The Butterfly Effect

We, as humans, are pretty rubbish when it comes to caring about the environment.

There are exceptions, of course; we are very concerned about the fate of the cuddly polar bear, and we detest the poaching of charismatic elephants from the African plains. But what about the animals that we don’t see?

The organisms which silently uphold our ecosystems are dying—and nobody seems to care.

Of course, there are people who care. Entomologists, gardeners and nature-lovers all over the world have noticed significant declines in insect populations. Even people without any interest in insects would be worried if they knew what was happening. You’ve probably heard lots about bees and neonicotinoids on the news, but this barely scratches the surface of the insect crisis.

Did you know that over 75% of flying insects have disappeared from German nature reserves over the past three decades? Or that rainforests have seen similar declines, resulting in the restructuring of entire food chains? I would love to list more studies which demonstrate the scale of the insect crisis, but—despite how important they are to life on earth—very few comprehensive examinations of insect population trends exist. In fact, the study which demonstrated massive insect declines in rainforests discovered the losses by chance; insect populations were used as an indicator of food availability for lizards. Scientists believe that the dramatic losses can be attributed largely to climate change; hot spells above 29°C increased by 44% over the period between the first study and the follow up.

We should be very, very worried—yet I’ve read more in the past week about a certain tangerine president serving McDonalds than I have about the insect crisis in an entire year.

Why Should You Care?

Insects have survived on Earth for hundreds of millions of years. They are found in every terrestrial habitat on every continent except Antarctica. They can survive in the most extreme conditions, tolerating biological stresses that few other organisms could endure. And yet humans—an insignificant blip in the grand timeline of our universe—might be their downfall.

Insects form a vital component of the life support system which keeps the Earth (and those who inhabit it) alive. Research has already demonstrated that once insect populations fall, birds soon meet the same fate. If we continue to ignore the plight of insects, all insectivorous species—mammals, reptiles, birds and even fish—would suffer as a result.  It’s not just animals that will feel the loss, either; many plants rely on insects for pollination. Unable to reproduce, insect-pollinated flora could gradually cease to exist—as will all the animals that rely on them for sustenance. Everything in this world is connected; we cannot expect to decimate insect populations without suffering the aftershocks. We have already disrupted the delicate balance in which the planet hangs, but it’s not too late to take action.

If we don’t protect insects now, we could set into motion an irreversible chain reaction which ends in the collapse of ecosystems across the globe. Gradually, little by little, every facet of life on Earth will be impacted—all because we looked the other way when the insects started to die. No wonder they call it the butterfly effect.

How can I help?

There are loads of ways to help out insects in your garden. Some are really easy to implement, while others require a little bit more effort. Making even one of the changes suggested on this list could massively help insect populations in your area.

  1. Use native plants in your garden. Our native wildlife co-evolved alongside native plants, which means that they complement each other really well. For example, entomologists have previously found that native oaks can host over 500 caterpillar species, while an oak tree brought over from Asia will only attract 5 species. Choosing a few native plants for your garden can help to give native insects a fighting chance, particularly in the face of invasive species.
  2. Use pollinator-friendly plants. This guide has a comprehensive list of plants which pollinators love. Pick out a few, and come summer, your garden will be buzzing with life.
  3. Create bug-friendly habitats. Evergreen shrubs and climbers can provide a home for insects over winter, while deadwood is used in the life cycle of over 2,000 British invertebrates! Compost heaps full of rotting leaves and debris are also really appealing to a range of insects. If you’re the crafty type, try building your own bee box.
  4. Ensure your garden has a continuous succession of flowers. Most of us focus on plants which flower during the summer, which can leave our gardens looking pretty dead over winter. Although lots of pollinators either hibernate or die over winter, some can be roused by a sunny day. Make sure they have something to eat when they wake up by planting winter-flowering plants such as snowdrops, Erica and Hellebore.
  5. Create a pond. This one isn’t possible in every garden, but if you have the space and resources, ponds can be a fantastic addition to a bug-friendly garden. Many insects rely on water as a permanent home, while some need it for a specific stage of their lifecycle. Amphibians and other wildlife will also appreciate a clean, biodiverse pond. If you don’t want to dig up your garden, you could just fill up a container with water; an old sink or trough could work well.
  6. Go organic. Many shop-bought pesticides have negative impacts on insects, even if they claim to only target ‘pests’. Using organic control methods can help to protect your garden while avoiding damaging insect populations. A teaspoon of dish soap in a gallon of water can be enough to deter aphids, spider mites and mealybugs.

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