Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Secret Science Club Zoom Discussion Recap

Tonight, my great and good friends of the Secret Science Club are presenting a discussion about dwindling insect populations between Guardian environmental correspondent Oliver Milman and New Yorker contributing author and environmentalist Bill McKibben.  This topic is near-and-dear to my heart because I am a Big Bug Guy.  Oliver Milman's new book is The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires that Run the World.

Bill McKibben noted that the topic of this talk is grim, but necessary.  He noted that the prologue to the book seems like a tribute to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.  He noted that the book somewhat takes the shine off of modernity, and that while the topics are grim things, they are not fated things.  He asked Mr Milman about entomologists and citizen scientists chronicling the decline of insect populations throughout the globe... Mr Milman noted that insects seemed so 'legion' that their numbers were n98% mologists, the few people who kept count, had been trapping insects in nature reserves, noted that the weight of trapped insects dropped by 76%.  Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany had lost three-quarters of its insects.

In Puerto Rico, an entomologist found that 98% of insects seemed to have dropped, judging from his glue traps, and the numbers dropped by about 80% in the canopy.

A Danish naturalist decided to experiment by driving around in a beat-up car and checking the windshield for smashed insects, and the numbers had dropped dramatically.

The biological crisis is multiform- about 90% of tigers have disappeared, sea ice is down dramatically, and insect populations have dropped 70,80,90 percent.  Our insect studies are heavily weighted toward North America and Europe.  Beetle populations in the US are down, bumblebee populations are in decline, and the monarch butterfly migration in California is down to about one percent of what it used to be.  We know enough to be alarmed, but we need to act more quickly than we are for the climate crisis.

What are the causes?  Pesticides, particularly neonicotinoid pesticides, play a major role.  DDT effected birds' eggshells, but neonicotinoids are seven thousand times more toxic to bees than DDT.  Neonicotinoids are water soluble, so they end up in the groundwater.  Big Ag even sells seeds coated in neonicotinoids, which then end up in the plants themselves.  These pesticides also kill slugs and end up in human bodies through ingestion of foods.  Neonics don't discriminate, they kill beneficial insects as well as pests.  Insect predators are wiped out, reducing their ability to regulate ecosystems.  These insects, such as wasps, also function as pollinators.  If insect pollination were eliminated, starvation would ensue.  Rice and corn are wind-pollinated, but most fruits are insect pollinated.  Cherry production in many areas is reduced due to reduced pollinator populations.  Clearing forest to create farmland would aggravate the climate crisis, more intensive cultivation would result in more toxic farmland.

European farmers have not suffered from the discontinuation of neonics, they are also planting wildflowers throughout their fields, providing biodiverse habitats for insects.  In the US, the producers of pesticides have a lot of clout with their lobbyists.  These are extremely wealthy corporations with a lot of power over farmers.  

Just getting rid of neonics doesn't get insects out of the woods- climate change also poses grave threats.  The symbol of climate change is an image of a sad polar bear, but insects, usually seen as survivors, may be more vulnerable than most creatures.  With a warming of 3%, many insects, which have limited mobility, will be pushed out of their temperature comfort range.  Other insects, many of them deleterious to humans, are expanding their range, such as the mosquitos which transmit Dengue fever.  We won't lose all insects, we're just changing the composition of populations- we'll lose bees and butterflies and gain cockroaches and mosquitos, which thrive in warm, damp environments full of human waste products.  In the US, ticks are also increasing their ranges- Mr McKibben quipped that humans aren't always at the top of the food change.  

Mr Milman noted that humans are scrambling the seasons- birds nest earlier, plants bud earlier.  Many insect and bird populations are being thrown off by the plants not being in sync with them.  

Mr McKibben waxed lyrical about the incredible organisms at risk, such as the monarch butterflies profiled in a book by his wife.  He cited the behaviors of ants and bees, and wondered why so many humans have a learned revulsion toward insects.  Mr Milman asked a cultural question- what colors our attitudes toward insects, which kindergardners tend to be fascinated by.  People are 'bugged' by others, and are disgusted by 'creepy crawlies'.  Often, our interactions with insects involve a swatter.  Mr Milman noted that he had ants in his kitchen while he was writing the book.  He waxed lyrical about the hive 'intelligence' of bees, which are an organized strata of life which upholds the rest of us.

In the case of monarchs, as their wintering grounds warm, they retreat further up the mountains they shelter in.  If we lose them, we lose beauty, even more than utility.

The two gentlemen opened the conversation to questions- how do scientists use non-lethal methods to count insects?  They often gassed forests, and there is also the windshield count.  There are probably emerging techniques, but Mr Milman isn't aware of them.  He noted that scientists aren't driving the killing of insects.  Mr Milman describe working on the book and noting that pollination is so important that there are bee brokers (one only had to work two months per year) and bee thieves.  Wild bees are suffering even more than domesticated bees.  He joked about being stung in the face by a bee, and having beekeepers laugh at him.  

Post Maria, there was a lot of habitat loss in Puerto Rico- were population counts made both before and after the storm?  This topic is discussed in the book, a tale of damaged equipment/

Some Bastard in the audience asked about the role of invasive species on insect populations.  Invasive plants can crowd out native plants that native insects need.  Ironically, the most successful invasive species in North America is the honeybee.  50K honeybees can live in a hive, and they are voracious- they can outcompete native bumblebees.  

How about the importance of cultivating native plants?  This is an aesthetic issue, people like beautiful, tidy things, having a revulsion to weeds.  Our obsession with well-manicured lawns, the most intensively irrigated crop in the US, creates biological deserts- close-cropped, poisoned with herbicides and pesticides... Mr Milman urged us to 'let things go a bit', plant wildflowers, stop cutting plants.  Mr McKibben urged us to get to a wild place, the hear the background hum of life.  Dorian urged us to get rid of 'Vanity Ag'.  

One of the best features of the night was a question from a child who asked what we could do to help, besides doing things she was doing, like planting beneficial plants.  Mr Milman noted that he's not all gloom, and that insects are great survivors.  If we give them a bit of a chance, they will bounce back.  He talked of milkweed plantings and rooftop gardens. If you have a yard, plant a variety of things and create oases for insects. Mr McKibben told her to tell others to read Charlotte's Web, so we can learn about our friends in the dark corners of the room.

Another question involved an upcoming food insecurity crisis due to falling pollinator populations.  In China, teams of hand-pollinators are pollinating fruit trees.  Mr Milman noted that the notion of robot pollinators is fanciful- they are no real substitutes.  Regarding the eating of insects, Mr Milman noted that insects are a good source of proteins, and can be raised in shipping containers with low environmental impact.  Eating insects shouls be beneficial.

An evolutionary biologist in the audience asked about adaptions to climate change- Mr Milman noted that monarch butterflies have evolved larger, stronger wings as their food sources become more distant.  

Is the US catching up with Europe in the banning of toxins?  No.  Neonics banned in Europe won't be banned in the US for at least the next 15 years.  Mr Milman noted about a lack of a precautionary principle in the US- products are often rolled out before we find out if they are safe.  Mr McKibben noted that Europe's regulation of pesticides is due to political power- if the power of corporations isn't curbed, no changes will be forthcoming here.  Both Mr Milman and Mr McKibben noted that 'fossil fuel industry' and 'Big Ag' could be interchanged.  Mr McKibben noted that agricultural states have oversized political power due to the composition of the Senate.

To what extent does organic farming help insects?  It's better than industrial farming.  Regenerative farming, diversifying crops to reduce monoculture, would help far more.  Mr Milman quipped that we're producing a 'world full of chips', spraying less chemicals would be good, but creative biodiverse farmland would be better.

Another question came from an individual who researches wild bees in the Catskills- what sort of data would provide the most impact when it comes to advocacy for harmonious coexistence with insects?  Mr Milman noted that people like bees, and cited Bavaria as a farming location which enacted a great bee protection referendum- reducing monoculture, discontinuing pesticide use, bringing back hedgerows.  He urged the questioner to keep on banging the drum about bees, noting that any Mars colonization effort would have to involve bringing bees along.  Mr McKibben noted that the Catskills and Adirondacks are New York's gift to biodiversity.

Development boxes in insect populations, reducing genetic diversity.  Insects in cities now tend to do better than rural insects due to greater diversity of plants in yards than in crop fields.

Another question involved the eradication of mosquito populations using genetic engineering- as bad as mosquitos are, they do provide sustenance for bird, bat, and amphibian species, and pollinate some plants.  Often, when we tamper with nature, it blows up in our face due to unintended circumstances.

The final question to Mr Milman was, how do you maintain a positive outlook?  He noted that his day job is writing about climate change.  He maintains some hope, but is worried about the speed of change, and our difficulty in countering it in time.

Once again, the Secret Science Club has dished a fantastic program.  Kudos to Margaret and Dorian, and Messers Milman and McKibben,  I like to talk about the 'Secret Science Sweet Spot', and tonight's discussion hit that spot, with its combination of scientific fact and advocacy.

For a taste of the Secret Science Club experience, here is Mr Milman discussing his book:

Pour yourself a nice beverage, and imbibe that heady mix of science and activism.

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