Fifty Years Ago, Cockchafers Belonged to Spring…

“The Cockchafer, Part 2”
(In case you missed it, read part 1, Insect Profile: The Cockchafer here!

We met Ernst-Gerhard Burmeister at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology where he has dedicated most of his professional life to the amazing collection of over 25 million zoological specimens, one of the largest natural history collections in the world. The collection owns more than 100 000 of the approximately 500 000 species of beetles (Coleoptera) in the world. He has been an active defender of the zoological collection in political committees and has advised the region of Bavaria on issues of biodiversity. He has also traveled extensively, following mayfly swarms (Palingenia longicauda) in Hungary, and exploring the fauna of the Amazon at the border between Peru and Bolivia. When he spoke to us about his experience of insect loss, however, he returned to the calm of the sunny conference room…

The first time I experienced that sudden feeling of loss was about 20 years ago when I could not find any cockchafers in my garden in May. I used to collect them every year for my daughter’s birthday until she was 30 years old. She was born in May and it became a tradition between the two of us that she loved. When she was small, it had been absolutely no problem to find cockchafers in the garden; but then we began to see fewer and fewer of them until, finally, I had to collect them from somewhere else. Fifty years ago cockchafers belonged to spring. It was the creature that reminded us that nature was awakening. But people live so differently nowadays that they don’t even realize the loss. Who still goes for a walk on a calm May night and observes the cockchafers buzzing around the streetlights? Who realizes what the type of agriculture we are practicing does to insects?

The use of potent agro-chemical continues unabated. DDT, the chemical Rachel Carson campaigned against so vigorously in 1962, is still permitted in 21 countries in the world. In France, researchers studying the layers of sediment in Lake Saint André in Savoie found the greatest concentration of DDT in sediments dating from the 1990s—that’s 20 years after DDT was banned in France. Neonicotinoids, the world’s most used pesticides, are far more toxic than DDT and have a half-life of up to 20 years in the soil. This means half of all neonicotinoids in the soil are still there 20 years later—and since their use is not forbidden, they have only been accumulating. We see traces of them in wildflowers and future crops.

Neonicotinoids are particularly harmful to many insects and act as nerve agents. Eleven thousand bee swarms have already died from toxic exposure in the Rheinland. While toxicology studies last only two to three days, the consequences of pesticide use affect insects for years. They don’t just fall dead from a stem: they lose their orientation, don’t feed properly any more, lose their capacity to reproduce, and are less resistant to disease and parasites. But if you argue with the chemical industry or farmers, many just laugh their heads off when confronted with your observations of loss and the absence of insects. Only hard data counts. This is why it was so important that the entomologists in Krefeld documented the decrease in the biomass of insects over 25 years. In one site, the biomass of insects collected over one year in 1989 was 1,6 kilograms, compared to only 300 grams of insects left in 2013.

Our nature protection laws don’t do enough to shed light on the issue of insect loss. At most, they suggest that it is important not to disturb animals in their natural environment. While those who love and know nature—and in particular insects—try to interfere with nature as little as possible, other groups continue to do whatever they please: practicing chemical intensive agriculture, or paving over soil. In Bavaria, insect habitats continue to be destroyed. Bavaria is the only federal state in Germany where farmers are not expected to establish a protective agricultural border between farmland and bodies of water.

A strip of wild flowers along a farm track at Langley Park. Photo © Des Blenkinsopp, licensed for reuse (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Geograph.

Although farmers are encouraged to plant strips of meadow flowers between cornfields and the road—called “Akzeptanzstreifen”
(acceptance strips) in German—their main purpose seems to be to make people more accepting of monocultures. These strips do not help insects much; most of them are mowed just when the insects have laid their eggs. It seems that the authorities are more interested in drawing attention to insects by growing and maintaining entomology collections in institutions, rather than by nurturing actual living insects. However, we can only speak with authority against the practices that kill insects if we are able to document what types of insects exist, and where and how they live. We need to learn to pay attention to insects again.

When I was a toddler I was fascinated by everything that crept and fluttered. My father was the son of a forest ranger and he understood my fascination with the natural world, that I needed to touch things in order to understand them. Contrary to other kids my age, and especially the kids today, I was allowed to keep bugs in boxes, dig up maggots, and play in forest swamps. I used all my senses, had to touch everything to examine it, test it and try it out. I liked bugs with stable chitinous armor that were not easily damaged by my handling them. When I became a biology student, I specialized in insects and became fascinated with their capacity to identify and follow smells. Did you know that ants can distinguish left-handed sugar molecules from right-handed ones? It took humans two hundred years to figure that out.

Goliath beetle. Photo by Skyscraper [CC BY 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons.

There is so much to discover. Parents and schoolteachers should let their kids get close to insects and share knowledge about them. If a child knows something, they lose their fear of it, their timidity. They constantly discover new things and learn from them: “Oh these butterfly wings have soft scales, I’d better not touch them.” It is our alienation from insects, being out of touch with them, that makes people in Germany not realize that insects are disappearing.

When I was in East Africa, in Irangi Kenya, the people had names for all kinds of insects and could distinguish them according to their use: as natural predators, as food. I would describe an insect to children there and they would fetch it for me. They knew what kinds of rotten fruit attracted them. Like me when I was small, they played with bugs. I remember they had a giant bug—we called it a Goliath beetle (Goliathus). They would tie it to a string and have it fly around them like a helicopter; and when it got tired, they would let it go.

Here in Germany people think they can lead a sterile life: everything has to be washable. Any apple with a worm in it gets rejected. Everything has to be flawless. They don’t want to share their habitat with small creatures, to feel revulsion because something else is living with them—especially if that something is a creature scuttling out of sight, like a silverfish (Lepisma saccharina) or cockroach (insect of the order Blattodea). If you switch on the light and see something disappear under the cupboard…Uhhh!

Silverfish belong in the bathroom. They are useful there. They eat the algae from the joints of bathroom tiles. Cockroaches rid the kitchen of discarded food where fungi and bacteria might otherwise settle. Kids are not by nature afraid of spiders. Although, even my grandchildren cry when they come to my house: “Uhhh there is a vibrating spider (Pholcida, or cellar spider) up there!” But at least they know it by name.

Illustration of silverfish (Lepisma saccharinae) taken from Brehm et al., Brehms Tierleben : allgemeine Kunde des Tierreichs (Wien: Bibliographisches Institut, 1890), 696. Image via Flickr (Public domain).

We have a lot of work ahead of us to counter this tendency. Most of the initiatives to help insects are still limited and voluntary. It is generally private nature protection associations (Naturschutzverbände) that offer courses and excursions for those interested in rediscovering and reconnecting with insects, when the state and the official school system should really be the ones driving these actions. Nevertheless, such initiatives have been quite successful in encouraging the public to engage with their environment: In big supermarkets that sell gardening supplies, glyphosate has been taken off the shelves because of pressure exerted by the customers (although farmers do of course still use large amounts of it on their fields). Hobby gardeners have turned away from fragrance-free flowers and are asking for aromatic plants that will attract insects. Nature protection associations have also encouraged their members to abandon uniform mowed lawns. As a result, we’re now seeing some of the 540 species of solitary bees and bee colonies returning to pollinate flowers and blossoms. These are small beams of hope indeed.

*(Featured image by dbgg1979 [CC By 2.0], via Flickr)

2 Comments on “Fifty Years Ago, Cockchafers Belonged to Spring…

  1. Pingback: Sphex ichneumoneus | Backyard and Beyond

  2. Pingback: #EnvHist Worth Reading: June and July 2018 – NiCHE

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