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We need insects, and we can all help them survive


Worries about the loss of honey bees have morphed into concern that insects in general are in decline. While we mostly see insects as a nuisance, they are crucial to Earth’s environment. Insects play a host of crucial ecological roles. From recycling nutrients to pollinating food crops to being food themselves, these bugs quietly support our own survival. Their sheer numbers indicate their importance. Calculations are difficult to quantify, but one estimate I found posits that insect populations worldwide outweigh humans 70 to 1. I estimate half that weight comes from roaches trying to get into my house. Anyway, while we might be heartened to think mosquitoes and fleas could be on the wane, the bigger picture is that a general decline in insects signals a growing malfunction of the natural world. And evidence suggests that it is the more popular and useful insects showing the worst declines, such as butterflies, bees and dragonflies. And, wouldn’t you know it, some bugs – especially roaches -- might be thriving from our activities. A prime culprit in insect decline is loss of habitat. A huge industry has arisen to convince us that the biologically sterile construct we call a lawn is healthy, while what nature would otherwise grow there is not. At the first sign of a breakout of something as sinister as the dandelion, we are taught to kill it with toxic chemicals, assuming you didn’t use other chemicals to prevent its emergence in the first place. Hopefully, while spraying you aren’t forced to brush away a bee or butterfly deluded into seeing the dandelion as food. Because in nature, the dandelion is a delight. It offers nutrition and medicinal benefits for people, food for birds, nutrient transport for other plants, and attracts pollinators to your garden. And the flower is pretty. The good news is that in a world whose growing problems seem to overwhelm individual action, you can help simply by creating more natural, healthy yards. In the years that my wife and I have been gardening, one of our greatest pleasures has come in seeing how vibrant and alive a healthy garden is. I’ve spent hours just sitting and watching the diversity of insect, bird and animal life. In our back yard, a popular bird spot is a gangly pokeberry that sprang up against the fence. Cardinals, mockingbirds and blue jays literally line up to raid the clusters of dark berries. I learned early on that some of the most persistent natural invaders of our garden are the plants insects are most partial to, which I suspect is related. The flowering vines that smothered our garden fences were virtual insect supermarkets, serving both themselves and the insects, who also happened to pollinate our vegetables. I relearned this lesson at our new home near downtown Pensacola this year. We landscaped to eliminate grass, but left a natural strip between our house and some neighbors. When I went to mow it this spring, I was astounded by the cloud of insects flushed from the jumble of grass, wildflowers and small shrubs, which we have been brainwashed to call weeds. Recently we posted a sign on it that says “pardon the weeds, I’m feeding the bees.”  And we are. And, so can you. Start by letting nature reclaim portions of your yard. Then, next summer, take a nice cool drink outside and watch. If that doesn’t beat mowing grass on a hot August day, sit somewhere cool until you regain your senses.

Carl Wernicke is a native of Pensacola. He graduated from the University of Florida in 1975 with a degree in journalism. After 33 years as a reporter and editor, he retired from the Pensacola News Journal in April 2012; he spent the last 15 years at the PNJ as editor of the editorial page. He joined the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in 2012 as Senior Writer and Communications Manager, and retired from IHMC in 2015.His hobbies include reading, traveling, gardening, hiking, enjoying nature around his home in Downtown Pensacola, as well as watching baseball and college football, especially the Florida Gators and New York Yankees. His wife, Patti, retired as a senior vice president at Gulf Winds Federal Credit Union and is a Master Gardener. Carl is a regular contributor to WUWF. His commentaries focus on life in and around the Pensacola area and range in subject matter from birding to downtown redevelopment and from preserving our natural heritage to life in local neighborhoods.