By Margaret Renkl
Contributing Opinion Writer, New York Times
May 18, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET
NASHVILLE — One day last fall, deep in the middle of a devastating drought, I was walking the dog when a van bearing the logo of a mosquito-control company blew past me and parked in front of a neighbor’s house. The whole vehicle stank of chemicals, even going 40 miles an hour.
The man who emerged from the truck donned a massive backpack carrying a tank full of insecticide and proceeded to spray every bush and plant in the yard. Then he got in his truck, drove two doors down, and sprayed that yard, too, before continuing his route all around the block.
Here’s the most heartbreaking thing about the whole episode: He was spraying for mosquitoes that didn’t even exist: Last year’s extreme drought ended mosquito-breeding season long before the first freeze. Nevertheless, the mosquito vans arrived every three weeks, right on schedule, drenching the yards with poison for no reason but the schedule itself. And spraying for mosquitoes isn’t the half of it, as any walk through the lawn-care department of a big-box store will attest. People want the outdoors to work like an extension of their homes — fashionable, tidy, predictable. Above all, comfortable. So weedy yards filled with tiny wildflowers get bulldozed end to end and replaced with sod cared for by homeowners spraying from a bottle marked “backyard bug control” or by lawn services that leave behind tiny signs warning, “Lawn care application; keep off the grass.”
If only songbirds could read. Most people don’t seem to know that in this context “application” and “control” are simply euphemisms for “poison.” A friend once mentioned to me that she’d love to put up a nest box for bluebirds, and I offered to help her choose a good box and a safe spot for it in her yard, explaining that she would also need to tell her yard service to stop spraying. “I had no idea those guys were spraying,” she said.
To enjoy a lush green lawn or to sit on your patio without being eaten alive by mosquitoes doesn’t seem like too much to ask unless you actually know that insecticides designed to kill mosquitoes will also kill every other kind of insect: earthworms and caterpillars, spiders and mites, honeybees and butterflies, native bees and lightning bugs. Unless you actually know that herbicides also kill insects when they ingest the poisoned plants.
The global insect die-off is so precipitous that, if the trend continues, there will be no insects left a hundred years from now. That’s a problem for more than the bugs themselves: Insects are responsible for pollinating roughly 75 percent of all flowering plants, including one-third of the human world’s food supply. They form the basis of much of the animal world’s food supply, as well. When we poison the bugs and the weeds, we are also poisoning the turtles and tree frogs, the bats and screech owls, the songbirds and skinks.
“If insect species losses cannot be halted, this will have catastrophic consequences for both the planet’s ecosystems and for the survival of mankind,” Francisco Sánchez-Bayo of the University of Sydney, Australia, told The Guardian last year. Lawn chemicals are not, by themselves, the cause of the insect apocalypse, of course. Heat waves can render male insects sterile; loss of habitat can cause precipitous population declines; agricultural pesticides kill land insects and, by way of runoff into the nation’s waterways, aquatic insects, as well.
As individuals, we can help to slow such trends, but we don’t have the power to reverse them. Changing the way we think about our own yards is the only thing we have complete control over. And since homeowners use up 10 times more pesticide per acre than farmers do, changing the way we think about our yards can make a huge difference to our fellow creatures. It can make a huge difference to our own health, too: As the Garden Club of America notes in its Great Healthy Yard Project, synthetic pesticides are endocrine disrupters linked to an array of human health problems, including autism, A.D.H.D., diabetes and cancer. So many people have invested so completely in the chemical control of the outdoors that every subdivision in this country might as well be declared a Superfund site.
Changing our relationship to our yards is simple: Just don’t spray. Let the tiny wildflowers take root within the grass. Use an oscillating fan to keep the mosquitoes away. Tug the weeds out of the flower bed with your own hands and feel the benefit of a natural antidepressant at the same time. Trust the natural world to perform its own insect control, and watch the songbirds and the tree frogs and the box turtles and the friendly garter snakes return to their homes among us.
Because butterflies and bluebirds don’t respect property lines, our best hope is to make this simple change a community effort. For 25 years, my husband and I have been trying to create a wildlife sanctuary of this half-acre lot, planting native flowers for the bees and the butterflies, leaving the garden messy as a safe place for overwintering insects.
Despite our best efforts, our yard is being visibly changed anyway. Fewer birds. Fewer insects. Fewer everything. Half an acre, it turns out, is not enough to sustain wildlife unless the other half-acre lots are nature-friendly, too.
It’s spring now, and nearly every day I get a flier in the mail advertising a yard service or a mosquito-control company. I will never poison this yard, but I save the fliers anyway, as a reminder of what we’re up against. I keep them next to an eastern swallowtail butterfly that my 91-year-old father-in-law found dead on the sidewalk. He saved it for me because he knows how many flowers I’ve planted over the years to feed the pollinators.
I keep that poor dead butterfly, even though it breaks my heart, because I know what it cost my father-in-law to bring it to me. How he had to lock the brakes on his walker, hold onto one of the handles and stoop on arthritic knees to get to the ground. How gently he had to pick up the butterfly to keep from crumbling its wings into powder. How carefully he set it in the basket of the walker to protect it.
My father-in-law didn’t know that the time for protection had passed. The butterfly he found is perfect, unbattered by age or struggle. It was healthy and strong until someone sprayed for mosquitoes, or weeds, and killed it, too.
By Amanda Heidt
Science, Apr. 8, 2020 , 1:45 PM
Monarch butterflies raised in captivity rarely survive the species’ grueling, nearly 5000-kilometer migration. Now,
researchers think they know why. When the insects were raised in indoor cages, they grew up paler (an
indication of poor health) and 56% weaker (as measured in a grip strength test), researchers report today in Biology Letters. The reason may be that, although most butterflies survive when raised in captivity, only the strongest survive in the wild, The New York Times reports. The researchers don’t discourage hobbyists from raising monarchs, but they say it may not be the best way to restore dwindling populations around the globe.
Also See Number of monarch butterflies wintering in Mexico down by more than half
By Erin Blakemore
March 14, 2020 at 8:00 a.m. EDT
Bee hotels — boxes promoted as good nesting places. “Bee-friendly” farming techniques behind favorite foods.
Are the claims true — or just honey-drenched hype? Lila Westreich, a bee researcher at the University of Washington, says companies take advantage of well-intentioned consumers by “bee-washing.”
The term, first coined by researchers in 2015, refers to greenwashing, in this case a marketing strategy that makes a product or practice seem beneficial to threatened bees. (Greenwashing evolved from the term whitewashing and means an environmental spin.) In The Conversation, Westreich writes that the practice can actually hurt bees.
Bee hotels are advertised as safe nests for bees, for example, but some may be dangerous. The welfare of honeybees may be overemphasized, misleading the public about environmental priorities.
Wild native bees are at particular risk. Of the 20,000 or so bee species in the world, only about 4,000 are native to North America — the bumblebee among them. These bees don’t produce honey, and they’re less sociable and well-known than their so-sweet counterparts.
The majority of American bees don’t produce honey. Honey bees came to the United States from Europe. Kelsey K. Graham, another bee researcher, calls them the “chickens of the bee world” because they are so domesticated.
Unlike hive-dwelling honeybees, which are carefully bred, imported to the country for use in crop pollination and managed, the majority of native bees are solitary and nest underground. They reportedly pollinate up to 80 percent of plants, including many crops.
They’re also at risk: In a 2017 study, the Center for Biological Diversity found that more than 50 percent of North American native bee species are declining; 24 percent are threatened with extinction.
Native bees are threatened by climate change, habitat depletion and pesticide use — but honey bees get most of the publicity.
“While many people are worried about honey bees, it’s also important to understand the jeopardy that native bees face,” Westreich writes. “Companies and organizations use bee-washing to boost their image, taking advantage of the public’s lack of knowledge of native bees.”
By bragging about how they help honey bees, notes Westreich, they play down the importance of native species that, unlike honey bees, are actually endangered. They also play up their solutions, such as bee hotels, that can hurt bees by spreading disease.
Ready to inoculate yourself against misleading claims about bees? Read Westreich’s article at bit.ly/beewashing
Science Magazine and the Guardian
Climate change could increase bumble bees’ extinction risk as temperatures and precipitation begin to exceed
species’ historically observed tolerances. A new study adds to a growing body of evidence for alarming, widespread losses of biodiversity and for rates of global change that now exceed the critical limits of ecosystem resilience.
Read more about this topic here and here, or read the research study here.
Submitted by Barry Buschow
Commercial pumpkin growers routinely rent honey bees so they have enough insects to pollinate their crops, but a new study published in the Journal of Economic Entomology suggests that wild bees can do the job for free. The three-year study found that wild bumble bees and squash bees could easily handle the pollination required to produce a full yield of pumpkins in all of the tested commercial fields, according to Carley McGrady, the lead author of the study.
The pumpkin study was part of a broader initiative, called the Integrated Crop Pollination Project, or Project ICP (http://icpbees.org/), which was headquartered at Michigan State University and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative. To read more, click here.
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