She’s been reading in bed, beside me. When I wake up, my wife turns toward me and whispers, “We’re so screwed.”
It’s probably politics she’s reading about. Possibly the environment. I pull myself out of bed, tell her okay, but let’s have coffee first.
Does it come with age, this habit of greeting the new day with prognostications of disintegration and doom? I remember a comic on the Ed Sullivan show who made a joke about his wife’s obsession with obituaries. They lived in New York City. Every morning she read obits in the newspaper, opened the phone book, and crossed out the names of the departed. That was ordinary morbidity. As in: Of course, we’re all screwed, now let’s see whose turn it was yesterday.
These days it seems like we’re even more all screwed, and more than theoretically so. If you read the news, we are prematurely, pre-emptorially, collectively teetering-on-the-edge-of-extinction all screwed.
“Bugs,” she says when she comes downstairs, iPad under her arm. “They say a great die-off is coming. Just think.”
I’ve read about the bugs. “You shouldn’t take that thing to bed with you,” I say.
“I wake up.”
“And read the news.”
“It keeps you up.”
I open the steam jet to froth milk for her cappuccino. She’s saying something I cannot hear, powering up her iPad, shaking her head.
“It’s a matter of sleep ecology,” I tell her. “Experts say quit devices an hour before bed. And no devices in bed.”
Bed is for sleep and for sex. That’s it. I read that somewhere.
For a long time I worried about frogs, then the rain forests, then the coral reefs and bees. Even bats. But never bugs. I always figured that they would inherit the earth, that all the bug bomb and insecticide would only make them mutate into stronger, more resilient creatures. When the canaries in the coal mines went silent and it was curtains for us humans, the bugs, nature’s Darwinian superpowers, would continue to buzz. They would prevail.
But I have to wonder. There does seem to be a dearth of bugs of late. When I was a kid, every summer we spent a few weeks on a lake in northern Michigan, Lake Missaukee. Just the name hearkens to a time of innocence and balance between man and nature. On the drive up there, which took ninety minutes, you heard the continuous tick, smack, and splat of insects against the windshield. Forty-five minutes up the road, by the time we got to Harrison, if it started to rain and my father turned on wipers, a yellow buggy smear of legs and wings, of eyes and innards could make it impossible to see. One bad day he had to pull off on the shoulder and scrub the mess so he could see the road.
A few years later, when I pumped gas at his service station, all summer I washed windshields plastered with splattered bug remains. It was man against nature, and the bugs, even though they were dead, tiny bits of them under your fingernails, clogging your sponge, and clinging to your squeegee, seemed to be winning.
These days, well into the self-serve era, I pump my own gas and can usually pass on the windshield. Last summer I drove to Chicago and back, in August. Six hundred miles. Two tanks of gas. One, two, okay three or four bug fatalities in evidence on the windshield. That’s all.
Here’s something you don’t want to read in bed: “Climate-driven declines in arthropod abundance restructure a rainforest food web,” from the PNAS Journal (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America). Authors Bradford C. Lister and Andres Garcia report evidence of the insect die-off and “synchronous declines in the lizards, frogs, and birds that eat arthropods.” Studies suggest that bug biomass in the Puerto Rico Luquillo rainforest is way down. Rainforest life, it appears, is beginning to die from the bottom up.
In addition to the effects of rising temperatures on bug health, habitat loss and pesticides are playing a role. According to Phys/Org, a publication of Technical University Munich, “Over time and with the further deterioration of habitats as well as the collapse of entire habitat networks, the threat to widespread, ‘undemanding’ species also increases.” By “undemanding” I assume they mean not exotic creatures of the rainforest but the more quotidian species, bugs that are your friends and neighbors: flies, mosquitos, earwigs, ants. They too could be threatened.
In my lifetime, we haven’t exactly tried to work with them. In our homes and backyards we threaten insects on a regular basis with sprays and powders, repellents and poisons with decidedly unfriendly names like Raid, Bite Back, Combat, Hunter Edge, Rambo, Mad Fight, Hell Gate, Tornado, Vortex, Master Attack, and (my personal favorite) Repellitor.
Then there are the industrial-strength killers–195 of them listed in the New England Vegetable Management Guide–some with names that overtly declare war on nature: Ambush, Assail, Besiege, Brigade, Capture, Defcon, Hatchet. Other names suggest agro-chemical companies may have consulted their public relations departments: Advise, Entrust, Esteem, Fulfill, Respect, Seduce.
How will we protect bugs from ourselves? If life on the planet is dying from the bottom up, wouldn’t we also be protecting ourselves from ourselves?
In the news today residents of Toledo, Ohio, are engaged in a movement that would grant legal rights to Lake Erie. If a corporation can be regarded as a legal entity, why not a lake? The problem is algae blooms. (Blooms, a floral term with pleasant connotations, seems like an unfortunate word choice. Algae bombs might be better.) For years now, the lake, which provides drinking water for 11 million people and is integral to the economy of four states, has been plagued by rapid growth of algae, stimulated by fertilizer run-off.
Science Daily describes the calamity: “As more algae and plants grow, others die. This dead organic matter becomes food for bacteria that decompose it. With more food available, the bacteria increase in number and use up the dissolved oxygen in the water. When the dissolved oxygen content decreases, many fish and aquatic insects cannot survive. This results in a dead area.”
Dead water with dead stuff in it, no surprise, is deadly to drink.
Existing laws do not adequately protect nature. Maybe it would help to give nature rights. There are precedents. In 2006 Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania, residents approved a rights-of-nature ordinance to curtail dumping of chemicals and sewage in open-pit mines. In nearby Pittsburgh, a rights-of-nature law limits fracking. Minnesota Ojibwe would like to extend rights to wild rice, “the right to pure water,” in particular. In 1972, in Sierra Club v. Morton, the issue of nature having rights went to the Supreme Court. The Court said no. But in his dissenting opinion Justice William O. Douglas wrote that concerns about “ecological equilibrium” could lead to “the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.”
Should bugs have rights? Should we issue them green cards for our own good? What if they sue us?
Bug die-off science, some scientists argue, is inconclusive. It’s apocalypse not. Or maybe. How reliable is the data? How representative? Worldwide, around a million bug species have been identified; it’s likely there are millions more. Studies of bug populations that have been done focused on limited geographical areas. Writing for The Atlantic Monthly, Ed Yong reports, “This spotty geographical spread makes it hard to know if insects are disappearing from some areas but recovering or surging in others.”
I know what I know: I don’t see dead bugs on my windshield. But does that mean there’s a die-off?
I know what I know: The weather in my town will be unseasonably cold next week, way below zero, and it’s been snowing. Does that mean global warming in a hoax?
What’s a fly-swatter to do? How to think about bugs and us and our shared future?
Recently scientists found a female Watson’s giant bee (as long as an adult thumb) inside a tree in the Philippines, thought to be extinct for 38 years. Maybe giant bees will make a comeback.
Giant bugs, too.
One night a couple summers ago I was out in the backyard, at the barbecue. Still an omnivore, I was grilling plant matter and animal flesh for dinner. Turning to go inside the house for a drink of wine, I saw it, clinging to the cedar frame around a screen on the porch. It was a long brown bug, a good four inches long, three quarters of an inch wide. It had wings and buggy eyes (naturally).
I opened the door, said to my wife, “You better come and see this.”
“You’re not going to believe it.”
She came out back and we stood together, at a distance from it, wondering.
“Big,” she said.
“It looks like an aircraft carrier,” I said, “from outer space.”
I finished at the grill. It was still there. We ate, then washed dishes. It was still there. Later on, I went out with a flashlight. Still there, by itself. Big. My wife said, “I’ll call Joann.”
In a few minutes our friend Joann the naturalist came to the door in her pajamas. Bug books under her arm. She works the school nature center, which means she talks to you like you’re a sixth grader. We walked through the house, out the back door onto the porch. She set her books down on the table.
I handed her the flashlight. She put on her glasses and looked.
“Oh my,” she said. “Thank you so much for calling me.”
I told her it didn’t seem like a good idea, her driving around in her pajamas. My wife rolled her eyes.
“Well I was in bed,” Joann said. “But I had to come. She’ll be gone in the morning.”
Both of us: “She?”
“She, yes. Notice the antenae. And notice her slightly distended abdomen.” She tilted her head, drew close to the thing, a few inches away. “I’d say this is a polyphemus moth. She’s sending out a powerful scent right now. Males of the species will detect it and come to her. They’ll mate. In the morning she’ll be gone.”
This scent she was sending out, I pictured it, for some reason, as searchlights or laser beams boring into the night. “It’s not going to eat the wood on the house,” I said.
“It doesn’t eat,” she said. “The caterpillar eats. This moth procreates, then it dies.”
Sure enough, next morning it was gone.
It was a monster, full of the desire to live, hard-wired to survive, like all living things. I wished them well.