Recently I shared several articles to social media about the apparent alarming worldwide decline in insect populations. As a favorite naturalist says, insects are among the “little things that run the world.” I believe that it is within our reach, through collective action, to reverse these declines. Several people have asked me about what they can do, so I’ve developed a list of actions that anyone who owns property can start implementing. Start small, and work your way up!
The bottom line is that we need to give up our cultural infatuation with the monoculture lawn, with its time-sucking commitments and heavy reliance on fossil fuel inputs, from two-stroke engine lawn maintenance equipment (the single largest source of air-polluting volatile organic compounds and ozone) to chemical treatments. We must begin the transition to natural landscaping, and rekindle a lost love affair with native plants.
I also think this is the most important single environmental message I can offer to average citizens like you and me. Help me spread the message; let’s make it go viral!
Many of the actions I’ve listed are directly inspired by Douglas Tallamy’s work on native plants and bird breeding success. Check out Dr. Tallamy’s inspirational book, Bringing Nature Home. These actions are a distillation of several other posts I’ve shared over the last few years. Remember that helping insects helps not only birds, but the entire regional food web, and all the free ecosystem services that web delivers (food production for the ecosystem, pollination, recycling, etc.).
Thirteen actions to help insect populations:
- When landscaping your yard or business, choose a variety of plants native to your ecoregion. To find out good candidates for birds, which need caterpillars to feed their nestlings, enter your zip code here.
- To find good candidates for pollinators, find your ecoregion and download the list here.
- Find nurseries in your ecoregion that offer (or ship) the plants you want here.
- Use the plants you have selected in planned new plantings.
- Gradually replace non-native ornamentals with the plants above, which can be just as beautiful, if not more so. A well-planned native plant landscape can be stunningly attractive. (Note: It’s OK to keep some exotic ornamentals as feature specimens, but they shouldn’t dominate our home and business landscapes).
- Target nonnative invasive plants (those that spread beyond your yard, e.g. Bradford pear, privet), and those with demonstrated negative impacts on wildlife (e.g. Nandina or Heavenly Bamboo, whose toxic berries kill birds) for swift elimination.
- Begin to look at bug-eaten leaves and stems as a sign of ecological success, not 4-alarm invasion requiring pesticides. You’re now feeding the ecosystem, not propping up a “plastic” landscape. This leads to another VERY important action:
- Eliminate the use of pesticides. You don’t need them! Example: those “unsightly” webs of tent caterpillars on your cherry tree feed yellow-billed cuckoos and other birds, and will not harm the tree.
- Gradually reduce the areal coverage of grass lawn to areas where it’s really desirable (walking paths, lawn games, BBQ/family and friends gathering areas).
- Leave a significant portion of autumn leaves and duff unraked. This practice promotes litter arthropods, provides overwintering pupation sites, and supports a different food web, including ground-feeding birds.
- Take pride in your work! Get acknowledgement of your efforts. Take the Pollinator Protection Pledge and get a sign for your new habitat from the Xerces Society and/or the National Wildlife Federation.
- Take time to enjoy your new home habitat, and all the wonder and surprise it provides in terms of plant, insect, and other wildlife diversity. Bring out a coffee in the morning, or cold beverage in the evening, into your yard. Share your findings with family and friends, and your photos to social media.
- And finally, the biggest goal of all, which I stated at the start: Change the culture, which fetishizes the “American lawn”: A boring, monocultured, chemically-subsidized, leisure-time-destroying ecological wasteland that we mistakenly think signals virtue, but is in fact an environmental blight. A biodiverse home- or business-scape must now begin to replace that culture, and signal our growing environmental enlightenment as a society.
Yes, I realize these goals will not happen overnight. With apologies to H. W. Longfellow and Sextus Empiricus: The mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding fine. Let’s get to it!