Friday, January 28, 2005

Splatometer

Walking my dog every day around this small Wairarapa town, it seems to me there are very few insects around; the environment seems so sterile somehow. Inspecting my car after driving around the countryside, the windscreens and grill are relatively free of dead insects, no splattered moths and squashed flies and wasps and bees. Are insects disappearing? And what might be the consequences for our birds? When did I last see a stick insect, a dragonfly, a lady bird, or one of those brilliant native hunting wasps? And are moths as numerous as they used to be? So what is happening? Does anyone care? After all bugs are everyone’s bug bear!

Yesterday I watched a thrush stumble away from my dog, making me think that perhaps it had picked up a poisoned slug, having watched a neighbor put out slug bait the day before. And every night I watch the television advertisements encouraging people to slaughter everything that moves in and around the house. We have got very efficient at destroying bugs without a doubt.

How many people give the birds or other natural predators a chance to control the bugs? Does anyone educate the public about it? Birds will go a long way towards doing the job if given half a chance. The use of pesticides has never struck me as a very intelligent solution to a problem as the first thing that chemicals do is kill off the natural predators. Plants and insects have been waging chemical war fare since the beginning of time, trying to outwit each other in the evolutionary game. Plants produce the most amazing toxins to ward off insects. Rather than have gone the down the road of producing pesticides, it’s a pity our scientists have not learned to work with the plant’s ability to do the job itself.

But I have not been alone in wondering about that state of our insects. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) says species like tree sparrows and corn buntings are on the decline. It wants to know whether the apparent decline in the number of bees, ladybirds, moths and other insects has anything to do with this. . The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ (RSPB) Big Bug Count, staged throughout June 2004, aimed to paint an accurate picture of the population of the dreaded midge and the UK’s other 23,000 insect species. Nearly 40,000 motorists, including some 2,500 north of the border, attached a Splatometer - a cardboard grid to aid counting - on to their number plate and counted the number of "splats". They counted a total 324,814 insects at an average rate of only one splat every five miles.

Jonathan Osborne, RSPB Scotland’s Big Bug Count coordinator, said the survey - believed to be the first of its kind in the world - would form a baseline against which the organisation could compare data from future years. "Because this is the first survey of its kind, we can't yet say definitively that insect numbers have declined, but something worrying is going on, and potentially there will be an impact on our bird population. Britain's 23,000 species of insects are their bread and butter and the consequences of a decline have serious implications.”

Should we be initiating a similar count here in New Zealand?

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Credo

High summer and everything intent upon breeding and increasing their numbers. Bugs everywhere! The "summer" flies are intent upon taking the food before it reaches my mouth. The Mason wasps, mud daubers, are loudly building their nests, not only under chairs but also in the folds of the drapes, while spiders threaten to totally envelop the cottage with their webs.
In the evening, if I dare to leave the windows open, I am bombarded by moths and click beetles and bugged by Huhu beetles. Raucous cicadas rudely awaken me in the morning while white butterfly caterpillars chomp their way through the cabbages.

But then there are the gorgeous and the exotic creatures which stop me in my tracks and dissipate any hostility towards the pestiferous. They send me off to the books to try and make an identification.

Gorgeous steely blue lady birds which I can always find in the lime tree. A tiny native bee in the hay paddocks which I have yet to identify and a strange creature I always find on the Corokia shrubs. Green and yellow with a touch of white and with two "horns", at first glance it looks like a beetle but when disturbed it reveals itself to be a spider. I'm still working on finding out just who it is.

The wisteria vine is utterly infested with another strange creature which I have actually managed to identify as the larvae of an Australian green plant hopper. They bear a tuft of whitish hairs at the end of their bodies and jump a considerable distance when disturbed.
Why this desire, this compunction, a friend has asked, to name things, to identify them?
To show respect, is my response.

How many species are there in the world today? Most estimates fall between ten and 100 million. It is indeed remarkable that we in this modern world obsessed with measuring things, do not know to within an order of magnitude how many species we share the globe with, says Richard Leakey in his book The Sixth Extinction.

We have a good estimate of how many stars are in our galaxy. We know how many nucleotide bases constitute the human genetic blueprint and we can calculate to within a few hours when a comet will collide with Jupiter yet we cannot put a secure number on current species diversity. It is not through lack of knowing but through a lack of commitment. Governments have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the systematic study of stars but only a tiny fraction of that sum on the systematic study of nature here on Earth.

Of the estimates of ten to 100 million species that may exist on this planet only about 1.4 million have been recorded and identified. Even here in New Zealand the vast majority of species are unnamed and unknown. However, if we did make the commitment to "aim at nothing less than a full count, a complete catalogue of life on earth", as Edward O Wilson urges, we would fail, as species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate. It is estimated that half the species will become extinct by the middle this century.

However, there have been at least five occasions in the very long history of the planet when nearly two thirds of its living creatures disappeared from the face of the earth. The end-Permian extinction, 225 million years ago, extirpated more than 95 per cent of marine animal species and almost as many on land. Virtually all scientists who are studying biological diversity agree that we are now in the midst of the sixth great crisis, this time precipitated entirely by man, Homo sapiens.

The sad fact of our history is that no matter where we have gone, destruction and extinction of species has followed. This is not just a matter of our recent history. When primitive man crossed the Bering Straits into North America, destruction of all the great herbivores in both North and South America followed. The movement of the human species into the Pacific Islands, Australia and New Zealand was also followed by mass extinction of species, in our case the great flightless birds among others. European expansion in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries merely accelerated the process.

With the continuing destruction of habitat in the face of industrial and agricultural expansion, both of which are aspects of continued population growth, the process of species extinction in the twentieth century has accelerated even more, to the point where our own future may well be threatened.

We have a moral duty to know as much as can be known about, "the endless forms most beautiful", as Darwin has said, with which we share this earth. It has become my credo, for once identified, once known and named, one cannot easily deny a creature's existence, cannot so easily destroy them.