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Ways to watch out for insects

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updated: 8/5/2022 8:59 PM

Last week I wrote about global insect declines and during that same week, there was news that the migratory monarch butterfly had been added to the IUCN Red List of species threatened with extinction.

This should be big news to all of us because a global insect die-off, like we are experiencing, would be disastrous to terrestrial life on earth. Insects provide vital food resources to many larger animals, predatory insects feed on crop-threatening pests, and waste-eating insects are important decomposers.

But probably the most important insect job is plant pollination. Nearly 90 percent of flowering plant species and 75 percent of crop plant species depend on pollination by animals -- mostly insects.

Pesticide use is estimated to be responsible for nearly half of the insect declines with habitat loss and climate change accounting for another quarter of the decline.

Biologist E. O. Wilson has famously called insects "the little things that run the world." Yet, the fact that we seem oblivious to the importance of insects at best, and even hellbent on getting rid of insects, boggles the mind.

The good news is that there are things that you can do to help reverse insect declines, at least in southern Illinois, and entomologist Doug Tallamy is at the forefront of spreading this message.

Tallamy's book, "Nature's Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard," identifies the opportunity to create a globally significant 20-million-acre-plus Homegrown National Park if we would just devote half of our traditionally wildlife hostile yards to wildlife friendly habitat, dominated by native plants.

Insects are often the first and most obvious winners in any kind of small-scale habitat restoration because they really don't need much space to do their thing. They epitomize the "build it and they will come" aspect of habitat restoration efforts.

Of course, in addition to landscaping with native plants, there are other things that you can do to help insects.

Like, for example, stop using pesticides and lawn chemicals around your house!

It shouldn't take a PhD in toxicology to figure out that spraying poisons on lawns to control pests can't be good for human health (or pet health, for that matter). I mean, they literally put signs in yards that say "Chemically treated: Keep off for 24 hours".

I much prefer a wild lawn full of violets, dandelions and clover that I can walk barefoot in and that provides food to insects through the spring and summer.

Perhaps surprisingly, turning (most) outside lights off at night is another thing you can do to help insects. About half of the insect species on Earth are nocturnal and artificial lights can have big impacts on their nocturnal life cycles. Beloved fireflies, for example, are impacted because they use bioluminescent cues to find mates.

So, by turning off outside lights you can save the fireflies and cut down on your electric bill. It's a win-win.

In the end, friends, we've got to take care of the little things that run the world. Because we need them more than they need us.

• Michael Eric Baltz has a doctorate in biology and writes about changing the world from his home in Carbondale.

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