This is an unexpected but timely entry in my ongoing series on tips for regenerative living. Unexpected because I had not meant to include a separate piece just for insects: we support them through many of our homesteading and community-building activities and their health and wellbeing are nurtured alongside the other beneficiaries from a regenerative lifestyle. But, that was before I read a shocking article last week in The New York Times Magazine called, “The Insect Apocalypse is here.”
With a title like that it’s no surprise that it’s more big-time bad news, this time concerning the dramatic decrease in insect numbers (both in species diversity and biomass) across the world. It’s a powerful and depressing read but important to give more context to our time, our work, our lives. In it, the author, Brooke Jarvis, shares several draw-dropping statistics about insect and other animal declines up the food web. Here are a few standouts:
• By weight, the abundance of flying insects in German nature preserves decreased 75% over 27 years
• The world’s largest king penguin colony shrank by 88% in 35 years
• The population of monarch butterflies fell by 90% in the last 20 years, a loss of 900 million individuals (see my greywater article which talks about monarchs and milkweed here)
• More than 97 percent of the bluefin tuna that once lived in the ocean are gone
• 96% of the total biomass of mammals is human and livestock; just 4% is wild animals
Wow! Talk about a punch in the gut. Further, she shares that scientist and author E.O. Wilson has termed our epoch the Eremocine, the age of loneliness. Sigh, sad face emoji. This being a blog about tips for regenerative living, what can we do to address this nightmare? Choose one:
• Watch more Fox News (or CNN or MSNBC or whatever)
• Curl up in the shower and suck our thumbs
• Go shopping
• Drink excessive amounts of alcohol
• Design our landscapes to support a diversity of insect life
No, not really. Our land - a half acre in a semi-urban Reno neighborhood - was equal parts bare dead soil and pokey invasive weeds when we moved onto it in August of 2011. We noticed very few insects and birds other than the colony of house sparrows nesting in the ivy. We started soil-building that first week when we met a neighborhood landscaper who was happy to dump truckloads of grass and leaves in our backyard. We followed with loads of wood chips, aggressive composting (all types...all types), some purchased soil and compost every now and again, scores and scores of scAvenged, funky straw bales, nutrient-accumulating plantings, chicken, rabbit, and goat manure, and the occasional infusion of seaweed, mountain sand, and animal carcasses. Seven years later we now have amazing soil rich in nutrients and humus that supports a vast diversity of insects and microbes along with plants.
Now we are blessed with katydids and cicadas, butterflies, moths, beetles, bees, wasps, praying mantises, spiders galore, centipedes and millipedes, the occasional mosquito, wood borers, grasshoppers and crickets, ants and ant lions, flies, snakeflies, dragonflies, earwigs and potato bugs, and more. Not all are considered “beneficial” to the urban gardener but overall they contribute to a healthy system. This insect life in turn supports animals up the web but birds most of all - the happiest addition to our land. I could write another list, but...OK, I will. I like lists:
• Mourning doves, pigeons
• Various sparrows
• Mountain chickadee
• Steller’s Jay
• Great Horned Owl
• Scrub jay
• Lots of little gray birds
• Goldfinch, house finch
• American kestrel
• Cooper’s hawk
• Red-tailed hawk
• Golden Eagle (attacking a chicken)
• Cedar waxwing
Some nest, some pass through. Twice this past summer I was heartened by comments about the bird life on our place. The first exclaimed, “My god, there so many birds here” and the second came from a first-time visitor biking over for a natural building class: “I figured this was your place because of all the bird song.” That’s a nice reward for the years of effort.
Here’s some of what we’ve done at our place that supports insect life and life in general:
• Planted native species
• Built a greywater system: read my article and go to work
• Composted and built soil: read my article and go to work, again
• Installed perennial polycultures throughout our property
• Established a food forest in our backyard that’s a mix of trees (fruit, nut, natives…), nutrient accumulators, berry bushes, shrubs, herbs and flowers. It’s at about year 5 now and really starting to pop in terms of productivity.
• Built a pond: read my article
• Kept records of what’s on/visits our space and linked up with scientists and conservation orgs. We actually haven’t done this yet in any scientific manner (poco a poco) but our buddies run Nevada Bugs & Butterflies so I’m reaching out to them as soon as I get home
• Lastly, we always consider how we can stack functions and amplify all of these actions at the neighborhood and community scale. This includes sharing seeds, plants, compost, labor, knowledge and enthusiasm
Don’t have land? Get some planters on a sill, work with those that do have land (including community efforts, schools, parks…), go guerrilla and plant the “edges” - along sidewalks, empty lots, etc, volunteer with bug people, and so on.
Here’s another quote from E.O. Wilson:
"If we were to wipe out insects alone on this planet, the rest of life and humanity with it would mostly disappear from the land. Within a few months.”
Are we just pissing in the wind with our efforts? Maybe. But I’ll be pissing on my perennial polycultures.
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