Stella the marbled orbweaver setting up her shop on the kitchen door. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Woellner

Earlier this year a scientific study called the disappearance of insects over the past few decades “alarming.” Not to be outdone in the field of pessimism, I went along with it because my own unscientific observations, the anecdotes of friends, and stories in the news media seem to corroborate there’s a serious problem with disappearing wildlife. It is generally agreed in the sciences that a mass extinction event is under way on Earth, and humans are a direct cause of it.

Some biological scientists, however, criticized the “alarming” study. They have three basic objections. One is that the original researchers and the news media overdramatized the findings beyond what the study’s results warrant. Another, more technical objection, is that the study’s methods were flawed. But the main objection is that the original study lacked data. There is in general a huge lack of data on insects; by some estimates, there are 7 million species of arthropods (basically, invertebrate animals), 80% of which are undiscovered, and information on the known 20% is spotty.

This doesn’t mean nothing is known about insects. A lot is known — it’s just that a huge amount is unstudied. But based on the facts they do have, the scientists are confident that something on the order of disastrous is going on with life on Earth, the full extent and implications not yet clear.

All this is happening, more or less. So I’ll just add my own anecdotal report to the lack of clarity.

In our backyard this summer, we saw overall more bugs than in recent years. Especially dragonflies. It’s not that they returned in the droves that used to patrol all day and summer evening before about five or six years ago. But this year one or two white-tails were seen pretty much every day from July through September, and a few times whole squadrons were clearing the air, some of them iridescent greens and blues.

In the way of pests, the May-June invasion of black flies and mosquitoes this year seemed massive. As I’ve said before, I am of two minds on phenomena like this. On the one hand, it’s good to see living things thrive. On the other hand, I wish the little bastards would die. My 2-year-old grandson Silas and I had to limit our excursions to the brook until mid-July because of them. Deer fly and horsefly populations, normally thick in the July driveway were negligible in number, as were houseflies and syrphid flies, some of which look like yellow jackets who along with wasps were also scarce. They were all made up for, though, by some kind of tiny gnat-like devil never noticed before hereabouts. Whatever they are, they left nasty, slow-swelling bites that itched for days, even after application of our special green lotion bought in Shanghai, where the mosquitoes are thought to be a hybrid offspring of Alien and Predator.

And of course there were ticks. We checked Silas carefully, and pulled three others out of our own bodies, using a tick remover supplied by a thoughtful nurse.

I had about an average number of beetles sightings, some of them lustily copulating on rose petals, most unidentifiable to my innocent coleopteran eye. I saw no Japanese beetle orgies in the brush this summer. No idea what to make of their recent absence. We did see two or three ladybugs, the first in some years. Populations of some species of ladybugs, or lady beetles, have been plummeting in recent years, so it was encouraging to see even a handful of these mite- and aphid-eaters.

We saw a few extra moths this summer, not a lot more, but including the first luna moth we’ve seen in years. Butterflies made about their average appearance — Canadian tiger swallowtails early in the summer, here and there a mourning cloak, some checkerspots in the asters, viceroys in the park, and any given afternoon a flutter of white admirals up and down the driveway.

The ants, of course, are undeterred by anything, and as usual there were all kinds of ubiquitous. If they had nuclear weapons, E.O. Wilson once observed, they would destroy the Earth in two weeks.

I do everything I can to protect the spiders. This summer they seemed to number about the same as usual, fairly abundant. Thin-legged wolf spiders, for example, darting around the driveway and flower garden. A large, beautiful Schizocosa genus wolf spider at the foot of the wood pile. House spiders seemed particularly numerous in and outside the house, and so were the furrow spiders at the park. In July a big fat marbled orbweaver, of the mottled form, set up shop underneath a hanging flower pot and is still there. Another one, more conventionally orange colored, has been living in the back door frame since late August. Bonnie named her Stella. A juvenile nursery web spider was patrolling a curtain, hopefully hunting those biting gnats. I found numerous trashline spiders and nordmanni orbweavers in their face-height webs spun up between trees in the woods.

Spiders are a tough bunch, ecologically speaking, because most of them are generalist predators; if one food source diminishes, they turn to others. But even some of them have problems. A recent 18-year study in Greenland revealed population declines in several species of high arctic spiders “in response to rising temperatures and snow depth dynamics … No species increased in abundance through the study period.”

So it goes. In Greenland. And Troy. And Dresden.

 

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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