Scientist warns of Island ‘Bugpocalypse’

Syrphid fly, whose larvae eat aphids attacking Manitoulin garden plants, feeding on nectar of a purple lilac bush. photos by Joe Shorthouse

MANITOULIN – In a previous issue of The Manitoulin Expositor, the possibility was discussed that the 2019 population of forest tent caterpillars will be reduced because of an unusual increase in an insect-borne virus last year that killed the maturing caterpillars before they made cocoons.

Simultaneously, there appeared to be a decrease in the numbers of parasitic insects that normally help contribute to an abrupt decrease in populations of caterpillars. Forest tent caterpillars are known for their populations naturally building up over 10-12 years and then crashing due to about 20 species of parasitic insects and naturally occurring insect viruses.

The sudden crash on the eastern side of the Island leads to a possibility that Manitoulin is experiencing a ‘Bugpocalypse.’ Readers of The Expositor will recognize the word ‘apocalypse’ which is defined as an event involving destruction or damage on a catastrophic scale, or the unfolding of things not previously known. 

For example, we talk about ‘the apocalypse of World War II.’ Bugpocalypse is a new term used to describe the collapse or destruction of populations of insects.

For a hint that things in the world of insects may be changing on Manitoulin Island, think back a mere 20 years when our windshields and headlights became so splattered with the carcasses of insects after driving down a local highway, we had to stop to clean them off. Today, this rarely happens!

A June beetle resting on a stem at the edge of a Manitoulin forest. This beetle flies about 20 cm off the ground, in search of a mate, for about an hour after the sun goes down. The larvae feed on the roots of grasses and shrubs.

Or think back to the last time you saw fireflies (beetles that produce light), or masses of mayflies and moths around your outdoor lights. Mayflies are a key food for fish and their numbers seemed to have collapsed in the past two years. 

Or think about the past abundance of bluebirds, purple martins, swallows and whip-poor-wills, all of which eat flying insects. Many other species of birds feed on insects found on or in plants such as cardinals, warblers, grosbeaks and woodpeckers. 

If insects are less abundant, then populations of insect-eating birds will decline. And if mayflies and other aquatic insects decline, fish populations will soon follow.

Trends in insect populations elsewhere in the world

Although observations of splattered bugs do not tell us much about trends, there are reliable data elsewhere on the fate of insects. For example, scientists have tracked declines in honey bees, monarch butterflies and fireflies. However, few have paid attention to the moths, hover flies, beetles and countless other insects that buzz and flitter through the warm months. 

Then to the surprise of entomologists (people who undertake research on insects), and much of the world, an amazing set of long-term data has recently come to light from a dedicated group of amateur entomologists associated with a nature club in Germany.

Members of the Krefeld Entomological Society in western Germany started a project for fun in the 1980s comparing the abundance of insects in about 100 nature reserves. 

They used malaise traps which are large tent-like structures used to trap flying insects. Malaise traps operate effectively day and night and insects captured in an attached container are removed periodically and stored in alcohol for later analysis.

Club members measured the weight of all insects they caught and found such a surprising trend, they asked several scientists experienced in writing articles for research journals for help in interpreting their results.

The club results showed that the overall abundance of flying insects in German nature reserves had declined by 75 percent over just 27 years! The trends were so startling the results were published in a scientific journal.

Implications of their findings were clear. If insect numbers in protected areas show declines averaging 5.2 percent per year, then this must be a widespread phenomenon. Club members had dropped an entomological bombshell that attracted media attention around the world. 

Their findings were recently presented to parliamentarians in the German Bundestag. Writers of newspaper articles and magazines argued that if declines in insects similar to the Krefeld sites are happening elsewhere, then insects must really be in trouble. 

Some writers suggested the phenomenon was apocalyptic – and thus the word was altered to ‘bugpocalyptic.’ Everyone was asking where all the insects had gone? And why the decline? Will the decline affect humans?

The insects the Krefeld group found to be undergoing declines were not selected charismatic species, but representative of flying insects in general. Many biologists consider the results a ‘wake-up call’ with the Krefeld study suggesting that insects are the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ and indicate something is wrong in natural environments. 

Studies elsewhere in the world have also shown that insects are becoming less abundant and biologists are frantically trying to understand why. In another report, the number of species of butterflies and moths in a German nature reserve, using museum records, dropped from 117 in 1840 to 71 in 2013 illustrating that even protective status can’t prevent a dramatic loss of species.

Those who follow the biology of monarch butterflies know that their North American populations have fallen about 90 percent over the last 20 years and researchers are racing to try and figure out why and what can be done to reverse the trend.

Insects are by far the most numerous and biodiverse of all animals. They are ‘the little things that run all ecosystems’ and all biologists are aware that widespread declines of the scale shown in Krefeld will have sinister implications for the functioning of most terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. 

Losses of insects reverberate up the food chain. “If you’re an insect-eating bird living in that area, four-fifths of your food is gone in the last quarter-century, which is staggering,” said an ecologist at the University of Sussex in England, who helped the Krefeld group analyze and publish their data.

If the same trends are occurring on Manitoulin Island, what changes are we about to see? We know that three-quarters of the flowering plants (including shrubs and trees) in most ecosystems around the world, and on Manitoulin Island, rely on insects for pollination to develop their fruits and seeds. Insects also recycle dead animals and animal wastes.

It follows that if pollinators disappear, then our shrubs and trees, and garden plants such as peas, beans, cucumbers and tomatoes will also disappear. My studies on the wild roses of Manitoulin Island show these important shrubs are slowly disappearing.

Reasons for the decline in insects are likely diverse and complex, but key suspects include global climatic change, the misuse of pesticides, fragmented forests and pollution. 

Neonicotinoid pesticides, already implicated in the widespread reduction of bee populations, are one of the world’s most widely used insecticides. They were initially viewed as relatively benign because they are often applied directly to seeds rather than widely sprayed, meaning that they could not, for example, kill honeybees. However, recent research has shown neonicotinoids affect the ability of honeybees, bumblebees, and wild solitary bees to navigate and communicate. 

At the moment, there is no way of knowing if the biodiversity of insects on Manitoulin Island is changing. Without graphs showing total numbers of some groups, such as moths, mayflies and parasitic wasps over several years, our views are anecdotal and not based on facts or sound research. 

There are numerous citizen science projects in North America where non-scientists are meaningfully contributing to scientific research on the abundance of flora and fauna. For example, populations of ladybugs are being monitored across North America by school children who find, photograph, and make identifications with their cellphones. Their observations are downloaded providing valuable information on populations, diversity and distribution.

An elusive praying mantis, a delight to capture by children in places like Wagg’s Wood in Mindemoya, and keep them as pets for a few days, before releasing them.

We could start collecting insect data on Manitoulin Island by having biology classes at local schools set up a couple traps and every 24 hours, weigh the catches over the summer as was done in Germany. Only with long term data, can we show whether or not the ecosystems on Manitoulin Island are changing. 

No sooner had this article been readied for submission to The Manitoulin Expositor and a report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services was released the same day.

Compiled by 145 experts from 50 countries over the past three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors, the report assessed changes in global diversity over the past five decades. They found that about one million species of plants and animals are declining globally and threatened with extinction. This includes insects that are critical to pollination of the plants on which we depend and for recycling nutrients.

The report reiterated what is already widely known, that natural ecosystems are declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. Vast amounts of lands are being converted to agricultural production, raw timber harvests are increasing. The amount of land converted to urban use has doubled since 1992.

Some scientists are calling this period in human history the Anthropocene – a proposed geological period beginning when humans started altering the physical, chemical and biological properties of the planet.

Although the report was concerning because of the forecast of huge loss of species, it was also noteworthy because it provided a comprehensive picture of the relationships between economic development and its impact on nature.

The authors are aware of the difficulty in making their findings relevant to the average person, especially those who live, for example, in a Toronto high rise and have all food trucked from surrounding farms, receive clean water from a tap and have their body wastes flushed away to be dealt with elsewhere.

The authors of the report are attempting to make people everywhere aware that a thriving natural world is what makes human life possible. We are part of nature and we are dependent on it.

For the first time, the authors ranked the five main drivers of the change humans have caused throughout most of the planet. They are, 1. changes in land and sea use; 2. direct exploitation of organisms; 3. climate change; 4. pollution; and 5. invasive alien species.

What are the implications for Manitoulin Island?

Canada, and its individual land masses such as Manitoulin Island, is not immune to changes of the type described in the United Nations (UN) report. It is likely that Manitoulin Island is also suffering from a decline in the biodiversity of plants and animals and if so, we have a choice of ‘business as usual’ or taking steps to protect a portion of our ecosystems that remain in a natural state.

Manitoulin is in a unique position of having both ecosystems altered for food production and forests where trees have been harvested while at the same time, a minimal amount of our lands have been converted to urban sprawl and transportation corridors. We still have large tracts of our landscape where human interference has been minimal. 

The challenge is to recognize what portion of our forests can be converted to food production, or our wetland ecosystems drained, without jeopardizing the normal functioning of island living systems on which the future generations of humans are dependent. 

What’s new in the UN report is the argument that the natural world must be treated as our inescapable ally. We are reminded, for example, that forests do not exist just to provide us with resources. 

We need to see the natural world and its ecosystems as more than something to either exploit or admire and instead come to recognize they are the basis for our very existence. If the conclusions of the UN report turn out to be correct, then we must come to grips with the reality that the economy of Manitoulin Island will not thrive in a faltering environment.

As a reaction to the report, residents of Manitoulin Island, and in particular the town councillors who represent us, should carefully examine future developments that alter the functioning of ecosystems and impact the ecosystem services they provide, and ensure that we have future access to clean air, water and food. All residents could become involved in playing a role in protecting and preserving forests and wetlands throughout the Island.

If we decide to take action on preserving species of plants and animals that currently reside here, how would we go about doing this? We all recognize the need for agricultural lands that support the animals and plants that provide us with food; however, is there a limit to the percentage of our forests that should be converted into food producing ecosystems?

Is there a limit to the amount of our wetlands that can be drained without jeopardizing the water table and the ability of ecosystems to provide us with clean drinking water? Is there a limit to the amount of land that can be converted to urban sprawl? 

Of interest, it might be easier for Islanders to address biodiversity challenges than it is for those who live on mainland Canada. Islanders are keenly aware that in being surrounded by water, the lands they inhabit are restricted in area. 

That is, being surrounded by water makes it easier to grasp our impacts on the environment than it is on the mainland. It is likely easier for Islanders to come to grips with the fact that natural ecosystems are vital to our future survival than it is for people in urban centres who have a disconnect with natural ecosystems. 

Another advantage for Manitoulin Island serving as a model is that it has blocks of First Nations lands that have remained unaltered compared to lands elsewhere. First Nations people have traditionally considered biodiversity as sacred and all components of ecosystems be treated with respect. 

It can be argued that First Nations people have a greater appreciation for the importance of species conservation than do most Islanders of European descent. In other words, First Nations peoples, because of their traditional knowledge and experience, could play a key role in deciding future development and the places where habitats should be preserved. 

Many of us tend to see the environment and economy as opposing forces, but as the UN report reminds us, they are not. Economics and ecology come from the same root—oikos—meaning ‘household’ or ‘domain.’ Ecology is the study of the rules of sustainability, while economics is the management of our domain. 

Economics therefore should be applied under the laws of ecology. In other words, our economic choices should make sense within the limits of the natural world. Investing in nature is best for the environment and the economy.

Thanks to the UN report, it is easier to accept that all natural species on Manitoulin Island have an intrinsic role in the functioning of local ecosystems, even if we do not at present understand these roles. But if we accept that the roles of all plants and animals contribute to our access to food, forest products, the clean air we breathe and clean water we drink, then we should be cautious about our actions that cause them harm. 

This can occur even when we convert a portion of our forests to agricultural lands, or alter lands for houses, businesses, or transportation corridors, or remove trees for lumber and paper products, but we retain enough of nearby terrestrial and aquatic habitats that they continue to provide the ecosystem services we as humans are dependent upon.

All Islanders should be involved in making decisions as to where tracts of natural lands are to be retained. This could be done by establishing more municipal and provincial parks adjoining lands that have been converted to agriculture, urban sprawl or transportation corridors. Farmers could be encouraged to leave a portion of their land in a natural state, or buffer strips, where the ecosystem services it provides can be sustained. 

Similarly, private land owners could be encouraged to retain part of their property in a natural state such that ecosystem services of endemic plants and animals are fostered. Perhaps we could explore a system of financial rewards for the retention of lands in their natural state. 

If we accept the take-home message in the UN report that our ecosystems are being altered in ways that jeopardize our future, then the sooner we start addressing ways of saving changes to our environment that retain biodiversity and the ecosystem services they provide, the better. 

Joe Shorthouse is a retired professor of entomology and environmental biology at Laurentian University in Sudbury, a summer resident of Manitoulin Island and a frequent contributor to The Manitoulin Expositor.