Insect Pests? No such thing…

So many wild species struggle to survive in the face of human activity. Serious population declines over the last half century should instill fear in every human heart – we need these wild animals for our own survival.

  • 76% population decline in freshwater species
  • 70% decline in seabird populations
  • 68% loss of common birds in the United States
  • 40% of terrestrial populations lost worldwide
  • 40% worldwide loss in marine species

Humans, by-and-large, disdain insect and arachnid species, either fearing them or labeling them as pests. Reasons are, for the most part, based in ignorance of the value these animals provide. We call these ecosystem services and natural capital, functions rooted in Nature upon which Homo sapiens depend for our own lives.  Some of these, like the water cycle, are obvious to us – although we still foolishly complain when it rains. Also trees often get lots of credit for their oxygen production, however, when allowed to form a forest, trees up the ante on the services and capital we rely upon – erosion and flood control, water purification, lumber and paper products, etc., etc.

Insects, Spiders and other such animal species, however, do not get much credit for anything other than being “pesty”.  When one considers the full web of life, it does not take long to realize that these invertebrates are critical to all life on Earth. I might even risk saying that they are second only to plants in importance, which explains why they vastly outnumber all other animal species.

This 1st and 2nd place rating is no coincidence. Without plants, no animal eats – none of them. All food is based in the plant world – and many, many plants greatly depend upon insects in order to reproduce, be it through direct pollination services or the protection certain invertebrate species provide to plants.  Consider that approximately 75% of flowering plants rely on animal pollinators to reproduce. Of the over 200,000 species of animals who perform pollination services, 99.5% of them are insects, such as beetles, bees, ants, wasps, butterflies, and moths, or spiders.

Clearly we must educate ourselves on these essential animals.  We need them or Homo sapiens becomes extinct.  The factors that threaten invertebrates are far more than just fear and disdain. While we directly target some for annihilation with chemicals, others are being threatened by our use of resources – habitat loss, pollution (air/water/ chemical) and climate change being the top factors.

And our best-loved insects, the Butterflies, are not immune to humans’ insatiable use and misuse of natural resources. A recent study states that the Monarch Butterfly, an icon of Nature’s beauty, may be only 20 years from extinction. Why? Habitat loss in both its Winter and Summering grounds (they Summer and reproduce in Western New York), pesticides, genetically modified crops and climate change are the reasons.

And let’s think about those devaViceroyButterlfy_inHandstating population numbers above.  What is the link to the invertebrate world? Many of these animal populations feed upon invertebrates, be it the adults, larvae and/or eggs. Mosquitoes are a favorite food of both birds and freshwater animals. Is it any wonder there is a rise in Mosquito-borne disease recently? The interconnectivity of Nature is still a mystery and we need to understand these complex relationships as they relate to our own behaviors and use of the natural world.

What can you do to help reverse such trends? Here’s some suggestions:

  • Become knowledgeable about insects and spiders. Learn what services they perform that eventually trickle down to our own survival. And remember, the vast majority of these species pose no harm to you.
  • Put the chemicals and fly-swatters away. First, it is a losing battle – their numbers are too great and many evolve quickly to survive chemical applications. Instead, make sure your screens are tight and intact, turn off lights near windows and doors, use natural repellents (like citronella, cloves and lemon balm).
  • Create wildlife habitat, especially for those native pollinators in peril. All of Nature will benefit – see http://oakmossed.com/garden.php for lots of information on environmentally sound gardening, native plants and our invertebrate friends.

The future of Planet Earth is literally in our hands now. Our actions and failure to act will not only dictate the further existence of wild animals and plants, but our own existence, as well.

Sources:

Upcoming Lecture at ECC South Campus

JohnVolpeLecture_ECCMar2016

Erie Community College South Campus is located at 4140 Southwestern Blvd. in Orchard Park, NY. Email grahamm@ecc.edu with for further information.

Habitat Restoration Series: Native Plant Suggestions for Western New York/Southern Ontario – Part 1

As Spring deepens, thoughts naturally turn to outdoor activities, and for many of us that means gardening. Regardless of the available space (from acres to pots on the front stoop), nearly everyone can help provide wildlife habitat. We’ll help you along the way with some plant species suggestions over the next couple of weeks, beginning with our first entry below. If you are interested in learning more about providing wildlife habitat, come to our lunch-time talk, Creating Wildlife Habitat, at Erie Community College South Campus on April 23rd when we’ll share lots of way to help our wild friends who face diminishing habitat on a daily basis.

Native Plantings for WNY/Southern Ontario – Submission #1 for wet/moist soils:

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata): You might recognize from the Latin that this is a Holly. But unlike its evergreen cousins, Winterberry is a deciduous holly. And although it loses its leaves in Autumn, behind are left bright red berries that remain into early Winter, hence its name. Winterberry is also dioecious (male and female reproductive organs on separate plants) so be sure you get at least one male and a few females to surround him. This will help ensure an abundance of berries to brighten the early Winter landscape. And what a boon to wildlife in the Winter as the berries are eaten by small mammals, many birds (both song and game) and White-tailed Deer. Known also as Fever Bush and Black Alder, Winterberry was used by Indigenous Americans to treat not only fever, but the bark served in healing bruises and minor wounds. Native to the eastern United States and southeast Canada, Winterberry is challenged as we continually drain and/or develop wetlands. So if you’ve a wet or very moist spot, you can add some Winterberry and watch it spread over the area after a few seasons. It can also be put in drier areas but instead of spreading, it will grow in more of a clump. It prefers acidic soils with light requirements ranging from partial shade to full sun. Sources for Winterberry, other than local nurseries, can be found on our website at: http://oakmossed.com/garden.php.

Photo courtesy of Ohio StatePhoto courtesy of Ohio State

for the rest of the Spring Habitat Restoration series, see below:

Program: Creating Wildlife Habitat – April 23rd

Join us for this lunch-time lecture in celebration of Earth Day on Thursday, April 23 at Erie Community College South Campus. Habitat destruction due to human activity is the #1 cause of wildlife population declines and extinction. Learn how to stem this dangerous tide with tips for everyone, from landowners to apartment dwellers.

Lecture: Creating Wildlife Habitat

Make the Most of Holiday Trees

If you were unable to take up our suggestion of using a live tree in your holiday celebrations but, instead, employed a cut tree, do not toss the remnants on the curb. The best option is to put the tree in your landscape, at least temporarily, and offer a refuge for wildlife over the next few months. Many birds, small mammals and other critters will appreciate it and make great use of a fading conifer for protection from weather and predation.

Don't toss that tree on the curb - make it work for healthier ecosystems!

Don’t toss that tree on the curb – make it work for healthier ecosystems!

Better still, you can begin building a brushpile with your tree and the downed limbs or twigs that accumulate over the Winter. The brushpile breaks down over time enriching the soil around the area and you can simply keep it going for many years adding to the pile as material presents itself in your landscape. Just be sure to locate the tree and/or brushpile away from any structures so to avoid creating an infestation problem with insects and rodents.

If your property does not allow for building a brushpile, you can always dispose of the tree in a public forest (off trail) and allow it to decompose naturally – this adds to the health of the forest ecosystem and provides cover for wildlife there, as well. Another option is to check with a local tree farm to see if they wish to use your spent tree for compost. Better yet, check with a local wildlife rehabilitator who might be able to make use of the tree for bedding, housing or even food.

Although many municipalities offer roadside pickup of holiday trees and use them in creating a community mulch, it’s still a better environmental bet to place the tree back in the natural environment. Municipal mulching does use gas-powered equipment to shred the trees which adds polluting fumes and greenhouse gases to the atmosphere so should be the last option in holiday tree disposal.

Mimicking these natural processes is a great way to finish off your holiday festivities!

UPDATE: Time Running Out for Gray Wolves

UPDATE 9/5/13:  On Wednesday, September 4th, the USFWS, under sharp rebuke for tainting the process of selecting members of the review panel, extended the public comment period on removal of Gray Wolves from ESA protection until October 28th. Please voice your support for retaining wolf protection through the link noted in the original posting below. For further information on the mishandling of the review panel selection process by the USFWS and the related delay on review of the delisting proposal. see http://www.latimes.com/news/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-wolf-delisting-on-hold-20130812,0,6991561.story.

Original Posting: You have until October 28, 2013 to submit your comments to the USFWS in support of retaining Endangered Species protections for Gray Wolves (Canis lupus) in the contiguous 48 states. Pressure to remove this protection is entirely political with a vast number of wildlife biologists in opposition to delisting. Why keep the protections in place? The short video below tells it all. To submit your comment, please visit: http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=FWS-HQ-ES-2013-0073.

The wolves and ecosystems thank you.

An Invader Wins

There are few things more frustrating to one attempting to restore and maintain native habitat than the reality that an invasive species cannot be reasonably and responsibly eradicated. Such is the scenario in the wet meadow that dominates “The Acre”.

When first moving to this property in 1999, the wet meadow was more or less a happy balance of both native and alien plant species. Notable, however, was the lack of invasive species, with the lone exception of Spearmint (Mentha spicatawhich created a bright green carpet along the drainage path leading off to the West Branch of Cazenovia Creek, a major channel within the Buffalo River Watershed (this area’s dominant drainage system).

Before the discussion continues, there are two considerations of open field environments in this Great Lakes region that one must keep in mind:

  1. Most open field plant species are alien, long ago (2 centuries at least) having usurped the native populations.
  2. Historically, one has to question the actual identity and dominance of open field native species as both Indigenous tradition and Colonial documentation consistently agree that this area was overwhelmingly deeply forested, so much so that the Onödowa’ga:’ (Seneca) peoples had to clear forest land to practice agriculture. (If told I’ll live to 120, perhaps this question could spur doctoral research).

In the intervening 13 years, the wettest portions of the meadow have seen dramatic change in the plant community, which is most telling as mid-Summer progresses. The colors of white, yellow and crimson have receded and the color purple has inundated the moist areas. And by that I mean Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria).

Purple Loosestrife dominates the wet meadow on "The Acre"

Purple Loosestrife dominates the wet meadow on “The Acre”

When the Loosestrife first began appearing, heroic attempts were made to pull it (heroic because it is notoriously difficult to uproot). When it became clear that this type of manual control was not enough, the procedure was augmented with dead-heading what could not be yanked in order to control seed production. Dozens of hours were spent in this hot, wet field accompanied by resident mosquitoes in hopes of limiting the spread. Huge piles of plant material were dried, eventually becoming tinder for the fire pit.

This exhausting process seemed to work for a couple of years but the last few have brought the reality that continued dispersal of seed via road drainage has allowed the Loosestrife to take over. There is no way to control for this and, so, the invader wins. I’ve resolved myself to keeping small patches near the meadow’s edge clear in order to allow re-introduced Common Cattail (Typha latifolia) to take hold and native Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) to continue thriving.

Boneset, a native medicinal.

Boneset, a native medicinal, does well in many spots on “The Acre”.

One positive note to somewhat assuage any guilt from this surrender is that the Bumblebees and small Butterflies are making use of the Loosestrife’s nectar. Perhaps, one day, our native critters will somehow adapt and become important factors in controlling this difficult, albeit beautiful, invader. Other factors that help me to accept this defeat are the points brought up above. Certainly #1 helps to clear my name in that the problem of invasives is older than the nation itself. Point #2 tells me that time and succession itself will one day be the ultimate solution as the field slowly progresses into a wet woodland. More Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) and Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) appear each year so the process has already begun.

In the meantime, the next invasive project involves that looming stand of  Phragmites (Phragmites australis) in the background of the above photo. I hold firm that THIS species will not win as shading with water and salt tolerant trees is the plan of action (serving, also, as a little push along the path of succession).