This summer one of my arachnophile friends, Frank Allen, of Waterboro, and I were stumping around in the woods of Washington County comparing backyard naturalist notes. The woods, we agreed, going purely on personal observation, are changing.

“There are fewer insects in the woods,” Frank went on record as saying of his neighborhood in southern Maine, “and the ones that are in the woods are later in the year from normal. I’ve talked about it with local loggers and trappers, one being my neighbor, and they agree.”

Our fellow spidercatcher Donne Sinderson, a Master Naturalist from Bangor with a better grip on scientific method than we have, declined to go out on a limb and make an observation for the record. Scientifically wise, she is. Extrapolating generalities from collections of unsystematic recollections is unreliable.

Still, I’m uneasy.

My old friend Phil Poirier, of Farmington, who has guided Maine woods expeditions for decades, also says changes are afoot.

One weekend this past October, he told me, while doing some volunteer work on the Appalachian Trail, “we had a work crew moving a bridge near Grand Falls. Temps were in the 50s. Normally, you might see a few straggler black flies out with a warmup. Ones that wouldn’t bite. But these (October) days they were as thick as I’d seen them in years. They were quite literally being inhaled if you were mouth-breathing. Even members of the paid trail crew were wearing headnets. … They said that (in 2017), the black flies never went away. There was no break. Usually you get the month or so in mid-May into June where they can be bad. … Not last year.”


Again, one swarm of October black flies in no way implies a pattern, any more than this winter’s deep freeze undoes global warming. But let me add a little more to chew on.

For one thing, there’s the boom in recent years of deer ticks, which carry Lyme disease, the number of diagnosed cases of which has exploded. Warming climatic conditions in the Northeast, especially rising humidity, are strongly suspected to be facilitating changes in tick populations.

For another thing, there’s the condition of my car when I drive through the Unity Township wetlands on spring evenings. There were trips to Waterville in the 1980s and ’90s when the windshield would be coated with insect juice and body parts. Coated. Bonnie used to marvel at how bug-unlucky you had to be to hit a car antenna, given how thin the antenna is and how much three-dimensional space there is in the bog. The antenna, however, would be plastered.

In recent springs, that same drive yields a few splatters, but not much more than the windshield washer can erase.

For a third thing, there are the dragonflies. Ten years ago, dozens of dragonflies patrolled our backyard from dawn to dusk, June to September, clearing the air of midges, flies and other downright pests. But for the last four or five summers, their numbers have been scant. This past summer you could go a whole afternoon without seeing one.

The same dragonfly — and damselfly — decline has happened in the Unity park. My unscientific observation is that I used to see Halloween pennants, among others, copiously in the reed canary grass near the basketball courts. Three or four years ago, I seemed to be noticing fewer (and remarked on it offhandedly). This past summer I saw no more than one or two.


Still, these are anecdotal observations. The kind Donne declined to make. Is it me, or is it the woods?

All I can say is, we are not alone. In November 2007, Tony Roberts, a contributor to wildlife studies in Down East Maine, wrote in The Maine Entomologist, the newsletter of the Maine Entomological Society, that “2007 marked a virtual COLLAPSE of the insect population in Steuben. It was hard to get a black fly or a mosquito bite here. Moths, my own specialty, were all but nonexistent, and other orders seemed similarly thin. Insectivorous creatures responded in kind. Phoebes and swallows showed up in the spring as usual but promptly moved on. I never saw a bat on the wing. … Odonates were almost absent. … The fact is that numbers both of species and individuals of moths have been declining here for two decades. And for two decades, I have been temporizing with a series of improvised excuses to account for the shortfalls.”

Uneasier and uneasier, to paraphrase Lewis Carroll.

This fall, researchers in Germany reported that a study of protected German nature areas showed a decline in average airborne insect biomass of 76 percent between 1989 and 2016. “Our results demonstrate,” the researchers wrote, “that recently reported declines in several taxa such as butterflies, wild bees and moths, are in parallel with a severe loss of total aerial insect biomass, suggesting that it is not only the vulnerable species, but the flying insect community as a whole, that has been decimated over the last few decades.”

What is causing this? “Climate change, habitat loss and fragmentation, and deterioration of habitat quality” are suspected, the researchers say.

The problem is not just a curiosity. “Insects,” they wrote, “play a central role in … pollination, … nutrient cycling, and providing a food source for … birds, mammals and amphibians. For example, 80% of wild plants are estimated to depend on insects for pollination, while 60% of birds rely on insects as a food source. The ecosystem services provided by wild insects have been estimated at $57 billion annually in the USA.”


Could an insect crash be happening in Maine, too? Maine Forest Service entomologist and Maine Entomological Society President Charlene Donahue, citing the “shocking” results of the German study, thinks we should try to find out. She put out a call in the November 2017 issue of The Maine Entomologist for a statewide project to inventory our insect populations. In other words, to make a study, and not just speculate and get uneasy.

“I will not conceal from you my own suspicion,” Roberts wrote in 2007, “that we may be coming to the end of the long postglacial period during which our strip of coastal land has constituted an outlying relict of the boreal ecosystem of the Canadian zone. A few degree days of extra warming, and the seemingly benign extension of our short summer season by some weeks at either end, may have crossed a line beyond which our fragile ‘northern’ species mix can no longer subsist at these latitudes.”

Is this where the dragonflies went?

Meanwhile, ecologists tell us Earth’s sixth mass extinction of plant and animal life is underway right now. Maybe I’m going out on a limb. But these do not look like normal ecological changes.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected] His recent book is “Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods” available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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