can also participate in any number of citizen science projects that focus on insects, such as BeeSpotter, a project of the University of Illinois; the Global Butterfly Census; and Firefly Watch. Scientists use the data from citizen science projects like these to track trends. The more people who participate, the sooner they may be able to spot trends and the more data they have to draw conclusions from.

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