DUCK SOUP: On a Wing and a Prayer

Last August we had out-of-state visitors on our mountain. They were impressed with the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains and enjoyed the relative cool above 3000 feet. But the highest praise and loudest exclamations were reserved for the insects. "So many butterflies!" they exclaimed.Fair enough. We do enjoy a great diversity of beautiful butterflies. If that were the only comment you might think that we just happen to have more members of the order Lepidoptera here than they do back in flatland. But listen to the next line."I haven't seen so many since I was a child!" said one. "We don't have butterflies like these anymore," lamented another. Do you hear the drumbeat of death in those words? No? Well, you should. There is a slow change moving across the land and it is at minimum profound and disturbing. It may be a catastrophe. Pollinator populations are collapsing in many places around the world. That is, the insects, birds and mammals that fertilize flowers by transferring pollen from one to the next, are in sharp decline. Last year the disappearance of honey bees in the mid-west and Carolinas made the news, but honeybees are only the most familiar of the pollinator species. Without pollination we and the rest of the animals on earth would lose our lunches. And our breakfasts and dinners. Most flowering plants need help with fertilization of their seeds, and the animal forms that have co-evolved with them do the job perfectly. There are butterflies and moths with long probosci that can reach deep into tubular flowers, and hummingbirds with a similar long reach. Many varieties of bats pollinate night blooming flowers while they feed on nectar. And thousands of species of bees, from tiny bright colored sweat bees to the huge dark carpenter sort, move pollen grains from anthers to stigmas on weeds and trees and orchids and peas. There are beetles and ants and even mosquitos who each have an important role to play. In many cases flowers and the critters that fertilize them are very tightly entwined, one-on-one, so that neither can survive without the other. Others depend on just a few species of plants or animals. In every case they are part of the great chain of life which created and maintains the living world we inhabit.But, back to the butterflies. Why did my guests react so strongly? They live in Ohio in a residential area between a city and surrounding farms. Because of pesticide sprays on lawns and fields, wild insects and flowers have disappeared. Many of the plants that sustain butterflies and moths are considered weeds and are subject to eradication programs. On top of the chemical assault, habitats are fragmented by cleared fields and lawns that replace native vegetation with imported monocultures. If a butterfly, or a hummingbird or bat for that matter, cannot find a high enough concentration of food in an area, it will move on, or starve to death. The problem would be merely aesthetic if we lost life forms that we find beautiful and appealing. But our understanding of the web of life is still very rudimentary. We have only a sketchy appreciation of the intricacy of plant and animal interactions that maintain soil fertility, atmospheric oxygen levels, water purity and other chemical systems that are the foundation of life. We know that humans cannot live alone without any other species, but we have no clue which species those might be. Pollination is the crucial juncture for all flowering plants, and the disappearance of pollinator animals will impact our lives in ways we cannot foresee. Yet we continue to abet an extinction spasm that will take hundreds or thousands of critters and plants out of the loop forever. You can help. Encourage weeds and wildflowers. Let part of your lawn go wild. Learn to live with wasps and bees and beetles and ants and even mosquitos. Repel insects with screens, long sleeves or incense instead of killing them. If you garden choose organic controls. In silviculture avoid herbicides and allow space for mixed stands. Oppose clearcuts. Remind others of the vital services living systems provide us, and the urgent need to protect whole natural communities. Learn more by contacting the Forgotten Pollinator Project. Email . If you marvel that a fragile Monarch butterfly migrates thousands of miles, or that a delicate swallowtail survives a tornado, remember this: those tissue paper wings very likely carry our own future as well.


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