Friday, October 20, 2017

Saving the World One "Bug" at a Time?

Increasingly, thanks to social media, I am struck by how many people attempt to save individual insects they find injured or lethargic. On one hand this empathy for other life forms is encouraging, but on the other hand the energy investment is grossly misplaced.

© Youtube.com

The problem is that the media has painted honey bees and Monarch butterflies in particular as highly vulnerable if not on the brink of extinction. The implied message is that every individual of these species needs protection in every way possible! Consequently, people spend more time "rescuing" individual specimens than in protecting or creating habitat, working to curb pesticide use in their community, or engaging in other strategies that would have a far greater impact on improving the health of the entire species.

Another problem is that most people are not knowledgeable enough to recognize when a given insect really is in trouble. The wrong assessment happens over and over with bees in particular. Bees often become inactive when it gets too cold for them. They rest on whatever object is available and often this is a more conspicuous spot than normal. A good Samaritan human believes the insect is in peril and needs the equivalent of a sugar-water IV, stat! No, it does not.

Further, in late summer and fall, chances are you are saving a male bee, which is even less useful. Male bees live a short life in which their only purpose is to mate with a female. They do not possess pollen baskets, so are less effective pollinators than female bees.

Another aspect of life that we forget is that insects, like any organism, are prone to developmental problems that cannot be overcome. Improper emergence from a chrysalis will leave a butterfly crippled beyond repair. It happens. Insects reproduce in large numbers to overcome those deficits. Insects are incredibly durable once they mature, and losing half a wing barely slows down a butterfly or a bee. We should be in awe as much, if not more, than in sympathy, let alone pity.

Ok, so last month my wife and I were on vacation in Cape May, New Jersey, and we happened upon a Monarch trapped in a spider web. We intervened. It was a quick fix, simply disentangling the insect and sending it on its way. The whole investment was maybe forty seconds. We understood the insect could collide with a vehicle later that same day. Our expectations for the survival of individual insects are low, given our knowledge of their biology.

Contrast that example with an online video that shows how to mend a broken wing on a Monarch. More than a few such organizations have exploited the "sky is falling" scenarios centered on the Monarch, and one has to question the motives of some of them. Yes, older, established conservation organizations use overly alarming narratives, too, but the best ones measure their tone and can point to historic successes in legislation and habitat protection.

You want to curb insect mortality? Then give up driving. For every insect you nurse back to health, you kill dozens, if not hundreds in the course of operating your motor vehicle. Even bicyclists take their toll. I have seen countless insects mortally wounded, or crushed, on bike paths.

Basically, insects are better served by actions aimed at enhancing habitat health, and planting native vegetation in the landscape of your own property where you are able. Tear out the lawn, or most of it, and do your best to mimic the natural ecosystem where you live. Want to go a step farther? Start a dialogue with city and county officials to restructure weed ordinances and other codes that currently restrict the ability of homeowners to plant for wildlife. Educate your homeowners association to make those communities more wildlife-friendly without compromising safety and property values.

Also, stop insisting that one species is somehow more worthy of our attention than any other. Stop categorizing insects as "friend" or "foe." Such distinctions do not apply to the overwhelming majority of life on this planet.

Be proud of yourself for having empathy for other living things; but, channel that into something that will make a difference beyond the individual insect or arachnid. Do intervene for birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, all of which have far longer lifespans than invertebrates, but make sure you do it legally and correctly. Carry on.

12 comments:

  1. This is such great a great article. People's hearts are in the right place and it's definitely less emotionally appealing to write letters protecting green space, to attend civic events protecting wild places or to elect green friendly representatives but that's what really does the environment good!

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  2. Yes, that needed to be said ... Include here that milkweed planted 'for Monarchs' and even the Monarch offspring itself will and should feed other species - some of which may be less charismatic and loved, but rarer and more endangered (having a smaller distribution perhaps? Monarchs are extremely widespread.) And don't even get me started on Honey Bees, domestic, imported, invasive pollen pigs :).
    Spending time caring for an individual insect or spider has only one benefit: It will make the human caretaker feel good and just maybe get someone, maybe a child, closer to the natural world. Even by trying to negate the laws of nature.

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  3. I am slightly worried that some readers will hastily read this article and assume that nearly all arthropod rescues are pointless, though.

    After all, a Panchlora nymph saved from a mob of roach-haters can be used to educate them that most roach species are harmless, especially after it has turned into a bright green adult.

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    1. That is an excellent point, and I'm glad you brought that up. Note that my examples are of insects that are "already adored" by the general public. I do think it is a great example that you gave of standing up for the "unloved." Please keep at it!

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    2. On the argument's other hand, fishing out the occasional wet bee is usually not a bad idea as long as it is done sensibly and with awareness of the insect's short adult lifespan in mind. Same goes when I remove particularly fascinating insects from webs and pools as a collecting method, though many captives do enjoy long, danger-free lives.

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  4. Very well put! May I quote you?
    Over and over and over again.
    Marie :)

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    1. You are welcome; and yes, you can quote me. Ha! Please note the comment above where the person advocates for rescuing species that most people loathe out of misinformation and lack of education. There is definitely something to be said for intervening to change attitudes.

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  5. I have to agree emphatically with what you write, and spend the bulk of my time in Monarch conservation on the education and restoration end, telling people about the myriad of other species that benefit when you plant for Monarchs, and getting those people the plants they need. When I captive rear wild Monarch eggs, it is so I can bring livestock to outreach events and speaking engagements and let others see and touch the different stages. Most people in the general public have never seen a real Monarch chrysalis and a surprising number of children who spend their daylight hours in after-school daycare tell me they have never seen an actual caterpillar of any kind before. Even seasoned naturalists find new enthusiasm when entrusted with the care of a batch of caterpillars. To me, it is well worth rearing some education animals to give others that experience. I would not underestimate the power of observing arthropods at close quarters to have an effect on the future mindset of the caretakers. Do I feel like I am saving the species by rearing 60 a year? No. Do I feel like it is a worthwhile use of my time when I see a 20-something young lady light up and stand transfixed with a caterpillar exploring her hand, after her initial shudder and recoil? Yes, and I love hearing the stories of friends who came to appreciate and love certain uncharismatic species by personal close quarters study. To know them is to love them, and to love them is the key to protecting them. One more point: Tarantulas are extremely long lived compared to something like a Bumblebee, and are extremely worth of individual attention. The two inch Tarantula crossing the street may already be a decade old. Thank you for the work you do!

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    1. Thank you for *your* work, Carol! Given the comments I have received here and on Facebook, I plan to write a follow-up post soon.

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    2. Thank you for your comments. You very nicely captured many of me recent thoughts. I have been collecting Monarch and Swallowtail eggs and rearing them to adults for about 12 years. I greatly enjoy it from a personal chance to observe nature. It is MOST rewarding to share the life cycles with adults and children who have never seen it or understood it. As a Master Gardener, I volunteer in a program we call the "Insect Petting Zoo" where we demonstrate Millipedes, Walking Sticks, Bess Beatles, etc. to schools and libraries to help kids and the general public appreciate the value of insects. Although well meaning, those Butterfly Enthusiasts who seek to raise hundreds of Monarchs, etc. seem to over-value one species and not take the broad view you describe.

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    3. Thank you for sharing what *you* do! Please keep it up. If you can export the "Insect Petting Zoo" elsewhere, please do!

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  6. Your writing really hit home. After quitting an online group where I had spent months learning that anything that threatened Monarchs had to be evil, how to complete wing transplants, how to perform a chrysalis c-section, and that it is ok to substitute squash/cukes/etc.during times of milkweed shortage(wrong!!!!!); I found it is refreshing to hear someone with the gumption to explain that it is really about creating habitat and promoting balanced ecosystems! Thanks.

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