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What YOU can do to stop the “Insect Apocalypse” UF researcher outlines everyday actions that can slow the decline of essential species

By Ellen Bausback

Communications Intern at UF Thompson Earth Systems Institute (Published September 2020)

Creepy crawlies. Heebie jeebies. For centuries, insects in American culture have wriggled their way into a whole host of negative stereotypes. Bugs are often portrayed in the media as being dirty or scary, roaches send folks flying up onto kitchen chairs when sighted and mosquitoes are hailed as Florida’s enemy number one.

But despite their bad rap, insects provide many services to humans. The most diverse group of animals in the world, they provide an estimated yearly value of $70 billion in the U.S. alone. Insects are important for agriculture, pollination and breaking down waste. They function as predators and prey in countless food chains and have even inspired new technology (think: drones).

Many insects are still undiscovered or understudied. Besides just their practical uses, some scientists note that insects should be valued for their curiosity factor alone and how they get people buzzing with excitement and fascination.

Photos courtesy of Emily Hernandez

But whatever stance you take toward them, numerous recent studies highlight a startling reality: insects are disappearing worldwide at an alarming rate — both in number and diversity.

Deemed the “Insect Apocalypse” by some scientists, climate change, loss of habitat and pollution are threatening many of the estimated 5.5 million species of insects with significant population decline or even extinction.

But University of Florida entomologist and researcher Akito Kawahara says that everyday people can have a hand in helping stop the decline of insects. Among the simple actions that can have an influence: cultivating insect-friendly outdoor spaces and raising positive public awareness of bugs.

“They’re so important, in so many ways we don’t really understand,” said Kawahara, an associate professor and curator of lepidoptera at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “Individuals can play an important role and can have an immediate impact.”

Cultivating Insect-Friendly Outdoor Spaces

Instead of breaking the bank to pay your sprinkler water bill and spending hours in the hot sun mowing the lawn, Kawahara suggests that one of the easiest ways to help stop insect decline is to let your yard go wild.

“For insects, lawns are a real desert,” Kawahara said. “They don’t really like lawns. There’s not a lot of diversity of plants, it’s just one lawn species.”

Converting just 10% of your grass lawn to native plants is beneficial to insects because they rely on different kinds of plants to build habitats and gather food, he said. In addition, native plant species are more likely to attract pollinators to your garden, and a range of different plants act as effective “stepping stones” to the creatures as they move from one habitat to another.

A 2020 study published in the journal Ecological Applications found that “insect species richness and abundance were >30% higher” in places with native and drought-resistant plants.

But how do you get started? Ginny Stibolt, a professional native plant gardener, retired botanist and author of several books on sustainable gardening, says that “freedom lawns” are the way to go.

The first step is getting away from relying on lawn companies that use pesticides and herbicides that can harm insects, she said.

Then, to find out what plants will be best for your lawn depending on what region you live in, Stibolt recommends contacting a local branch of the Florida Native Plant Society or visiting its website to learn more about different species and how to revamp your space.

Native plants are already adapted to the climate conditions of your area, so they’ll require less maintenance and water and contribute more to the food web than just grass would, Stibolt said.

Florida Friendly Landscaping, an organization that helps promote sustainable landscaping practices, also has an interactive online tool that can help you figure out exactly how to reorganize your yard.

Native plants can be bought or picked up at locations listed on the Florida Association of Native Nurseries' site.

And for those who worry about aesthetics and losing the look of a perfectly mown emerald yard, Stibolt said not to worry.

“A freedom lawn is actually pretty darn green,” she said. “This is Florida. Stuff will grow. It won't be all St. Augustine or all whatever that sotted grass was that you started with.”

But plants will come, she said, and insects and pollinators will thank you.

“One thing that we can do, is not do much,” Kawahara said. “You just let the nature survive and do its course.”

Changing the Stigma

Another simple way to stop the decline of insects is to raise public awareness of them, according to Kawahara. This includes teaching children about the many benefits insects provide, talking to friends, using social media to share positive stories and supporting science by voting.

The basis for a positive view of bugs starts in childhood, Kawahara said.

When he was a young child growing up in Japan, he said he remembers watching many television shows that painted bugs in a positive light, and his father decided to buy him a butterfly net from Tokyo. Every weekend, the pair would go to nature areas and collect insects. Getting up close and personal with insects at a young age helped solidify his interest in the natural world, he said.

“That butterfly net was the beginning of the whole thing."

Emily Hernandez, a 21-year-old UF environmental engineering senior who has worked at the Florida Museum’s lepidoptera laboratories since 2018, similarly attributes her interest in the creatures to her childhood.

“I was lucky enough to have a freaking cool mom who dragged me outside so much as a kid,” Hernandez said.

They used to raise monarch butterflies on milkweed in her yard in Winter Park, near Tampa, and she had a favorite “nature box,” a small brown hardware organizer that she cherished and filled with butterfly wings, cicada exoskeletons, fossils, colorful shells and more.

Now, she has a collection of nearly 30 pinned insects in her closet and has worked with children to help raise Luna moth caterpillars in elementary school classrooms across Alachua County.

“The best way to engage kids with the natural world is to put the insects in their hands,” she said. “Let them connect with them, let them raise them themselves, let them see the life cycle, start to finish, and have a real personal connection with it.”

Working to change the perception of insects has become personal to her, and she said sometimes when her friends come over to her apartment, she turns on her high-powered mercury vapor light to attract insects at night and give pals an up-close view of the creatures.

“They don't even necessarily need to be as up close and friendly with them as I am,” she said. "But I can give them a reason to see why this is something of value, why insects in our local ecology are so, so valuable and important, and why they should keep an eye out because they're everywhere.”

Top left photo courtesy of Emily Hernandez

Though her academic focus isn’t on entomology, she said she is interested in bioengineering and biomimicry, or using the natural world as an inspiration to solve technical problems.

“You grow up disliking insects because it’s portrayed to you that way,” she said. “You find that people have such irrational fears about the silliest things about insects. I think it really just comes down to education.”

As a graduate student, Kawahara said he was once a lecturer for an introductory biology class at the University of Maryland, and he asked his department if he could order 400 baby tarantulas to help educate his students on spiders. His request was approved, and every student in his class who took a tarantula home and took care of it received extra credit.

At first, he was met with hesitation, he said, and only five kids took one home, but soon the whole class had one and became really invested in taking care of the arachnids.

“These kids got transformed. I was shocked,” he said. “I still remember, there was one kid on the football team, and he kept his tarantula with him everywhere he went. He’d show all of his friends on campus. And during football games he’d put a tarantula on the sidelines.”

Though he acknowledges not everyone will fall in love with insects, he hopes something as simple as education and positive experiences will change the tide of their alarming decline.

“A lot of this is based on our personal opinions and beliefs about them, and those beliefs I think need to be just fundamentally changed,” he said. “Perception of the natural world, and even appreciation of it a little bit, I think is so critical.”

He added that looking up close at bugs and interacting with them is an easy way to start the process of changing the stigma, and hopefully people will begin to realize their value and what makes them so wonderful.

“By going outside and looking at insects and learning about them a little bit, you can become an immediate contributor to science and what we don’t know. And I hope that more people will be able to realize that insects really are amazing.”

This story was produced as a part of The Insect Effect: Insect Decline and the Future of our Planet Campaign

The University of Florida Thompson Earth Systems Institute is advancing communication and education of Earth systems science in a way that inspires Floridians to be effective stewards of our planet.

Credits:

Created with images by Juan Manuel Núñez Méndez - "untitled image" • Emiel Molenaar - "untitled image" • Thomas Park - "Caterpillars snacking on leaves." • Zdeněk Macháček - "untitled image" • Guillaume de Germain - "Ant hunting with my macro devices for an epic photo session during the golden hour. Here is a small ant fighting with a crumb of macaron falling from my lunch table. I didn’t know that my garden was sush a unsafe place ^^" • Will Montague - "untitled image" • Philipp Lansing - "A tarantula walking in hands"