Insects represent by far the biggest diversity of all animals, with over a million known species of an estimated total of 5.5 million. But the largest phylum in the Animal Kingdom, accounting for about 80% of animal life on Earth, is declining.
Insects matter. On a carefully put-together piece by Reuters, By Julia Janicki, Gloria Dickie, Simon Scarr and Jitesh Chowdhury reminisce about one experience some of us can relate to:
“As a boy in the 1960s, David Wagner would run around his family’s Missouri farm with a glass jar clutched in his hand, scooping flickering fireflies out of the sky.
“We could fill it up and put it by our bedside at night,” says Wagner, now an entomologist.
That’s all gone, the family farm now paved over with new homes and manicured lawns. And Wagner’s beloved fireflies – like so many insects worldwide – have largely vanished in what scientists are calling the global Insect Apocalypse.”
As we transform the planet, insects are declining at about 2% per year. Several factors play a role:
“Amid deforestation, pesticide use, artificial light pollution and climate change, these critters are struggling — along with the crops, flowers and other animals that rely on them to survive.”
Sisyphus and dung beetles
The decline in insects doesn’t even mark a turning point in our perception of the world, but birds, fish, wild plants and human crops depend on insects across the world:
“‘Insects are the food that make all the birds and make all the fish,’ said Wagner, who works at the University of Connecticut. ‘They’re the fabric tethering together every freshwater and terrestrial ecosystem across the planet.'”
Insects aren’t only a direct source of food for birds, reptiles, mammals like bats, or even humans: they pollinate more than 75% of global corps, and several key species help keep entire ecosystems on check:
“Dung beetles alone are worth some $380 million per year to the U.S. cattle industry for their work breaking down manure and churning rangeland soil, the study found.”
So what would happen if several species of insects collapse in the coming decades? Yields could drop and around 80% of wild plants, which rely on insects for pollination, would be at risk. Insects are, therefore, a very human problem —and an urgent one, for that matter.
But insects are much more than their calculated utilitarian value from a reductionistic human perspective. They are a part of the world’s enchantment for entomology enthusiasts of all ages.
As a kid born in the late seventies and growing up in the eighties, I relished leaving the city during the summer months to visit what my siblings and I felt like a big, safe, non-stop playground of two small villages in rural Spain where our ancestors were from.
Both villages were culdesacs of small, winding roads, reducing car traffic to inhabitants and a few relatives living in cities that visited during summer or in big holidays. One was in a verdant, rainy hill of Galicia in Northwestern Spain; the other was also located in a mountainous area, though hot and dry, about one hour south of Salamanca and three hours west of Madrid before hitting the Portuguese border.
Both places were transformed over the years; their year-round population dwindled, and their vacation or second homes increased. Old people stayed active back then, caring for their gardens, orchards, and, sometimes, animals. Nights were also cooler, and summer days weren’t as hot as they can be nowadays.
In the verdant village where my father was born, the rain was so common in summer that little ponds and puddles reflected the sky everywhere you walked, or that was at least a kid’s ground-level, hyper-aware perspective. In that village, almost every family had at least three or four cows and sometimes a few sheep too. My grandmother tended several cows, too, though the numbers would never make total sense.
First encounters with nature
When we arrived one summer after taking fifteen hours to travel from the other extreme of the country, our grandmother, aunt and uncle greeted us with news: a calf had just been born. We were exhausted but insisted on going down to see the animals. When Grandma opened the animals’ quarters’ old wooden door, a strong smell of fermented grass and excrement marked the sharp entrance into the rural realm straight from the urban outskirts of Mediterranean Barcelona.
I can recall asking about the baby calf. “There it is, by its mum” my grandma said in Galician (it took us a while to accommodate to the new language, which shares its Romance linguistic roots with Portuguese, though we also observed striking similarities with the other Romance language we knew, Catalan). “But that one is already standing and walking around,” I said. That day we learned how comparatively immature human babies are compared to other animals’ babies.
That summer, it took us a few days to connect the calf’s disappearance and our diets and those of our extended family during several celebratory gatherings. But before that happened, we often asked to see the animals, even if that was at the expense of getting used to strong farm smells, like that of the metal bucket full of raw milk, its thick layer of fat floating on top.
Unlike in the city, where all animals we encountered daily were pets from neighbors and, once in a while, a few horses on a promenade up the hills next to our home. Rural Catalonia, especially up in the Pyrenees, kept rural activity alive, and farm animals were common, though the Barcelona area was a world apart.
Our entomologist self
Perhaps the most striking difference was both worlds’ diametrally opposite sensorial experience. With little to no luminous pollution, we could see the stars, and the more you looked, the higher their number. Amphibians (especially frogs), snails, crickets and boozing insects, and birds manifested all around, though some sounds would prevail over others depending on the moment of the day: frogs and crickets mixing their toons with owls at night, the rooster calling the day, farm animals waking up, crows and singing birds until the afternoon, then a more silent oozing during the hot hours of the afternoon, and the cycle would start again.
In my mother’s hometown, summer was hot and dry, though the relatively high altitude of the Meseta, the plateau that covers the interior of the Iberian Peninsula, made the temperature drop at night; unlike in Barcelona, where the thermometer would almost remain the same day and night for the marine influence, that little sleepy village was so hot in the afternoon that all adults, and also farm animals (a few sheep, goats, a few remaining donkeys, a few mules) retired after lunch to sleep siesta.
All you could hear at the hottest moment of the day were us children going from the natural pool in the creek nearby to the coolest place to hang out and play cards (Spanish-suited cards: games like “tute,” “brisca,” “escoba,” “mus,” “chinchón” ): under the roofed pergola of the old church. Crowning a little hill overseeing the houses surrounded by orchards down below, the stone mole provided so much protection and mass inertia on its west side that it had become our meeting point (we also loved to get near the old door and yell nonsense through the enormous keyhole, which would echo inside the temple).
Those arriving from the city like us had to put up with a big nuisance in both villages: no matter the time of the day, we soon learned that farm animals attracted the activity of certain particularly irritating flying insects, from flies to much bigger creatures we would also see around the animals as they were led across the streets to go to some nearby meadow, field, or some stone stable indistinguishable from the oldest houses still standing.
Down at the creek, the running pristine water and the abundant riverside vegetation attracted frogs, little fish, some small, non-poisonous snakes that scared us nonetheless, and the most fantastic and beautiful insects we could dream of, the dragonfly (with its musical Castilian name, “libélula,” a series of l’s rolling on vowels mandating a different mouth opening to achieve a smooth pronunciation) among them. My favorite ones were a family of insects with long, skinny legs that would gently sky on the water’s surface with Biblical ease. Somebody had told us they were called “zapateros” (gerris lacustris, or common water strider): Who else can make better shoes than a creature able to walk above water?
Also near the water, we had to keep an eye on bees and wasps, which sometimes would sting one of us, causing the commotion of the day (though only if nobody decided to jump in the water on a bike that very day, a quite common occurrence).
With little to no parental supervision, a group of kids of all ages and geographical origin within Spain would share long hours of playtime, even if their stubborn avoidance of going back home for meals meant jumping into a field near the creek and getting the best watery, sweet pears (or plums, or apples, or strawberries, or oranges).
Only starvation at the end of long playing days would make us go home at dinner time. With the dropping temperatures of late evening, adults would finally emerge from their lethargic hours sleeping, watching the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France, or the Vuelta a España, or talking in the cool and obscure patio of a neighbor.
The rain, green meadows, and lush vegetation of my father’s village would sometimes keep the animal manure wet and tender, and one of our games when we were very young (perhaps four or five years old) consisted of taking off our sandals and jump from one cow turd cake to the other, to the disgust to any adult passerby.
Tom Sawyer reminiscences
A few local friends showed us one more cruel game: frogs were so abundant that it was easy for them to catch one or two when we’d stop by the natural spring that in the past had served as a communal laundry place, a tank surrounded by big flat stones to wash clothes. Now unused, the little place had turned into a paradise pond for frogs and the best drinking water around.
Our friends would cut a few tender grasses and would insert them in the frogs’ orifices, then blow from the other extreme of the grass. The animal, now with an inflated body, was released after, taking a while for the little amphibian to get rid of the bodily consequences of a prank that probably wouldn’t pass today as it did back then.
Like Portugal, Galicia’s traditional property division created a dispersed capillarity of country homes near bigger towns that, no matter how humble or small, always kept a few stone-enclosed green fields for the animals to go about their day as they had since ancient times, honoring the forgotten pagan gods of the Nietzschean eternal return of things.
To adults, such fields and meadows were one part of the landscape, something “there,” a part of a non-magical, predictable reality that gave sense to the days of the few people, most of whom were from the older generations, to keep animals and communally gather twice a year to recollect all the manually cut hay around an open-open air granary like those conical piles of yellow grass collected around a central, manually-felled wooden pole.
Big-headed ants and other tiny creatures
However, we kids saw an entirely different universe in such green fields we shared at a distance with cows and sheep: we would ask for an empty marmalade glass container and, walking across the grassy fields, we’d catch beetles, ladybugs, and what seemed like an infinite variety of beetles and playful grasshoppers.
Catching grasshoppers and beetles on the fly meant a lot to us, for our unaccomplished intention was to build a circus where all insects would have a place. Big-headed ants, we thought, would attract the public with their mythological fights, especially once their mandibles had sensed the enemy’s contact. Grasshoppers could awe incredulous children with impossible triple-mortal jumps. Potato beetles could lift dung balls several times their size and weight, which in the future would influence the way I saw the Greek myth of Sisyphus —and the way I read and comprehended Albert Camus.
Also, as an adult, any story read about children interested in bug collection (young Teddy Roosevelt included), any book comparing us to the life of such incredible animals (Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, David Cronenberg’s The Fly), any song reminiscing on insects (American Music Club’s lyrics dropping a metaphor that gives me the chills, “like flies caught in jars“), will carry me to a world that is long gone.
I suspect that the distorted and impoverished perception of adulthood isn’t the only transformative change of small-village self-enclosed realities, already on their way out in the eighties across rapidly modernizing rural Spain. One of the things I regret from that moment in my childhood is not having any clue about the laws of impermanence and the dictates of the present moment. I wasn’t ready to appreciate the care that the active and charming elderly people I saw in rural villages wasn’t a given and could disappear, as it did. And with them gone, places looked different too in and out.
A world gone
By the time I visited the same places when our oldest daughter was a baby around 15 years ago, farm animals had mostly vanished; green prairies, though still verdant compared to Mediterranean or drier parts of the country, had a less-vibrant green; summer wildfires were intensifying due in part to an increased monoculture in the region, eucalyptus trees; perfect rolls had replaced the traditional picturesque conical hay stacks wrapped extruded with a plastic envelope from modern tractors; even most “unproductive trees,” from apple varieties used for cider or animal feed to forest varieties, had been felled in favor of one invasive low-quality, fire-prone tree: the Australian eucalyptus, used by Pontevedra’s paper factory 20 kilometers away.
Amphibians and “babosas” (slugs), which, as kids, we saw as snails with no shell, had vanished too. I wondered if drier meadows and fewer ponds and fountains made all the difference. Insects were gone, too. I must have suddenly noticed such dramatic but surely gradual change by borrowing the perception of my baby daughter: as she discovered and literally drooled over beautiful little flowers and tiny ants, I wondered where all the grasshoppers, beetles, and ladybugs of my childhood had gone.
On the macro level, the place remained the same, though arguably warmer in summer and with a more and more noticeable eucalyptus scent. On the micro level, however, the place was drastically different, and I reminisced about the past with Proustian longing.
I was confident that my childhood perception had amplified how fantastic and abundant insects were in those places, wondering whether my own kids were indeed similarly experiencing the world as I had.
Then, I began reading about insect collapse and concluded that I had not imagined the dramatic difference that three decades could make.
Let’s not ruin the enchantment of the world
But right before our three children were about to enter teen age, we decided to do a summer road trip across Northern Ontario and the Saint Lawrence River all the way to Charlevoix and beyond. We were lucky to experience kayaking and staying in remote and pristine lakes. And, each time we got out of the car, there they were: a frenzy of insects bugging us with a level of insistence I had never experienced —not even during my childhood summers around little farms.
So it was a happy summer of insect discovery —and lots of insect bites, some of them painful and/or itchy enough.
When we visited one village, one of our kids had an insect on top of a piece of lettuce on a Tupperware, and somebody approached to talk to him. In Quebec, they were enchanted and disoriented as they got to speak French in North America (and not only English and Spanish, two languages they also speak). The old lady started saying odd and rather negative things about insects: they were not only dangerous but disgusting and worth killing.
I pulled her to the side and kindly let her know that she didn’t have the right to imprint in our kid a visceral animosity against all insects with no distinction. Happily, the encounter left a bigger scar on me than on my son, by then a five-year-old or so.
The beauty of insects is now officially threatened, and we don’t quite know the causes that have prompted the collapse in numbers and variety. We know the situation is dire, and the consequences are potentially catastrophic.