Insects as Inspiration

As part of the series “Silent Spring Continued: A World without Insects,” guest author Jan Goedbloed shares with us how he developed a deep interest in invertebrates and reflects on how insects continue to inspire him in life, work, and beyond.
*Featured image: Chaoborus pallidus, a phantom midge in the family Chaoboridae. Copyright Jan Goedbloed.

By Jan Goedbloed

My name is Jan, I am now 67 years old. I studied biology between 1969 and 1976, and then could not find a job. I helped start a bird hospital, and then worked as an educational assistant in a natural history museum where I tried to incorporate nature meditation. Later I worked in building until I got back problems, and resumed working for the same company, but in the office. It drove me almost crazy. Later, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease. After that, I did odd jobs like chauffeuring for people with physical and developmental disabilities. I also worked editorially for several regional publications: a dragonfly atlas, a bird paper, and a butterfly and dragonfly paper. Together with a friend, I spent some time doing ecological research and consulting. I have been retired now for a year, but I am still studying nature.

As is the case with many nature lovers, I started out watching birds. Then, at the age of 14, I became a member of a youth organization for nature enthusiasts, also active in the field of hydrobiology. One day, as we were walking along a brook (and, luckily, I was carrying my net), a beautiful, iridescent green dragonfly came over the water towards us—in an automatic reflex, I waved the net and caught it. It was a brilliant emerald, Somatochlora metallica, and when I looked into the depth of its eyes, I was enthralled, and hooked forever.

Since that moment, I began to observe dragonflies (Odonata), hoverflies (Syrphidae), and butterflies (Lepidoptera) with an increased fascination. Later in life, I holidayed with my family every year in Luberon in the Provence, France. This opened my eyes to an even more exuberant insect world than that of my home country, the Netherlands. There I saw unexpected variation and colour in jewel beetles, Buprestidae; the crazy asexually reproducing grasshopper Saga pedo; and the ferocious Tarantula Lycosa tarantula (a wolf spider, so not actually an insect). I got more and more enthralled by the elegance of ichneumon wasps Ichneumonidae, the clumsiness of crane flies Tipulidae, the sturdiness of longhorn beetles Cerambycidae, the stealth of robber flies Asilidae

Saga pedo, the Spiked magician, a long-horned grasshopper or bush cricket in the family Tettigoniidae. Copyright Jan Goedbloed.

When asked about which might be my favorite insect, I find it hard to choose between all of these weird and wonderful expressions of the evolving universe! Mostly, I would tend to choose the subject of my latest infatuation, so in this case the very elegantly built ichneumonoid Polytribax arrogans, with its black thorax, bright red abdomen, and red and black legs adorned with white hind tarsi. I must also admit to having a soft spot for my childhood love: the Gerridae—the pond skaters and water striders—also called the Jesus bugs because they walk on (the surface tension of) water.

Although I have no data to prove it, I have witnessed insect declines in our countryside. The wall brown butterfly, Lasiommata megera, is disappearing in Holland at an alarming rate, and nobody really knows why. Mowing strategies and climate change may play a part, but my guess is that some creatures are more vulnerable than others to widely used neonicitinoid insecticides. It is the same with birds—the European turtle dove, Streptopelia turtur, for instance, is also disappearing fast. On 4 September 2009, I witnessed 35 of them foraging in a field that was recently sown, possibly with seed coated with insecticide. Such a situation could very well have negative impacts on their reproductive biology or behavior, and even their survival.

The disappearance of insect species is a process that has been going on for years, for generations. I have never seen Cockchafers Melolontha melolontha in the part of Holland that I live in, yet my mother told me that she used to play with them in her childhood, tying them to a string and letting them fly in circles, just as Ernst-Gerhard Burmeister describes with goliath beetles in a previous post in this series. New investigations into biodiversity and biomass loss are useful, but can never give a true or tangible indication of the loss that nature has suffered in the last centuries. We simply don’t have a clue about the abundance of insect species in different periods in the past. An example of historical works that can be read for clues about species in the past is that of naturalist Johannes Goedaert (1617–1668), who was the first person to write about and make paintings of the metamorphosis of insects. One of these was the large tortoiseshell butterfly, Nymphalis polychloros, of which he made excellent paintings of the adult, chrysalis, and caterpillar (and even its parasitic wasps). He must have collected these in or very near to his and my own hometown, Middelburg. This species was actually considered extinct in Holland, although recently, after some invasions, a reproducing population has again been discovered.

Purpuricenus budensis, a longhorn beetle in the family Cerambycidae. Copyright Jan Goedbloed.

We humans are certainly very capable of exterminating individual species of plants and animals, as well as local habitats, but, as we see with the case of the large tortoiseshell, I think the ecosystem of the planet is still incredibly resilient. In the worst-case scenario, we will put so much pressure on the earth’s ecosystems that we make it hard for ourselves to survive. I believe there are enough possible mitigation measures out there to soften our impacts on nature, giving it time to renew itself and to sustain us, but what I do not see is the necessary initiative, from individuals or world governments, to tackle the problem head-on and in time. One of the biggest hurdles will be mustering the political drive towards unfamiliar reforms to implement conservation strategies—something that, within our current democracies and material cultures, does not seem all that likely.

In early summer, I participated in an inventory of the insects residing in a recreational park threatened by local authorities who want to build on it. Only by demonstrating (with hard figures) that such habitats are vital to many species, can we attempt to protect them. Yet, if local populations and entire species are already suffering from anthropogenic activity—if they have already disappeared—how can we prove just how vital the land is? I found just 25 species, which was very disappointing. Probably it will be better when more flowers come into bloom. I can only hope that, by sharing our own stories and experiences, not just our data, we can continue to inspire the passion, creativity, and innovation needed to act on species loss.

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