Insects are often referred to as pests by marketers looking to convince you to use their products to eradicate creepy crawlers and bugs they say will ruin your gardens and lawns. But in reality, we all should be doing more to protect insects because they play a vital role in pollinating our world and sustaining wildlife.
The fact is that 80 percent of all plants and 90 percent of all flowering plants are pollinated by insects.
“If we lost our pollinators, we’d lose 80 to 90 percent of the plants on the planet. Forget the crops. Losing 80 to 90 percent of the plants on the planet is not an option,” said Doug Tallamy, author and professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. “…And insects are crucial to biodiversity and healthy ecosystems. Terrestrial food webs and freshwater aquatic food webs are all based on insect protein.”
Spiders, amphibians, bats, lizards, rodents, skunks, opossums, red foxes and many more species depend on insects like moths, for nutrition.
Twenty-five percent of a red fox’s diet is insects and 23 percent of a black bear’s diet is insects. Today, there are 386 bird species of neotropical migrants in North America who are threatened with not having enough insects to justify migration. Among them—swallows, swifts, orioles, hummingbirds, tanagers, flycatchers and warblers.
Yet, insect populations have declined 45 percent globally since 1974 due to loss of habitat, climate change that leads to lack of host plants, pesticides on lawns and the spread of invasive plants, Tallamy warned.
“The creatures that keep us alive on planet earth are disappearing,” he said. “It’s really tough to get people engaged in this issue even though their life depends on it. What if I said, ‘Your bank account is disappearing; it just declined by 45 percent?’ That would get your attention immediately. Insects are the currency in our ecological bank account.”
Some insects provide more bang for their buck when it comes to maintaining plant diversity and transferring energy from plants to other parts of the food web, according to Tallamy. They are pollinators—bees, butterflies and moths—and caterpillars. As far as pollination, non-native honeybees and 4,000 species of native bees are doing the bulk of transferring the pollen from the male part of the flower to female part of the flower.
But moths—there are 14,000 species in North America—are vastly underestimated pollinators, likely because pollination from moths is happening at night when no one is watching. Voracious eaters, moth caterpillars return important nutrients to the soil through their feces.
The importance of the caterpillars of moths and butterflies comes as a surprise to an awful lot of people, Tallamy said. They are the most crucial part of terrestrial food webs. He explained that they are excellent in taking energy from plants so they’re very nutritious and high in fat and protein for predators.
They are also the best source of carotenoids for birds particularly when they are breeding. The Carolina chickadee is the perfect example of what all small birds need. The chickadee requires 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to rear a single clutch of four to six offspring.
HOW YOU CAN LEND A HELPING HAND
If you want to give insects a helping hand—and all the wildlife and ecosystems depending on them to survive—the best way to do that is to landscape for the 21st century and let go of the old habit of planting things because they look pretty but are not ecologically helpful.
One good resource is the National Wildlife Federation’s Native plant finder (nwf.org/NativePlantFinder ).
HOMEOWNERS SHOULD ALSO STOP USING PESTICIDES
Insecticides kill moths directly while herbicides kill or contaminate host and nectar plants the insects need to survive. Consider making natural bug repellent sprays from tansy, lavender and mint. A high-pressure spray of water can sometimes be enough to get insects off your plants. When it comes to weed control, forgo the pesticides and pull weeds by hand, apply corn gluten meal as a pre-emergent to weed-prone areas or use a flame weeding machine with a targeted flame that kills weeds.
Maintaining healthy soil with at least two native turf grasses and proper watering as well as raising your mower blade so that grass is three inches high after mowing are all also key steps to weed management. Another wonderful way to help insects is to support land conservation in your community by helping to create and maintain community gardens and green spaces and to become a “Pollinator Pathway,’’ by providing habitat and nutrition for pollinators.
Tallamy believes there is hope for insects and the environment if more conservation happens on private land. Plant selection in our backyards matter. Simple changes people make in their landscapes and attitudes will keep insects on the ground, in the air and on our plants.
“It’s the only way it’s going to work, as 83 percent of the land in the U.S. is privately owned,” Tallamy said. “We have public parks and preserves and our biodiversity is huddling in those places. But they are not big enough and they are too separated from each other.
“Roy Dennis, land manager in England, has said land ownership is more than a privilege, it is a responsibility. And I couldn’t agree with that more.”
GET STARTED SUPPORTING BEES, BUTTERFLIES AND MOTHS
BEES: If you want to help the bee population thrive, it’s important to include native plants in your garden. For example, if you live in a mid-Atlantic or New England state you can support over 100 species of bees just by cultivating these six plants: goldenrod (which are #1 in supporting native bees), asters, violets, sunflowers, evening primrose, willows.
BUTTERFLIES: The key to protecting butterflies is to provide them with food while they’re still caterpillars. Each type of butterfly prefers certain plants and flowers over others, so it’s important to research which butterfly species are native to your area and then plant accordingly. Two examples are the American Painted Lady, who’s caterpillars prefer cudweed and everlast. The Spicebush Swallowtail is partial to sassafras and spicebush.
MOTHS: When considering flowering plants for nectar, look for those with long tubular flowers. Night-blooming plants are important for some moth species. Be sure to grow a diversity of plants to ensure your yard offers continuous blooms from spring through autumn. Another tip is to switch off unnecessary outdoor lights at night. Moths that become trapped by light beams will waste valuable time that could be spent foraging or looking for mates.