Friday, March 1, 2019

The Insects Are Dying Off. It's About Time.

Wasp.  Ever get stung by one of these things?  I have.  Ouch!  Okay?  I thought I was having a heart attack.  I never want to be stung by a wasp again.  And since all the bugs are finally dying off, I just might get my wish. 

If you're like me, you are no fan of insects.

They sting.  They bite.  They're gross to look at.  They slither across the floor.  They lurk inside your cabinets, especially if you spill some sugar in there, and don't clean it up.  

They move surprisingly fast when you try to kill them with a shoe.  Alarmingly fast.

They seem to know what you're thinking. 

Well, we've got some good news on the bug front.  They are dying.  

No, not a little bit of dying.  A lot.  A lot of dying.

No one is 100% sure, but all evidence points to the idea that the insects are dying off.  An Insect Apocalypse is taking place, the likes of which we have never seen.

All I can say is:  Thank God.

Jordan Lingle of Indiana demonstrates his badly swollen back after being attacked by a swarm of blood-sucking mosquitoes.

A Proud History (of Resistance to Insect Tyranny)

Throughout human history, we have been at war with insects.  This isn't just because they bite, and it hurts, and they make your skin crawl when you look at them.

If that was all they did, it would be bad enough.

But alas, that's not all they do.  They destroy our food crops.  They spread disease.  

Mosquitoes, for just one example, spread malaria, which infects about 200 million people, and kills between half and three-quarters of a million people, each year.  

Yes.  That includes children.  Mosquitoes kill helpless little human babies.

This is a human baby.  Cute, isn't it?  Insects kill these.

Sorry.  Just keeping it real.

And insects outnumber us.  Not by a little, by a lot.  It's estimated that more than 50% of all animal life on Earth are insects.  Humans are less than 3%.

As a fun aside, all the bacteria on Earth are nearly 1,200 times heavier than all the humans.

But we're talking about insects.  

Insects have posed such an existential threat to humanity, that in our earliest recorded histories, there is already evidence of our attempts to try to stop them.  

In the Rig Veda, an ancient Hindu sacred text written around 2,000 BC (approximately 4,000 years ago), there are references to pest control for crops.  And swarms of locusts, (or "plagues" of locusts) bringing famine and pestilence are practically an Old Testament cliche.

A modern day swarm of grasshoppers and flying beetles in Texas.  Yes.  This photo is from 2015.  Don't let down your guard.  It ain't over yet.

It has been a long war.  We're winning now, but we haven't always had the upper hand.  

The Black Plague, which wiped out between 40% and 60% of the population in Europe during the mid-1300s, was carried and spread... by fleas.

Collecting the dead during the Black Plague.

The Tide Turns

Things went back and forth for a long time, humans and insects trading blows.  But 'round about the late 1940s, that started to change.  

Clever humans, using technologies discovered during that great scientific research and development phase known as World War II, began to invent a host of pesticides that were strikingly effective at killing insects.  

Also birds.  And fish.  And various other forms of wildlife.  And people.

But never mind that.  The pesticides were wiping out insects!  So good at killing insects were they, that humanity went all-in on using them.  

Since 1950, pesticide use has increased by 50 times.  We now spray 2.3 million tons of pesticides a year.  There are at least 180 different chemicals we use in the ongoing slaughter.  And it's working, people.  It's working.

Artist's rendering of a young girl being chased by a swarm of wasps.  This horrifying scenario will soon be a thing of the past.
Victory at Hand

Beginning in the late 1970s, and accelerating rapidly in more recent years, scientists have begun to notice a wonderful trend.  The bugs are... gone.  

Not all of them, not yet.  But a lot of them.  Way more than you might expect.

In 2012, scientists studied insect biomass in Puerto Rico's Luquillo rainforest using the exact same techniques of a similar study carried out in 1976.  Indeed, one scientist, Bradford Lister, participated in both studies.

What did they find?

They found that insects captured in so-called "sweep samples" had declined by 4 to 8 times.  Even better, insects caught in sticky traps had declined by 30 to 60 times.  

Imagine walking through a rainforest and not being attacked by biting, stinging insects.  

But it's not limited to Puerto Rico.  In Germany, studies show that flying insects have declined by 75% in the past 30 years.  

Amazingly, in both Germany and Puerto Rico, the studies took place in protected areas, where you'd expect to find a lot of bugs.  Nope.  Nothing but...

Dead.  Bugs.

Germany and Puerto Rico are just the tip of the ice cube, as the saying goes.  It is happening everywhere.  

England.  The United States.  Denmark.  India.  China.  Australia.

Everywhere, bugs are losing.  Everywhere, we are winning.  In a hundred years, it's possible that there will be no insects left at all.

Okay.  I hear you.  You're a little nervous.  You're wondering: Could there be any downside to all this?

No.  The bugs are dying.  This is what we wanted.  There is no downside.  

Well... there might be one.

Butterflies are dying off.  Maybe you like butterflies.  I like butterflies.  But you have to take the bitter with the sweet.

One Possible Downside

Let's be honest, all right?

Getting rid of the bugs is a project we've been working on for thousands of years.  Victory is within reach.  This is a good thing.  But good things have their limits.

It turns out that insects, irritating pests that they are, may actually be our friends.  They might even be necessary to our survival, and to the survival of everything else.  

Insects have been around 1,000 times longer than the human race, they make up 35 times our biomass, and to some extent, they create the world we live in.

They are the foundation of the food chain.  Many birds, amphibians, reptiles and rodents subsist mostly, or entirely, on insects.  Many small fish feed on insects.

Without insects, these animals will disappear.  Immediately afterward, the medium-sized animals that feed on these small animals will disappear.  On upward.

Flowering plants, where much of our food supply comes from, are pollinated by insects.  

And insects eat dead things, recycling them back into soil (do not, under any circumstances, click on that link).  A world without insects is a world of dead things just laying there, slowly rotting.

Even further, there is some concern among scientists that the disappearance of insects could lead to the sudden collapse of the biosphere.  

I know.  I know.  One more thing to worry about.  As if we don't have enough on our minds.

Well, I say forget about it.  It'll never be as troublesome as the professional worriers claim.  

How bad could biosphere collapse really be?  And even if it is bad, at least we won't have to deal with nasty biters anymore.

The Road, a long, boring movie where a man who looks suspiciously like Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings, wanders through the collapsed biosphere with his son, drinking old cans of Coke, while trying not to get eaten by cannibals.  Near the end of the movie, they find a Japanese beetle that is alive.  This is supposed to be a sign of hope.  No thanks.  If it's a choice between living without hope, or living without bugs...

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