Monday 21 October 2019

Country Matters: Where have all the little creatures gone?

Food chain: Dung beetles
Food chain: Dung beetles

Joe Kennedy

"Where have all the flowers gone/Long time passing/Where have all the flowers gone/Long time ago/Where have all the insects gone/Gone to spray-guns every one/ When will we ever learn/When will we ever learn?"

Pete Seeger's heartfelt lyrics - with a contemporary inclusion - had been directed to young manhood/womanhood at a time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and the threat of nuclear holocaust.

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The Vietnam War was still raging. Seeger's flowers were mankind, the earth and all its biodiversity. (Some may have never heard the song and others remember Joan Baez's and Marlene Dietrich's versions).

Just last week there was a list, online, from a UK ecology and conservation site called NHBS, of books on insects and other invertebrates. Here is a selection: The Royal Entomological Society Book of British Insects; Habitat Management for Invertebrates; books on bees, wasps, dragonflies, butterflies, ladybirds and, last but not least, Ecology and Evolution of Dung Beetles (more later).

It would be a feat of scholarship to absorb what has been written, and spoken at seminars from passionate people about what is happening to the world insect population through a multiple whammy of environmental impacts from pollution, habitat destruction, global warming and the continuous use of pesticides.

Insects are at the bottom of the food chain that makes them vital for the survival of the countryside, the lives of wild creatures, growing of food and man's survival.

The renowned Harvard biologist Edward O Wilson observed: "They are the little things that run the world; if insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos." (Prof Wilson famously said that the man who burnt the rainforest for economic gain was like someone burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal!).

Insects make up two-thirds of all life but biomass has been steadily declining for about three decades. A German programme, using 'malaise traps' to capture samples since 1989, has shown insect weight falling by 75pc.

Most entomologists feel change in land use is the problem: intensively farmed cereal growing areas with increasing spraying support virtually no insect life - neonicotinoid pesticides are blamed for crashes in the bee population. And, while insects are shattered, the birds that eat them also do badly.

Other insects as well as bees are pollinators and, like the aforementioned dung beetles, are eliminators of mammal remains and evacuations.

Pete Seeger reminded us in another song: "For everything there is a season," echoing the words of the Book of Ecclesiastes to signal that all God's creatures have a purpose under heaven.

I have written of hedgerows reduced to stubble height and headlands of grassless tracts cleared by chemicals at the expense of living elements.

Those who care are making their voices heard, although some others feel wide variations of insect numbers may be found in different landscapes. These may be putting up a hopeful face - but how many remember kitchen fly papers and splattered windscreens?

Sunday Independent

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