Designing A Wholesome Future
A few days ago I joined friends in a cider pressing party, cutting up hundreds of apples from their little home orchard. The apples were a mix of drops and hand picked late ripeners, of several varieties, some lost to local history. The younger folks brought bushel after bushel to the press, tossing them into a kiddy wading pool for a quick rinse. Next they got a bleach water bath, then a second rinse in warm water; after years of freezing hands at cider time, some brilliant person hooked the hose up to the washing machine and now warm water makes the apple chopping a lot more fun. Cheerful people chopped and edited, removing bits with insect damage, rot and mammal bites to the pig bucket.
All afternoon, gallons of cider flowed into catch basins to be filtered and bottled. The pleasant scene was much like many I’d experienced over the years with one notable exception: no wasps. No wasps buzzed amongst the fallen fruit in the orchard. No wasps followed sticky, sweet-scented workers or crawled curious over the bottling area. This lack made the process less fraught with sting potential but also felt immensely sad. All over the state, the country, the world, insects are vanishing at a rate we humans can’t fathom.
Where Have All The Insects Gone
Bees, wasps, hoverflies, dragonflies, butterflies, moths, all these and more are dying off faster than we can identify them. Scientists have cataloged about a million terrestrial invertebrates, but suspect that at least four million more remain unknown. Lack of identity is no protection, and even insects with protected status are not safe; Rodolfo Dirzo, a Stanford ecologist, writes that 42 percent of 3,623 of terrestrial invertebrate species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List are close to extinction.
This worldwide problem has multiple causes, but human activity is (surprise!) at the root of them all. The vast amounts of pesticide used in agribusiness, the increasing use of insect-resistant GE crops, widespread loss of habitat and urban sprawl are all major factors. A National Institutes of Health report reveals that US farmers use 1 billion pounds of pesticides each year and approximately 5.6 billion pounds are used worldwide. GE crops wipe out many non-target casualties. Every day, wild land is turned to plowed fields or monoculture food production, parks and parking lots, malls or housing developments. Insects are the initial losers, followed closely by the plants and critters that depend on insects for pollination or meals. We humans are also impacted and will be more so as the destruction continues.
Bring Back The Lost
If this all feels hopeless, it’s heartening to know that we gardeners can make a genuine difference right now. All of us can preferentially choose food and clothing made from organically grown crops, but anyone with a meadow or a backyard or even a windowbox can also provide food and shelter for local insects. Even the tidy minded can set aside an area to be a Bug Bank, filled with plants that local beneficial insects can chew and sip and make homes amongst. Let a little land go wild and the wild will return. Turn a pocket lawn into a meadow and insects will make a home for themselves. Let a lot of land return to nature and natural communities will reestablish.
I’m reading a delightful book called A Cottage And Three Acres by Colette O’Neill, an Irishwoman who spent the past 17 years bringing her small holding into radiant health. When she bought it, the land s was degraded and dying, so she set out to create a haven for living creatures. Once the cottage roof was mended, her first priority was to heal the land, starting with improving drainage on her boggy, soggy land. Rather than a natural bog, O’Neill’s land had once been cultivated, but years of erosion from the logged hill behind her property had turned it into a wasteland where little grew and nothing thrived. The driveway and paths became a series of French drains filled with local limestone gravel. Her skillful local “digger man” restored lost streams and ponds that slowed the rush of the abundant water.
Big Permaculture; Plant First For Insects
As the soil began to breathe again, she spread layers of compost and mulch, using whatever local materials she could grow, gather, and glean. Living fences were woven from hedgerow cuttings. Hundreds of trees and shrubs were planted and the dying land came back to life. Thrilled by this process, O’Neill developed a design process that focused on promoting permaculture for insects and birds as well as people. Hopefully it’s obvious that no toxic chemicals can be used in haven gardens, and that sharing with insects means putting up with some chewed foliage and leaving cocoons, egg cases, and insect nests undisturbed.
It’s probably also obvious that as many locally native fodder and nectar plants as possible should be planted. Consult local nurseries and native plant societies as well as the Xerxes Society’s excellent website (https://xerces.org/) for lists of appropriate plants to support both insects and birds. Plants for people should be selected for adaptability to local conditions as much as for good looks or great productivity. Again, a certain amount of sharing must be acceptable, though you may want to build insect-accessible caged growing areas for edibles you need to harvest for human use. Even if permaculture is not possible, we can all plan gardens to support bees and other pollinators, including bats and birds. We can also work with local governments, parks, school districts, churches, and land trusts to create insect havens throughout our communities. Start small, then expand. Do more. Keep going. Let’s get the buzz on!!
Pesticides Use and Exposure Extensive Worldwide – NCBI – NIH
The New York Times ran an editorial on this subject yesterday (10/29). It was titled “Insect Armageddon.”