“Where Have All the Swallows Gone?” reads an article this morning. Skilled insectivores, devouring more than 720 insects per day each, these birds need an ample supply of winged food to stay flying and feed their babies. But bees are not the only insects facing population decline. According to an article published by National Geographic, 40% of insect populations worldwide are in serious decline. (Read their fully story at tinyurl.com/yydcrcog).
Not here, you might say, as you swat the mosquitoes. But I remember riding in the car as a kid and having to clean off all the bugs on the windshield after even a relatively short trip. Now? I hardly ever clean off bug splats. This is a tell-tale sign that changes are happening around us.
Now, many bugs are quite annoying. As a farmer, I understand that fully. I’ve battled with flea beetles, cutworms, cucumber beetles, tomato bores, slugs, and cabbage moths to name a few. But I do appreciate that insects are part of the delicate ecosystem of the Northwoods, and I do love the farm’s swallows.
Three kinds of swallows enjoy life on our homestead, and they return each year by the droves. Tree swallows duke it out for the bird houses, rust-colored barn swallows flock in the old Gambrel barn’s rafters, and cliff swallows make their muddy nests in the woodshed each year, their yellow masks peeping out at me as I pass by during chores.
But swallows are not the only birds on the farm that need insects to eat. 97% of all bird species feed insects to their young, even if this is not their own dietary choice as adults. Around 80% of a baby hummingbird’s diet is insects, including spiders, mosquitoes, gnats, and aphids. Go hummingbirds! Have all the mosquitoes you want!
Bees and butterflies are of course on the top of the list of population decline, which makes monarch butterfly sightings on the farm even more special. But other species are facing trouble as well, including beetles that take animal manures and drag them down into the soil, where it feeds the roots of plants and transforms a potentially smelly mess into healthy soil and vegetation.
So, what is contributing to this alarming decline in insect populations? Pesticides, certainly, which harm good insects as well as troublesome ones. Just as the use of neonicotinoids have been linked with Colony Collapse Disorder in honeybees, all kinds of insecticide, herbicides, and fungicides have been shown to harm insect populations.
Changes in ecosystems and climate as well have important roles. For instance, when the “get big or get out” movement in agriculture in the 1970s and 80s marked the sharp decline of the small family farm in favor of consolidated, large-acreage corporate farms, ecological niches such as fence rows, hedges, and wildflower areas were torn out and plowed under — niches essential for maintaining healthy insect habitat.
So what can you do to help out the swallows and baby hummingbirds?
Avoid spraying or fogging your yard. Spraying services designed to help alleviate mosquito problems also kill beneficial insects. This includes friendly bugs like fireflies, which spend a year of their lifecycle living in the soil. Yard sprays kill them, so they will never hatch to make more fireflies. And firefly larvae will even eat slugs!
Keep wild areas in your landscaping. While it might be tempting to have a yard that looks like a magazine cover, this is not helpful habitat for beneficial insects. A Luna moth chrysalis looks like several dried leaves stuck together. If you rake up every leaf and burn it or throw it away, you’ll destroy the future of this beautiful, light green moth.
See spiders as your friend. I know, the eight legs can be creepy, but those arachnids are working overtime. It has been estimated that, worldwide, spiders consume as much as 800 tons of insects each day. Release spiders outside and respect their webs in the yard or forest. An easy way to remove a spider is to cover it with a plastic or paper cup, then slide a piece of paper underneath. The spider will be trapped inside the cup, and you can take it outside, leaving the open cup until the spider crawls away. Remember, the primary bug fed to baby hummingbirds are spiders!
Find new ways to cope. It’s the Northwoods — there will be bugs. Instead of trying to change the landscape and environment so there aren’t bugs, let’s find ways to cope with the natural way things are up here. Remember, we’re in their homeland! I use an anti-insect Buff scarf when doing chores, which keeps the biters away from my neck, ears, and forehead without needing to spray a gallon of insect repellent. I also wear long-sleeved clothing in the morning and evenings, when the mosquitoes are more active. Try using bug nets, citronella candles, and essential oil-infused remedies to keep the flying biters at bay.
Knowing that insect population decline is a global issue is important because it helps us realize what we can do to be part of a solution. My farm’s swallows have to winter somewhere else — hopefully somewhere with people who are also concerned about their welfare. Sharing that concern and some actionables with you is part of empowering the change necessary to foster a healthy planet and all its inhabitants. I’d love to see a Luna moth this summer, wouldn’t you?
See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. She can be reached at 715-462-3453 or www.northstarhomestead.com.