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Scientists fear non-pest insects in decline

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OXFORD, Pa.—A staple of summer—swarms of bugs—seems to be a thing of the past.

And that's got scientists worried.

Pesky mosquitoes, disease-carrying ticks, crop-munching aphids, and cockroaches are doing just fine. But the more beneficial flying insects of summer—native bees, moths, butterflies, ladybugs, lovebugs, mayflies, and fireflies—appear to be less abundant.

Scientists think something is amiss but they can't be certain. In the past, they didn't systematically count the population of flying insects so they can't make a proper comparison to today.

Nevertheless, they're pretty sure across the globe there are fewer insects that are crucial to as much as 80 percent of what we eat.

Yes, some insects are pests. But they also pollinate plants, are a key link in the food chain, and help decompose life.

“You have total ecosystem collapse if you lose your insects. How much worse can it get than that?” said University of Delaware entomologist Doug Tallamy.

“If they disappeared, the world would start to rot,” he warned.

He noted Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson once called bugs: “The little things that run the world.”

The 89-year-old Wilson recalled he once frolicked in a “Washington alive with insects, especially butterflies.”

Now, “the flying insects are virtually gone.”

It hit home last year when he drove from suburban Boston to Vermont and decided to count how many bugs hit his windshield. The result: a single moth.

The un-scientific experiment is called the windshield test. Wilson recommends everyday people do it themselves to see.

“Baby-boomers” probably will notice the difference, Tallamy said.

Several scientists have conducted their own tests with windshields, car grilles, and headlights, and most notice few squashed bugs.

Researchers are quick to point out that such exercises aren't good scientific experiments since they don't include control groups or make comparisons with past results (today's cars also are more aerodynamic so bugs are more likely to slip past them and live to buzz about it).

Still, there are signs of decline. Research has shown dwindling individual species in specific places, including lightning bugs, moths, and bumblebees.

One study estimated a 14 percent decline in ladybugs in the U.S. and Canada from 1987-2006.

University of Florida urban entomologist Philip Koehler said he's seen a recent decrease in lovebugs—insects that fly connected and coated Florida's windshields in the 1970s and 1980s.

This year, he said, “was kind of disappointing, I thought.”

University of Nevada, Reno researcher Lee Dyer and his colleagues have been looking at insects at the La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica since 1991.

There's a big insect trap sheet under black light that decades ago would be covered with bugs. Now, “there's no insects on that sheet,” he noted.

But there's not much research looking at all flying insects in big areas.

Last year, a study found an 82 percent mid-summer decline in the number and weight of bugs captured in traps in 63 nature preserves in Germany compared with 27 years earlier.

It was one of the few, if only, broad studies. Scientists say similar comparisons can't be done elsewhere because similar bug counts weren't done decades ago.

“We don't know how much we're losing if we don't know how much we have,” reasoned University of Hawaii entomologist Helen Spafford.

The lack of older data makes it “unclear to what degree we're experiencing an arthropocalypse,” conceded University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum.

Individual studies aren't convincing in themselves, “but the sheer accumulated weight of evidence seems to be shifting” to show a problem, she said.

Most scientists say lots of factors, not just one, caused the apparent decline in flying insects.

Suspects include habitat loss, insecticide use, the killing of native weeds, single-crop agriculture, invasive species, light pollution, highway traffic, and climate change.

“It's death by a thousand cuts, and that's really bad news,” Wagner said.

To Tallamy, two causes stand out: humans' war on weeds and vast farmland planted with the same few crops.

Weeds and native plants are what bugs eat and where they live, Tallamy noted. Milkweeds, crucial to the beautiful monarch butterfly, are dwindling fast.

Manicured lawns in the U.S. are so prevalent that, added together, they are as big as New England, he added.

Those landscapes are “essentially dead zones,” Tallamy said.

Light pollution is another big problem for species such as moths and fireflies, bug experts said.

Insects are attracted to brightness, where they become easy prey and expend energy they should be using to get food, Tallamy noted.

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