Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day Bugging You?

We might as well refer to “Earth Day” as “Bug Day.” Insects, arachnids, and other arthropods account for over 80% of the planet’s biodiversity and biomass. They are the foundation of many food chains, the decomposers of the dead, pollinators of plants, agents of seed dispersal, and the subjects of important scientific research. No, despite all of this, we still gravitate to cute and cuddly vertebrates, the “charismatic megafauna,” as symbols for Earth Day.

We collectively tend to think of insects as organisms that will lay claim to the planet once humans have left it beyond repair, but the truth is that many insects are just as vulnerable as vertebrates to environmental degradation. State and federal lists of threatened and endangered species often include insects and other invertebrates among their ranks. Many of those are inhabitants of freshwater, cave, or dune ecosystems, among the most fragile of habitats.

While it has been difficult to gain protection even for vertebrates, endangered insects and their kin are often viewed as impediments to economic development and prosperity. “Bugs” clearly need an agent experienced in public relations and spin control. Maybe even a pitch man. Hey, where is Billy Mays when we really need him?

Earth Day would be the perfect stage for promoting insects and other arthropods as the support network for our planet. Further, as I often say, “biodiversity begins at home.” What better way to drive home that point than by lobbying to curtail the use of do-it-yourself pesticide chemicals and treatments? You would kill two birds with one stone (or possibly let two birds live by eliminating a source of environmental contamination, and promoting a healthy balance of predator and prey in the home and garden).

Entomologists, science writers, and media professionals all need to do a better job of broadcasting the fundamental truths about what arthropods mean to nature and humanity. We have been too timid, too remiss, too wrapped up in research and writing about topics that we think we can “sell” to editors, publishers, and radio and television executives. It is time for a change, and we can make it happen. Yes, we can.

For another take on Earth Day, please see Sense of Misplaced. Thank you.


  1. Are you old enough to remember the giant human-eating cockroaches in the movie "Damnation Alley"; did anyone aside from me actually see that one?

    Bugs have a lot of negative PR baggage, but you're correct in saying that with some effort we can educate about their amazing diversity and importance in ecosystems. Thanks for your efforts.

  2. I'm not sure if there's anything similar going on in the US, but a number of Canadian cities are starting to pass anti-pesticide bylaws banning the use of pesticides in private applications (I think public applications, where deemed necessary to prevent or curtail destructive outbreaks, are still done). There was a big outcry by a good portion of the public who were all up in arms over this attack on their right to a sterile lawn, but once the initial furor died down, it seems to have come to be generally accepted.

  3. Vanessa: Thank you for your encouraging words, and being an ally in the campaign for truth:-) Seabrooke: That private pesticide ban is awesome! I'm encouraged by the growing trend toward use of native plants in landscaping here, and am optimistic that lawns will eventually be traded for alternative landscapes including vegetable gardens and pollinator gardens.

  4. I am seeing a bit of movement toward smaller or no lawns, although I think it'll be a while before they disappear altogether. For one, anyone with a dog or kids is likely to want to have at least a small open grassy backyard space for them to play. Still, I'd rather see a lawn full of dandelions and grasshoppers than one just of grass - it's a step in the right direction.


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