[Marxism] The Silence of the Bugs

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun May 27 13:00:40 MDT 2018

NY Times Op-Ed, May 27, 2018
The Silence of the Bugs
By Curt Stager

Fifty-six years after Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” warned of bird 
die-offs from pesticides, a new biocrisis may be emerging. A study 
published last fall documented a 76 percent decline in the total 
seasonal biomass of flying insects netted at 63 locations in Germany 
over the last three decades. Losses in midsummer, when these insects are 
most numerous, exceeded 80 percent.

This alarming discovery, made by mostly amateur naturalists who make up 
the volunteer-run Entomological Society Krefeld, raised an obvious 
question: Was this happening elsewhere? Unfortunately, that question is 
hard to answer because of another problem: a global decline of field 
naturalists who study these phenomena.

Most scientists today live in cities and have little direct experience 
with wild plants and animals, and most biology textbooks now focus more 
on molecules, cells and internal anatomy than on the diversity and 
habits of species. It has even become fashionable among some educators 
to belittle the teaching of natural history and scientific facts that 
can be “regurgitated” on tests in favor of theoretical concepts.

That attitude may work for armchair physics or mathematics, but it isn’t 
enough for understanding complex organisms and ecosystems in the real 
world. Computer models and equations are of little use without details 
from the field to test them against.

Are we in the midst of a global insect Armageddon that most of us have 
failed to notice? Here’s another data point: A decades-long decline in 
plant-pollinating hawk moths has been reported in the Northeast, but its 
causes and consequences are uncertain because we know so little about 
the ecology of these insects. In days past, compiling such information 
would have made a respectable life’s work for a Linnaeus, Humboldt or 
Darwin. Now such creatures are often ignored because studying them seems 
unlikely to generate publications, headlines or grants that provide 
academics with tenure and prestige.

This leaves us with little more than anecdotal evidence to work with. A 
recent story in The Telegraph noted that automobile windscreens in 
Britain are no longer heavily caked with splattered insects. It reminded 
me of the tiny wings, legs and antennas that used to smear the front of 
my car after midsummer drives during the 1970s. Nowadays, a drive 
through northern New York, where I live, yields barely a blemish. Is it 
because cars are more streamlined? Not likely. Last July, I examined 
parked vehicles in Saranac Lake and found little or no bug debris, even 
on license plates or the blunt fronts of vans.

What’s behind the decline? Probably not climate change, according to the 
researchers in the German study who also monitored local weather during 
the survey. What about collisions with vehicles? Despite my experience 
and the dashboard observations in Britain, one study published in 2015 
estimated that hundreds of billions of insects are being killed in North 
America by cars and trucks every year. The study’s authors called for 
additional research to determine whether what they found is 
“contributing to the substantial declines of pollinating insects 
occurring on a global scale, thus putting the ecological functioning of 
natural areas and agricultural productivity in jeopardy.”

Cars were probably not the culprit in the German study, though, because 
it focused on nature reserves where road carnage is minimal. For some 
experts, the process of elimination leaves pesticides among the likely 

Why care about this new silence of the bugs? An across-the-board decline 
in flying insects, if true, means that an entire sector of the animal 
kingdom is in trouble, representing an immense diversity of life-forms, 
from butterflies and beetles to hoverflies and damselflies. The eminent 
biologist Edward O. Wilson, who has spent much of his life studying 
ants, has warned: “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would 
regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten 
thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would 
collapse into chaos.”

So there it is. Could it be that whatever might be causing these insect 
deaths could be a threat to us too?

The widely reported decline of honeybees in the United States pales in 
comparison with the drop-off of bugs in Germany, if not in scale, then 
in the loss of biodiversity. Insects represent the vast majority of all 
animal species. Because they are pollinators and a vital part of the 
food chain, their absence would strike deep at the roots of life on earth.

I’m a lake scientist, and my colleagues and I have been struggling to 
explain our own mystery: a restructuring of plankton communities in 
lakes worldwide in recent decades, which we’ve documented by examining 
sediment cores extracted from lake bottoms. This could signal problems 
for water quality, fisheries or other aspects of lake ecology. Had we 
not taken the core samples, the geographic scale of this change might 
remain undetected, because funding and rigorous field monitoring of 
plankton composition in lakes has often been lacking.

Some experts have attributed the plankton shift to climate change, 
others to nitrogen pollution from agricultural runoff, but we need more 
long-term field studies to confirm the cause and anticipate its effects. 
The German insect data suggest another possibility. Could agricultural 
chemicals be poisoning aquatic organisms, including plankton and insects 
that begin their lives as aquatic larvae? We simply don’t know.

In Britain, the news report about car-insect collisions was based on a 
study that relied on data from volunteers who monitored gridlike 
“splat-o-meters” on their license plates. We need more of this sort of 
scientist-directed crowdsourcing. Citizen scientists and a few 
field-research-oriented college communities like my own at Paul Smith’s 
College in the Adirondacks of New York are turning their yards, gardens, 
lakes and forests into long-term monitoring stations. Online 
clearinghouses like iNaturalist, Budburst and the North American 
Breeding Bird Survey compile and archive field data for others to use, 
and show that many species are changing their ranges and migration 
habits in response to climate change.

In the United States, research scientists associated with a network of 
more than two dozen long-term ecological monitoring centers have also 
been conducting more detailed field research for several decades. But 
these efforts are still not enough to keep track of a rapidly changing 
world. We need new crops of professionals trained in field biology and 
ecology to focus on important but less charismatic or commercially 
valued creatures than songbirds and honeybees.

In 1996, an editorial in Conservation Biology warned that “naturalists 
are dying off,” and asked: “Will the next generation of conservation 
biologists be nothing but a bunch of computer nerds with no firsthand 
knowledge of natural history?”

Two decades later, we are beginning to realize how lucky we are that 
dedicated expert and amateur naturalists remain to observe and record 
the distinctive flash of a firefly or the soft clatter of dragonfly 
wings. But we need more of them, and soon.

Curt Stager is a professor of natural sciences at Paul Smith’s College 
and the author, most recently, of “Still Waters: The Secret World of Lakes.”

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