The Blaine County Journal News-Opinion - We've Got The County Covered

Are Insect Populations Dwindling?


July 27, 2022

Many people have commented on the blessing that mosquitos are scarce this summer. Others have noticed a decrease in bug splatter on windshields. Researchers confirm that these observations are not just perception; the decline in insect populations is real.

Habitat loss, pesticides, and climate change are threatening insect populations worldwide. In 2019, Biological Conservation reported that 40% of all insect species are declining globally. While it may sound nice to live in a world with fewer bugs, environmental writer Oliver Milman says that human beings would be in big trouble without insects. That's because insects play critical roles in pollinating plants, breaking down waste in forest soil, and forming the base of a food chain that other, larger animals-including humans-rely upon.

We may hate mosquitoes, but they provide food to frogs and birds. Once we start examining food webs, ecosystems, and the interconnectedness of life, we begin to realize that little impacts on insect populations can have detrimental effects. Without these creatures, we would be without apples, almonds, broccoli, blueberries, cherries, and even ice cream and steak-because alfalfa, which is fed to cows who produce cream and beef-is pollinated by insects. Without insects, not only the staples of our lives but many of the luxuries-like spices that enhance our diets with color, flavor, and nutritional value-would be stripped from our lives.

In fact, three-quarters of the world's flowering plants and about a third of the world's food crops depend on pollinators at some stage. Although bees and butterflies take the spotlight in conversations about pollination, a wide array of insects-and even bats and birds-actually provide pollination services. For example, midges pollinate the cocoa crop from which chocolate comes, and wasps are major pollinators of orchids. Yet both insects are often branded a nuisance and targeted by pesticides.

In the early sixties, Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring, which calls for humans to act responsibly, carefully, and as stewards of the living earth-lest we awaken one day to a spring with no birdsong. Other authors have followed her lead, including writers for children. In 1971, Dr. Seuss wrote The Lorax to remind us just how important our natural environment is and to inspire a new generation of environmentalists. The Lorax departs with his famous message: "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."

Because the insect reproduction process yields incredibly large numbers of offspring, their populations will recover rapidly if we adjust our behaviors in regards to protecting their habitats. In fact, everything we do to protect habitat will help encourage more pollinators. Choosing native plants for landscaping or planting pollinator friendly gardens is one obvious step. Another is to minimize or eliminate the use of insecticides, not only to protect insect pollinators but also to provide nutritious protein sources for hungry birds. We can also offer birds a variety of safe, suitable nesting sites to help increase their populations so more birds are available to provide pollination services. Finally, supporting bird and insect-friendly agricultural practices will protect our food supply.

Such practices will also protect Montana's state insect, the mourning cloak. Designated Montana's official state butterfly in 2001, mourning cloaks have rich brown wings accented by vibrant blue dots and a bright yellow border along the trailing edge of each wing. Named for their somber coloring, mourning cloaks often rest on dark tree bark where they are camouflaged and can bask in direct sunlight. Because butterflies must be warm to fly, the mourning cloak will open its wings and angle its body toward the sun to increase its body temperature prior to flight. Combined with its dark wing color, this positioning enables the mourning cloak to absorb heat-an important practice for butterflies living in cold, mountainous areas, especially those that are active in early spring like the mourning cloak.

Because their primary food source is the sap of trees rather than flowering plants, mourning cloak butterflies are not known to be significant pollinators. However, they still can occasionally act as pollinators when they visit flowers for a nectar treat and transfer pollen


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