The countryside should not be a peaceful place. It should be humming with activity. While it’s hard to sometimes avoid humans, the real racket should be insects. (see postcript below)
They have, however, been making a bigger noise in the news. For the purposes of this piece, I will label them all collectively as bugs – an unfortunately bland name – but required when covering a huge range of species from the over revered (butterflies and bumblebees) to the over reviled (wasps and ticks) – as we pay them the most attention since Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’.
Her 1962 book is worth a re-read. If only to observe the raw nerves, as an early-warning environmentalist raises the alarm on newly concocted chemical insecticides being applied without any safeguards. All caution thrown to the wind – a wind that soon blew chill when birds dropped from the sky and fish went belly up in rivers.
But look for the bits others skip over. This paragraph caught me unawares when thinking Carson would be an organic evangelist – “All this is not to say there is no insect problem and no need of control. I am saying, rather, that control must be geared to realities. Not to mythical situations, and that the methods employed must be such that they do not destroy us along with the insects”. She adds “It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used.”
Today’s accurately applied, highly sophisticated agro-chemicals are efficiently operational in keeping pest insects at bay, but are also proving to be insidiously persistent in the wider environment.
Overall weights of dosage are down, but toxicity loads are up and some of Carson’s words are ringing true all too loudly. In the 60 and 70s, nascent environmentalism did not have the megaphones of today’s broadcasting tools. In any case, back then society was too excited at the thought of not having to rake beetles out of crop stores, tend fly-blown livestock or handpick aphids off vegetables.
Modern media has now wired up that megaphone. And some. To the extent that internet search engines are not your friend if you want to explore, with free-thinking curiosity, complex nuanced issues around declines in ‘bugs’, food production, insecticide use, climate change, socio-ecological, political risks and habitat variables….
There, see, lost you already! Much easier for unscrupulous naysayers to sell mis-framed research using ‘dreadful’ language, without any scrutiny, translated into apocalyptically beautiful #insectaggeddon headlines lamenting the lack of insects mashed on car windscreens.
Much more subtle, way under the radar, is Defra’s former Chief Scientific Adviser’s personal blog (unfortunately blog site now deleted possibly due to author being on govt’s SAGE panel advising on Covid-19. Here’s some related content he’s written and here). It explored. with objective examination (mind you, we all have a confirmation bias), the German study on the decline of insects in nature reserves, the value of scientific uncertainty, and the morality of researching pesticides. (And how tomatoes are pollinated by commercial bumblebees)
Not sure science
Uncertainty is a ‘dead hand’ on a politician’s simple catchy slogan. As Mr Gove (as Defra Sec of State) discovered when I challenged him in my exclusive interview for saying: “there are no tensions between productive farming and care of the natural world” when the use of insecticides (judicious, not “drenched”, obviously) is an obvious tension.
We can heed warning signs around overuse of insecticides and the lack of diversity in cropping (think heterogeneity), while being more inquisitive of those overplaying their hand (see blog on a conference I chaired).
We must disrupt the status quo by lobbying government to fund new solutions – such as precision applications, learning from organic practices, learning more about integrated pest management – while pushing these practices towards the mainstream to compete with the sometimes unnecessarily prescribed prophylactic use of agro-chemicals.
“Uncertainty is a ‘dead hand’ on a politician’s catchy slogan”
Dung and out
I wrote a damning blog about dead dung beetles next to sheep poo on the same day that the chemist who invented the wormer (avermectin) was awarded his Nobel Prize. Charismatic bees have their champions; it’s the less iconic ‘bugs’ we need to watch over. Create habitat for, restrain chemicals from, and innovate around – otherwise we’ll all be buggered by the silence of the flies.
Postscript – after lockdown spring 2020, did reduced air pollution – esp from cars (unleaded petrol emission benzene) – help insects? An anecdotal thought. Meanwhile, another new paper “Solutions for humanity on how to conserve insects”
First published April 2019 in Knight Frank magazine. Light edit/pics May 20