If you’ve been keeping on top of environmental news in the past year or so, you’ll have seen the dire headlines about ‘insectageddon’. Study after study has appeared in scientific journals recording the total collapse of insect populations around the world. And it’s not just the bees.
Insect population collapses involve both a decrease in the diversity of insect species and the total number of insects living in a place. Nobody is quite sure what’s causing these collapses – but the reasons almost definitely include habitat loss and pesticide use.
My family and I have been implementing the following five steps at home this summer – a four-acre piece of land in semi-rural Connecticut, and the effects have been incredible. We have bees, dragonflies, even fireflies, where our neighbours just down the road have none. The insect life is supporting all sorts of birds – we have two resident bluebirds, and a goldfinch and cardinal who visit regularly.
While individually it’s difficult for us to address large-scale environmental problems like the biodiversity crisis, there are some things you can do at home to make your green space – whether that’s a farm, a quarter-acre suburban back yard, or a few flowers in pots on a balcony – a safe haven for insects.
1. Encourage Diversity
A recent article published in Nature Communications found that a key factor contributing to the diversity and number of insects in a given landscape was the diversity of plant species growing there. Reduce the different kinds of plants in your garden, and the number and diversity of insects will fall. On the flipside, increase diversity and you will see larger populations of insects.
2. Don’t use pesticides
There are all manner of insecticides in use today. While their targets are harmful pests, there is a large body of evidence showing that these chemicals can have unintended consequences for beneficial insects such as bees. A 2015 review of over 800 peer reviewed papers concluded that neonicotinoids and fipronil (accounting for around 1/3 of insecticides in use worldwide) have a wide range of potentially deadly effects on bees, non-target invertebrates, small birds and even in some cases fish.
Avoid spraying your plants with insecticides, and seek other ways of deterring harmful pests such as companion planting. When you buy seeds, look for ones that haven’t been treated or coated with insecticides.
3. Let your grass grow
Most people don’t have a “perfect”, golf course style lawn made of only of a single species of grass. Most of us who have lawns have something a bit messier. There’s usually some clover in there, maybe some dandelions, a few different species of grasses. When we keep our lawns short, this diversity may be less visible. But, if you let your grass grow, you might be surprised to see how many different species you have growing there.
If, like me, the person responsible for mowing the lawns at your house is concerned about the aesthetics of letting the lawn grow, try convincing them to just leave a small patch unmown as a ‘pollinator garden’. Especially if your lawn is clover-rich like mine, insects will flock to it. Once the mower sees the effects – the once barren grass teeming with bees, dragonflies, fireflies and other insects, all of them supporting a greater number and diversity of birds – they’ll be convinced it’s worth it. It worked for me.
4. Keep bees
Bees, our most important pollinators, are dying at unprecedented rates. The Washington Post reported that last winter’s commercial honeybee colony losses were almost 9% higher than average. The causes for these losses are complex and diverse, including extreme weather events, pathogens such as something called the varroa mite, and increasing pesticide (including insecticide, fungicide and herbicide) use.
Keeping a hive of bees in your back yard, if its big enough, or even on the roof of your building if you live in a big city, can help to prevent the loss of important pollinators. Without insects, many plants won’t get pollinated at all. In fact, a third of all food eaten globally depends on pollinators for a successful harvest. By keeping bees at home, you’ll also be housing tens of thousands of pollinators for your own garden, creating a positive feedback loop: the bees pollinate the plants, which helps the plants to grow and thrive, which supports the bees and other insects.
5. Get your community involved
While these ideas will go a long way towards turning your garden into a safe and welcoming home for insects, they’ll go even further if the rest of your community gets involved. For example, if you don’t use insecticides, but your neighbour does, they could be blown onto your land, contaminating your plants. Even if that doesn’t happen, the insects will inevitably sometimes roam further afield and find themselves dining on poison.
Programmes like the Pollinator Pathway initiative, which aims to connect two or more fragmented green spaces which support pollinating insects can be one way to get the community involved. You could also simply get a group of neighbours together to make your neighbourhood insect-friendly, or lobby your local government body to implement insect-friendly policies such as pesticide bans, like the town of Ogunquit, Maine did in 2014. If you live in a forward-thinking country like France, which recently banned five major bee-killing pesticides, you could even take your fight all the way to the top.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and disheartened when thinking about the scale of environmental problems facing the world today. But by making your green space insect-friendly, you can do something important to make the world a better place for humans and other animals to live.