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Soil Sisters: Thank a bug

Next time you see a 'bug,' don’t squash it, say thanks, and let it go on its life-sustaining way. It is meeting our needs.


Monroe Times
By Marci Hess, Driftless Prairies (Blanchardville, WI)

Why should we care about reestablishing native species in our fields and forests? There are many answers to that, but insects are a crucial piece.

Insects create a livable world for us. They keep us healthy, provide us with a variety of food, and they enhance our quality of life. Without them, we would have only wind-pollinated food. Eating would be boring and the lack of diversity in wind-pollinated foods would not keep us healthy. Insects clean up carrion, poop, and other rotting waste. If they didn’t do this, we would be wading in yuck and dealing with serious health issues. We also turn to insects for design elements, architecture, medicine, and food. We rarely think of insects when we need the spiritual connection of nature and the calming essence of birdsong. But without insects, we would miss our birds. Insects provide the protein needed for baby birds to grow. While some adults eat the fruit, babies must have the protein and fat that only insects provide.

I’m often asked what’s the problem with non-native plants? Why do I think natives are better? All insect species either eat the plant or eat another critter that ate the plant. Our native insects have not evolved and are not evolving fast enough to use non-native plants as food. When native plants are replaced by non-native plants, insects die, and insect populations are reduced. Each plant has a defense against being eaten; this defense can be chemical such as tasting bad or physical such as being hairy. Over time, certain insects have developed the ability to overcome these defenses. They can then use the plant to lay their eggs, knowing when they hatch, the larvae will be nourished; this is called a host plant. This evolution has occurred in such a way that not every insect can eat every plant. Much like us, if we all depended on one town to live in, we would decimate it.

Another concern about making sure we have native plants in the environment is awareness of the spacing of these native habitats. Insects don’t travel far. Their range is measured in yards, not miles. In urban areas the term “yards” takes a different meaning. Having native places where insects can traverse and find mates is critical. When these are sufficient, it creates a “corridor”rather than an “island.” If the insects can move along to other food resources, avoid predation, and reproduce, they thrive. These “corridors” allow for diversity.

Diversity — native diversity — creates a balance. A variety of native plants attract a variety of native insects who have predators and parasitoids that create equilibrium. Monocultures and unusable non-native plants do not do this. Think of those pesky Asian lady beetles. They hang out in the monoculture of soybean fields until they are disturbed via harvesting; then they hang out in our homes. Because they didn’t evolve here, they have no natural predators so they proliferate. The sheer numbers of them have decimated the beneficial native lady beetle populations. This example illustrates the importance of diversity and the problem with non-natives.

Because nature provides us with deep-rooted emotional needs, losses to our native ecosystems negatively affect our quality of life. Connecting with nature improves attention, lower stress, better mood, even upticks in empathy and cooperation. It boosts our moods and increases our cognitive development. In other words, nature helps us to think better and live happier lives! We are physically connected to nature because we need water, air, and a stable climate. We are emotionally connected because we need beauty, wonder, and things that awe us. When I began studying insects, my days were filled with amazement — the colors, the patterns, the details — and then when I learned about the biology of certain species, my jaw dropped. As I shared these findings with folks who normally don’t care about insects, they were intrigued. Their world expanded with mine!

While non-native invasive and ornamental plants can be beautiful, they are devastating to our natural world. Where they exist, our insects do not. When these areas are large enough, they trap our insects on “islands” where they fade away. When urban yards are converted to native landscapes and unproductive areas of farms are restored and remnants and plantings are humbly managed, our insects thrive. And every living thing that depends on them thrives, including us.

Next time you see a “bug”, don’t squash it, say thanks, and let it go on its life-sustaining way. It is meeting our needs. — Marci Hess has 60 acres that she is restoring with her husband, Jim. These 60 acres include prairie, woods, and oak savanna and grade from dry soil to wet mesic soils. More info at Soil Sisters, a program of Renewing the Countryside, connects and champions women in the Green County area committed to sustainable and organic agriculture, land stewardship, local food, family farms and healthy and economically vibrant rural communities.

This Soil Sisters column originally ran in The Monroe Times on 7/20/23.


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