On a summer evening in the 1950’s two children could run around a backyard in Poughkeepsie, New York, with one-quart Mason jars and each snare enough fireflies in half-an-hour to give the jars the semblance, in children’s eyes at least, of lanterns. Now, fifty years later, in a summer backyard 20 miles from there, if any fireflies can be seen there are never more than easily can be counted, and those few keep to the height of the tree foliage.
In 1950, the world’s foremost expert on the ants found on the sidewalks between Governor George Clinton Elementary School and his home, eight blocks away, seldom saw fewer than a half-dozen ants on every square of that sidewalk, and occasionally scores of them. Now, fifty years later, on a one-mile stroll in a town twenty miles north of there, sidewalk ants are only an occasional sighting.
In the 1950’s, after an hour’s drive on the Taconic Parkway on a summer night a windshield would be cluttered up with enough insect corpses for a driver (the ant expert’s father, for example) to have to stop for gas even if he didn’t need it, so that the windshield could be squeegeed off by an obliging attendant. Some people even had insect screens fitted to the their car grills. Fifty years later, after a four hour drive on a summer night on the Taconic, the New York State Thruway, and the Massachusetts Turnpike, a windshield is pretty much just as clean as at the beginning of the trip.
On a summer night in the 1970’s, before opening the screens of French doors in a house in the woods in Clinton Corners, New York, it was necessary first to turn out all the lights in the room to keep hordes of insects from flying in. By the 1990’s – same house, same woods – not only did one not have to turn out the lights, but one could actually leave the screens open long enough to stroll in and out to fetch another beer without any noticeable invasion of insects – just a stray moth or two.
Visiting a family in Florida in the late 1990’s, whose living-room looked out on a lush garden featuring a large banyan tree overhanging a swimming pool, I was surprised that they did not need screens on their windows, which they left open to the night breeze. Also in the 1990’s: on a 20-mile evening commute over country roads in northern Dutchess County, past five or six electric bug zappers, I counted an average of one-and-a-half zaps for each zapper. Estimating that I was within earshot of each zapper for three seconds, that amounts to 1,800 dead bugs per hour – for each device.
We know about the unfortunate monarch butterflies – stars of National Geographic, pretty, easily identifiable, with such interesting migratory lives. We know about the bee problem because it is an economic issue: how will we pollinate our crops? But what about all the other insects which have gone missing over the last fifty years? Does anyone care?
The US Fish & Wildlife Service lists a few endangered insect species – most of them butterflies and moths. Three species of fireflies are listed – all of them denizens of the Everglades (a Fish & Wildlife Service bailiwick).What about the Dutchess County Mason Jar Firefly? What about those gangly, scary at first, but harmless, creatures that look like giant mosquitoes or daddy-long-legs with gossamer wings? What about the walking sticks, the faux twigs that used to appear on our screens in the morning?
What about the crickets, the cicadas, the katydids, the clamor of August? (Just listen to them in the night scenes of old movies. That wasn’t an exaggeration by the sound engineers.) Now the music of an August night is a lone cicada mournfully hocketing on a tree across the stream and a trio of crickets singing a minimalist round in the evergreen grove. We may not have reached The Silent Spring quite yet, but we’re well into The Quiet Summer.
And I haven’t seen a praying mantis in over three decades.
Back in the 1950’s, the world’s foremost expert on the ants along eight blocks of Poughkeepsie sidewalks was also the world’s greatest peril to those same ants. But that expert was only eleven years old. Today, the greatest peril to a particular species of bug may well be the world’s foremost expert on that bug. A few visits to entomology department websites makes it clear that the largest chunk of academic entomological research deals not with the preservation of insects, but with their “control” – that is, how to kill them.
These are practical, greedy, “realistic” times. The snail-darter- and northern spotted owl-huggers have caused enough problems for American enterprise, without concern being raised for, let’s say, those little day-glo aquamarine beetles you never could find in the bug books and now never see anymore.
Does it matter that insects are dying out?
Maybe in the long run, with the world population ballooning and more human mouths to feed, we just have to sacrifice the insects that want to eat the same things we want to eat. And the songbirds that feed on insects? Well, I guess the birds will be okay, as long as there are bags of bird-seed available in the super-market and increasingly cleverly designed bird-feeders. And window screens and bug repellents are mostly made in China now, so that isn’t a big economic issue.
There might be some hidden drawbacks to insect decimation. I do wonder: Might it be that among those thousands of species of flying creatures that were zapped by the clever electric zappers hanging on front porches everywhere was the prime predator of the deer tick, which no one had heard about before 1990 or so, but now amounts to an infestation in the Northeast?
Still, mention insects to anyone and they will complain about how there are too many of them – and many of these same people will give money to save other sorts of wildlife. I guess if they had tigers and elephants roaming in their backyards or whales in their swimming pools, even one tiger or elephant or whale would be too many and they wouldn’t miss them if they disappeared for good. We live in a world where there have always been too many bugs. It would be nice to think that sometime soon people will begin to look around and say, “Gee, I kind of miss all those bugs,” but don’t hold your breath. God’s creatures they might be, but no insects were invited onto Noah’s Ark.
Typical of the irony which accompanies any pronunciamento, as I finish off this screed, we are in the third week of the swarming of the 17-year locusts. Unlike the biblical locusts, or the ones that still plague crops in Africa, our locusts are harmless. Once they emerge, they disperse and are not much of a nuisance. They are noisy, though, and their chattering fills the air – in some places more than others. The more sunlight they have the louder their yammering. What amazes me is that people are complaining about the noise. Here we are, in a world of loud trucks, airplanes, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, blaring televisions, crappy music in supermarkets, restaurants, waiting rooms, the incessant din of 21st century life, and people are complaining about the locusts. They are 17-year miracle, one of the few wonders of nature we can enjoy here in exurbia, and yet, because they are bugs, I guess (no one complains about the twilight crescendo of birdsong), they get on people’s nerves.