Sunday, March 8, 2020

Pesticide Preemption: Another Tool for Industry to Protect Itself

Fortunately, entomology and politics don’t collide often, but when they do it is my duty to inform my followers of the potential impacts. While attending the Landscaping With Colorado Native Plants Conference in Denver last Saturday, I learned of something that sounded vaguely familiar, but never knew the name for it. It is called preemptive legislation, and it is a political tactic designed to thwart everything from local bans on plastic bags to, it turns out, local regulation of pesticide applications. It is likely that this will be coming to your state, too, if it is not already enacted. This is, in my opinion, part of a larger agenda.

© USDA Forest Service Region 8,

A little background is in order. The licensing and labeling of pesticides in use in the U.S.A. is the domain of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as prescribed by the Federal Insecticide Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) passed in 1910. In 1972, Congress turned it into a full-blown regulatory statute, while leaving at least some enforcement powers at the state level. Enter Wisconsin Public Intervenor, et al. v. Mortier, et al. in the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1991. Mortier had applied to their local municipality for permission to spray on private land. Permission was denied, the court case ensued, and judgment concluded that FIFRA does not expressly prohibit local government from instituting its own, complementary regulatory policy concerning pesticide use.

Since that decision, most states have elected to enact preemptive legislation to deny local jurisdictions the ability to draw up their own policies. Right now, forty-four (44) states have such rules, including my current state of residence, Colorado. Not surprisingly, the National Pest Management Association, and other industry organizations, are just fine with this. One of our state senators is looking to change that.

What is wrong with states having sole discretionary authority in pesticide choices and applications? Perhaps nothing, but increasing concerns over environmental toxins, and frustrations over lack of local control in general, are driving a movement to repeal or at least amend such powers of state authority. The public is finding agricultural and landscaping practices to be contributing to perceived declines in pollinator diversity and abundance, and compromising biodiversity in general.

© Eugene E. Nelson,

Oddly, scientific skepticism and believers in science arrive at roughly the same conclusion on this issue: we no longer have trust in the idea that chemicals, or any product or service, are the sole avenues for solving every problem we create. Chemical applications are easy, no question, and this goes for fertilizers, too. These “cosmetic applications” are necessary to sustain lawns, and exotic trees, shrubs, and flowers that do not naturally occur in every climate, nor prosper in every kind of soil. Here in the arid west, they also require too much water.

Beyond the inertia of industries that are thriving under the status quo of their methodology, reaping profits all along the way, there are property values and liability to consider, at least in cities and suburbs. Shifting to new standards of appropriate “wildness,” with at least a minimum threshold for native plants in landscaping and a reduced lawnscape, will be challenging. Our assessment of acceptable risk will have to change in accordance with our desire to relieve pressure on native ecosystems from inappropriate developments.

© Eugene E. Nelson,

Right now, Colorado Springs is in the process of soliciting public input to revise its chapter seven codes, which means updating its zoning ordinances. This includes landscaping standards. I would strongly advise participating in any similar engagement opportunity in your own municipality, as this is where you can make the strongest impact rather than reacting to individual developments as they present themselves. In another week the urban forestry plan will be unveiled at yet another public meeting, and inviting comment from attendees. It helps that I am in the loop a bit, to learn of these events and initiatives. Honestly, I am not certain how I got so fortunate, though I habitually put my e-mail address on anything related to local government.

You most certainly bring a unique perspective to your HOA, city, township, county, or other governing body. Raise your voice. Pester the nursery to start stocking native plants. Be an example to your neighbors. Conservation quite literally begins at home.

Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute.
National Pest Management Association
Centner, T.J. & Heric, D.C. 2019 "Anti-community state pesticide preemption laws prevent local governments from protecting people from harm," International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 1-9. doi: 10.1080/14735903.2019.1568814

Friday, February 7, 2020

Avoiding Despair in the Age of the “Insect Apocalypse”

My social media feed (well, Facebook is admittedly the only one I devote any time to) is full of dire warnings of disappearing bees, fireflies blinking to extinction, and how light pollution and pesticides are dooming everything, and all manner of other negativity. The most empathetic of humans are the ones most devastated by this media bias, and if there is one thing we cannot afford it is the extinction of hope. Here are some things to consider.

Fiery Skipper on mint in a Kansas garden

1. Do not underestimate the ability of natural systems to rebound from even catastrophic events. Nothing is permanent, our present civilization likely included, but as long as there are reservoirs of habitat, recolonization of even the most compromised of locations is possible, provided the refuges are of good size themselves, and reasonably close in proximity to the damaged areas.

This same principle of recovery exists at every level in nature. I like to remind homeowners and gardeners that trees can survive nearly complete defoliation by insects in a given year, provided the plant is healthy in most other respects. Native plants tend to be vastly better at taking a licking and bouncing back than some exotic cultivar.

2. Assert your rights. You have a right to a planet with its full complement of species. Claiming you speak for other species, or suggesting rights of nature, or espousing the need to preserve nature for future generations, are all weak arguments. You are not Dr. Doolittle, and other species don’t care whether we appreciate them or not. Rights of nature is a noble goal, but is a rarely successful strategy, and only when it is initiated and driven by indigenous peoples. Arguing for conservation and preservation for future generations is a loving sentiment, but it undermines the urgency of action we must have. It also ignores the work of previous generations. Things could already be worse were it not for the likes of John Muir, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Theodore Roosevelt….

It is much more difficult to argue against the idea that other human beings have a right to bird, fish, hunt, and otherwise recreate in a manner that stems from an appreciation of, if not reverence for, wildlife. Use that to your advantage when making your case at the next public hearing, or HOA meeting.

3. Don’t play favorites. We do not get to choose which species to share our property with. Milkweed beetles, bugs, aphids, and moth caterpillars have as much of a right to “your” milkweed plants as Monarch butterflies do. Indeed, you are doing something wrong if your insect diversity is low. Revel in the variety of species. Study them. Share what you learn with others.

4. Lead by example. Don’t wait for someone else to make the first move. Turn your lawn into a meadow or prairie, or at least let the clover, dandelions, and plantain grow. Practice “weed tolerance” for all but the state-listed noxious species. Install “bee condos” as supplemental housing for native, solitary bees and wasps. Leave a heaping brush pile as cover for birds and small mammals. Let things be a little messy. Tell the neighbors you are not a lazy homeowner, but that you are promoting biodiversity. Offer to explain what that means and why you derive joy from it.

Write that letter to the editor. Participate in a public process to draft new codes for property owners (residential, commercial, government) that reflect a commitment to enhance or restore native plant communities and their attendant animal residents. Initiate the process if necessary, through petitioning or pestering your government representatives at whatever level is appropriate.

5. Forge new alliances. Join astronomers in promoting dark sky initiatives to reduce the impact of light pollution on nocturnal animal species. Seek out Native American groups to begin rights of nature campaigns, or address other common environmental issues. Use your white privilege not to lead people of color, but to empower them to take leadership roles for themselves. Heck, start by recognizing you have white privilege and accepting that it may be necessary to solve environmental racism first, before going on to the next issue.

6. Remember the “history” part of “natural history.” Remind yourself and others that we need to pay the same respect to our natural heritage that we pay to our human history. We have “living history” at parks and monuments, yet we do not have a mandate to preserve a historical spectrum of ecosystems within local, state, provincial, regional, and national parks. Why not? Let us relax our notion of “wilderness” to extend beyond roadless areas to urban parks, restored brownfields, manmade wetlands, and other non-traditional definitions. Somewhere between bringing back mastodons and declaring a parking lot an ecosystem, there is room for an expanded definition of wilderness.

No one is going to do all of the above, let alone very well. Pick a place to start. Forgive yourself the failures, most of which will only be what you personally perceive as failures. Add to this list in your comments. Share your own experiences and hopes and how you plan to achieve them. Respond to every demoralizing story with the determination of a rose bush under an aphid attack.

Firefly, Pyractomena sp., Wisconsin

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Bug Eric 2020 Outlook

This blog has slowed down considerably as I turn my attention to Sense of Misplaced blog to address larger social, environmental, and justice issues. However, I am still actively engaging in entomology activities. That will be more evident this calendar year.

Black Swallowtail butterfly from the 2019 City Nature Challenge in Colorado Springs
Speaking Engagements

I may be coming to a location near you this spring, summer, or fall. I have been invited to give a keynote address for The Biggest Week in American Birding the evening of Tuesday, May 12, 2020 at Maumee Bay Lodge and Conference Center in Oregon, Ohio (near Toledo), courtesy of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. The topic will be “Birding and Bugwatching in the Age of Animal Decline.”

I will be participating in a panel discussion on the “insect apocalypse” at the North American Prairie Conference in Des Moines, Iowa the evening of Monday, July 20, 2020. More details will be forthcoming.

Last but not least, I will be a keynote speaker for the autumn Roan Mountain Naturalists’ Rally at Roan Mountain State Park, Tennessee, the evening of Saturday, September 12, 2020. I will also be leading a field trip in the park that afternoon before the presentation.

Colorado Springs Bioblitz Events

Colorado Springs will be participating in the City Nature Challenge for the second consecutive year, April 24-27, recording image and/or audio observations in iNaturalist. April 28-May 3, experts will be identifying the images and recordings submitted.

This summer the City of Colorado Springs has seen fit to schedule two more bioblitzes. The first is a public event at Stratton Open Space, June 19-22. Many organizations will have informational tables at the “base camp,” and science teams ranging from entomology to mycology to botany will be on hand recording observations that will be entered into iNaturalist.

The second bioblitz will be for science teams only, at Jimmy Camp Creek Park, July 18-19.

Book Projects

The most exciting news is that I am now under contract to complete two books this year, for publishers who must remain anonymous and on subjects that I cannot reveal. Watch this space for updates as I am permitted to share them.

New Blog Feature

Soon I will be adding another tab at the top of this blog’s home page that will link to more of my insect-related writings online. Please comment if you find any of the links anywhere on my blog are broken. I continue to moderate comments on my posts at least once per week.

Thank you again for your support and encouragement. Have a great 2020 and make sure you get outdoors as often as you can.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

One Night, One House, Seventeen Spider Species

In honor of "Arachtober" over on Flickr, I thought I would share what I discovered when I walked around the exterior of a house, garage, and woodshed at night in the northern reaches of Door County, Wisconsin, USA, on June 24, 2019. We rented the house for a few days for a family gathering. It sits in a forested area right on the shore of Lake Michigan on the Green Bay side, with Plum Island and Washington Island on the horizon. This particular evening was cool and wet, with intermittent rain showers. Imagine what a dry, warm night would be like.

Orb Weavers: Araneidae

Orb weavers often construct their webs under the eaves of structures, and are usually more conspicuous after dark. They seem to understand that outdoor lights attract more prey than they would catch out in the darkness. I spied at least three species this night:

Trashline Orbweaver, Cyclosa sp.

Furrow Orbweaver, Larinioides cornutus

Bridge Orbweaver, Larinioides sclopetarius

Long-jawed Orb Weavers: Tetragnathidae

Interestingly, the one long-jawed orb weaver I found was sitting snugly against the side of the woodshed with no web in sight. It may be that they take the day shift. These spiders are recognized by their long bodies and long legs, and having their webs oriented in the horizontal plane (usually), often over water.

Long-jawed orbweaver, Tetragnatha sp.

Cobweb Weavers: Theridiidae

Cobweb weavers are the spiders most associated with human habitations and buildings. There are plenty of crevices in which to hide, and the style of their snares requires little in the way of points of attachment. The space beneath an overhanging piece of siding offers enough dimension to spin a web.

Immature Common House Spider, Parasteatoda tepidariorum

Male (left) and female cobweb weavers, Steatoda sp.

Funnel Weavers: Agelenidae

Among the most abundant spiders I encountered this night were funnel weavers. Crevices in stonework around the house and garage and shed allowed for a dense population, but some of the younger spiders were simply wandering, perhaps looking for new and better places to spin webs.

Funnel weaver, Coras sp.

Sac Spiders: Clubionidae

Many spiders don't bother spinning webs, but simply prowl around seeking prey. Chief among them are sac spiders. I saw at least three different individuals. They can appear and disappear rather quickly, so there were probably many more that I missed simply due to poor timing. The cool weather did slow them down a bit, though.

Sac spider female
Female sac spider, Clubiona sp.

Sac spider male
Male sac spider, Clubiona sp.

Wolf Spiders: Lycosidae

Wolf spiders are also common nighttime hunters. They are seen mostly on the ground and on objects in the horizontal plane, but some species are surprisingly agile climbers. Wolf spiders are easily recognized by their eye arrangement. A row of four small eyes near the base of their jaws, with two very large eyes right above that row, and the final two eyes set far back on the carapace.

Wolf spider at night
Female wolf spider, Trochosa sp.

Nursery Web and Fishing Spiders: Pisauridae

The largest spiders you are likely to see in the eastern United States and adjacent Canada are the fishing spiders. Despite their name, many species are found far from water, hiding in treeholes and other shelters during the day. They can be startling if encountered suddenly and unexpectedly on tree trunks or the sides of buildings at night. I was prepared to see them and was not disappointed.

Immature Dark Fishing Spider, Dolomedes tenebrosus

Mature male Striped Fishing Spider, Dolomedes scriptus

Jumping Spiders: Salticidae

Most jumping spiders are active by day, but you can still see them at night, especially if they have taken to sheltering in place on the sides of homes and buildings. They hunt by sight, without webs, and are the smallest of the common prowling spiders.

Jumping spider, Naphrys pulex

Adult male jumping spider, Evarcha sp.

Gray form male of the Dimorphic Jumper, Maevia inclemens

Crab Spiders: Thomisidae

Crab spiders can turn up almost anywhere. They are classic ambush hunters, several species hiding in flowers to wait for pollinating insects to come within reach of their elongated first and second pairs of legs. The spiders are highly sensitive to motion, and if you don't approach slowly they are quick to sneak inside a crack or dodge behind foliage.

Female ground crab spider, Xysticus sp.

Sheetweb Weavers: Linyphiidae

Members of this family spin flat, convex, or concave webs, depending on the genus. Each style is tailored to capturing a different suite of insects. The spiders hang upside down on the web and will respond to entangled prey at any time of day. Mature males, like most male spiders, cease to spin webs and devote the remainder of their lives to seeking mates. They do not even feed during their quest.

Female hammock spider, Pityohyphantes sp.

Unidentified male sheetweb weaver

What's lurking around your house? I highly recommend taking the time to inspect the exterior of your home with a flashlight at night. You will be surprised and, hopefully, delighted by the many organisms you find. Besides spiders, I also saw a soil centipede, various woodlice (terrestrial crustaceans that include sowbugs and pillbugs), a harvestman (aka "daddy long-legs," arachnid order Opiliones), and of course many insects. Good luck, happy "Arachtober!"