Thursday, November 2, 2017

Ok, Save Some Bugs

A couple weeks ago I ran a post suggesting that efforts to save individual insects often is a waste of time, or at least was a misplaced investment of one's energies. Thanks to thoughtful and polite comments here and in social media, it is clear that some clarification is in order, and some exceptions, perhaps.

Go ahead and save the Monarchs....

I will stand by my assertion that rescuing individual insects is largely an ineffective strategy; but I would be a lot less animated about it were it not for this persistent notion that we can choose which species are worthy of salvation. That is not how Nature works. At the level of ecosystems and the biosphere, we have to save everybody (read "species") in order to save anybody. Recent news reports like this one in the New York Times, citing scientific studies, point to that very fact.

....but then save the Milkweed Bugs, too....

A perfect case making my point for the wrong way to act is the person who plants milkweed in their garden and then insists it be for "pollinators and Monarchs only." Therefore, competing milkweed bugs and milkweed beetles must be banished, killed on sight in fact. Really? Look at a wild stand of milkweed and you will see an entire ecosystem of pollinators, herbivores, predators, and parasites functioning exactly as they should, complementing each other's roles, with adequate survivorship of all parties. Listen, if you have a full complement of players in your yard's milkweed patch, then you are doing everything right! Relax. Neglect is often the best thing you can do once you get a native plant garden going.

....and also the Milkweed Beetles

We need more people to stand up for species that are "ugly," suffer from stereotypes and slander in the media, or languish in obscurity. It is those behind-the-scenes species that are doing the real work of keeping the biosphere spinning. Were it not for dung beetles and termites, we would already be buried by debris and animal waste at a scale that bacteria could not begin to attack. The processes of decay would be halted.

Dung beetles are a vital natural clean-up crew

Insects are the foundation of the food web, without which all other organisms would perish in a domino effect. If you like to fish, then you need aquatic insects. If you are a birder, you can thank virtually all insects for feeding our fine feathered friends.

The point is that all organisms have value, though it may not be obvious, or directly relevant to your everyday life. Our own species has been shaped over the eons by our interactions with other forms of life, and that will always be the case. It can continue to be a positive thing, if we keep all the pieces, or an apocalyptic disaster if we continue in our hubris as a species that we know best how to manage the wild world.

Grasshoppers and other insects feed the birds!

Even if you only value organisms for what they can do for us, nobody knows if the next miracle medicine could come from some beast we currently loathe. Increasingly, bioprospecting for pharmaceuticals has revealed just how rich the insect world is in chemical compounds that might one day cure our worst ills. We do not know what potential we are losing when we pave over, plow under, and deforest natural ecosystems.

You want to save something, hands on? Volunteer for your state or local wildlife agencies, zoos, and other institutions that are trying to resurrect truly endangered species like the American Burying Beetle, Salt Creek Tiger Beetle, Karner Blue butterfly, and other imperiled species you probably have never heard of. Their populations are at such a low level that saving individual specimens really is critical.

Even yellowjackets are valuable pollinators, and predators of pests

The late, great entomologist Howard Evans wrote in his classic book Life on a Little Known Planet: "I happen to like yellowjackets; do I not have a right to yellowjackets if my neighbor has a right to a cat?" He continues "If freedom means anything at all, it means the right to choose one's environment and one's friends." Ladies and gentlemen, I urge you to choose wisely.


  1. Bravo! I hope this post gets a lot more attention.

  2. In nature it is NEVER about the individual, but about the ecosystem. One of the biggest surprises was when wolves were introduced into Yellowstone National Park and ended up bringing back rabbits that fed raptors so they came back. When the wolves brought the numbers of deer and elk back into balance, more bushes produced berries which feed the bears. The health of any ecosystem is always measured by its diversity. That applies to the micro ecosystem you can build in your yard. I was so excited when I found blind snakes in my yard because I knew I had increased the tilthof my soil to the point I had enough earthworms to feed the snakes. That also meant the earthworms were turning my leaves into the best of soil fertilizers and aerating my formerly heavy clay soil.

  3. And I think some clarification is needed in the comment section as well. I'm sure you understand the ideas discussed below, but it is important to communicate clearly.

    Before I rescue individual insects, I do a quick cost-benefit analysis. Thus, I prefer to save insects that are "worth" saving, such as ones used for educational outreach or kept in captivity (captives are protected from many dangerous situations, tend to outlive wild conspecifics drastically, and provide valuable behavioral observations).

    When I find a carabid beetle in the pool, I fish it out and give it much attention, because carabids have naturally long lifespans and I am interested in them as captive specimens. On the other hand, I usually pay little attention to drowning ant reproductives.

    Is it because I hate ants, like your Monarch-lover who exterminates all the non-caterpillars? Absolutely not. Instead, I ignore them because the alates have extremely high mortality rates when swarming, so even if I saved one it would be quickly eaten. To complicate matters even more, I would be gladly saving the ants if I worked for an insectarium which wanted them, because captive female alates can live for years as queens and their colonies can teach the public to respect insects.

    But now for the "juicy bits".

    You mentioned the need to fight against insect stereotypes and give neglected species attention.

    Here is my comment (as "AlexW") to entomologist Gil Wizen, who you are probably familiar with:

    In summary, it states that the efforts of prominent individuals/groups like you to fight insect prejudice are good and useful, but seem inefficient. I am not trying to be hostile and critical, though, so please do not misinterpret.

    National Geographic mentioned in an issue that people often ignore undeniable facts unless their emotions and attitude have also been appealed to. And I have seen teachers use "educational" cartoons (by big companies that are considered reputable) filled with villainous bacteria/"pests", which is really just a subtle form of brainwashing.

    Perhaps the use of "beautiful" roaches like Therea and Pseudomops in a successful "viral video" will enormously aid entomologists in their quest to convince the public?

    Feedback and constructive criticism of my ideas from other comment readers is welcome.

    1. I am not directing my post to people in the field of education (formal or informal). My argument is at the person with no audience.

    2. I understand that you are not targeting educators. The "educational" cartoon was only provided as an example of how deeply-rooted certain attitudes are and their potential to interfere with your own attempts at convincing the public.

  4. Amen! Great post Eric! I feel I have spent a good amount of time educating these same points to people for a long time.

  5. Great post Eric, but I am still going to swat mosquitos and black flies :)


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