Something’s been bugging me.
It started more than a year ago, in summer 2022. I noticed the petals on my daisies were disappearing at an alarming rate.
First, I saw this:
And ultimately, this:
A little later that summer, my black-eyed Susans bloomed. It didn’t take long to see lots of these:
All summer, in hopes of finding the perpetrators, I surveyed the garden. Six or more times a day, I took photos of any creature lurking on or near a flower.
I found flower friends like this spider, poised to trap any visiting petal munchers.
She’ll make a meal of pollinators, too. So, I suppose her friendship goes only so far.
I found more than a few flower foes. Like these caterpillars, caught in the act:
Beetles were frequent visitors, too.
The Japanese beetle is one of the perps. But the longhorn beetle is a flower friend. It feeds on nectar and pollen, spreading the pollination love as it travels from bloom to bloom.
By the end of summer, I had filmed more than sixty different creatures on my flowers. They were mostly flower friends, a few foes, and a handful of innocent bystanders, like this one:
The acorn weevil feeds on its namesake. She also uses that long snout, or rostrum, to bore holes in acorns. Then she lays her eggs inside. I suppose she landed on my flower by accident. The garden is underneath an oak.
I was struck by the diversity and often, the beauty of the many insects I met in my 2022 garden. Watch this montage and you’ll see what I mean.
There were many more spiders and insects than I included in the video. I omitted the poorest-quality photos. Also, some of my insect IDs may not be accurate. I use iNaturalist’s artificial intelligence to identify the insects. Many of the photos shown are ‘research grade,’ meaning at least one other person agreed with the AI identification. But even that’s not an accuracy guarantee. Please let me know if you see an ID error.
By the end of summer 2022, the flower foes had consumed more than half of my blooms. But the loss intrigued me more than it bugged me. Over the winter, a children’s book began brewing in my head. So, this past summer, I repeated my garden surveillance, expecting a second season of petal munching.
To my surprise, the flowers were largely left alone. And I counted just 23 spider and insect species. That’s a huge reduction—one-third of the friends, foes, and innocent bystanders I’d photographed a year earlier.
And that’s what’s bugging me: What happened to all the bugs?
This summer, southwest Michigan was bathed in wildfire smoke drifting down from Canada. It wasn’t terribly dense, but it lingered for weeks. Had the smoke in some way reduced our insect population? Wondering if others had a similar experience, I checked with two insect-afficionado friends. They’re both nature bloggers and they live in areas that experienced very dense wildfire smoke.
Bev Wigney is an environmentalist and blogger in Nova Scotia. She participates in National Moth Week, when people worldwide document moths. Bev told me that this year, she counted only 35 moth species compared to 185 in 2022. But were the wildfires at fault? Bev’s not sure. Early in summer, she had noticed many bees and wasps pollinating plants in her greenhouse. But she wasn’t seeing them outside of it. That was at a time when Nova Scotia was having high heat and very dry weather. It’s possible the moths’ life cycles had been interrupted well before the wildfires. On Bev’s blog, she recently shared a list of news articles she’s reading. It includes stories and studies about the impact of wildfires and extreme weather events on birds and crops.
Sue Heavenrich writes kids’ books about science and nature. Her most recent book is The Pie That Molly Grew, a picture book about a pumpkin’s journey from seed to pie. It explains pollination, with a reminder: No bees, no pie. Sue participates in a community science initiative called The Great Sunflower Project. Participants regularly check their gardens and record pollinator species and counts. When I asked Sue if she’d logged fewer pollinators this summer, she said no—but only because she didn’t do much logging at all. The wildfire smoke in her area, near New York’s Finger Lakes region, was so thick that she followed air-quality warnings and stayed indoors.
It’s hard to imagine the dense smoke did not affect area insects. Sue pointed me to a study that concluded bees have a hard time navigating in smoke haze. One reason is that the smoke disturbs their sense of smell. As Sue and I talked, we wondered if, in smoky conditions, bees limit their foraging to nearby, familiar nectar and pollen sources instead of searching more widely.
Both Bev and Sue pointed me to a 2018 study of smoke’s impact on butterflies. The study found “significant deleterious effect of haze smoke to the development, adult size, and survival of insects, key players in food-webs.” However, the authors caution that additional studies are needed to understand how smoke haze affects the equilibrium of ecosystems. Also, the study took place in a laboratory, and air temperature was not a tested variable. In neither the study nor our real-life laboratories in Nova Scotia, upstate NY, and SW Michigan can we separate climate influences from any wildfire impact on our insect populations.
Can you guess what I plan to do next summer? Yep. I’ll be counting bugs again. Two years are not enough to see an insect population pattern. Plus, I truly enjoy finding and photographing my garden insects, so the project is a pleasure.
I also plan to join one or more citizen-science projects, like the ones Bev and Sue participate in. If you’d like to do something similar, the Pollinator LIVE website shows quite a few options. I especially like their list because its projects are all kid friendly.
Have you noticed any change in your local insect populations? I’d love to hear if anyone else has observations along these lines.
Resources and a Recommended Kids’ Book
You can read about how smoke haze impacts butterflies in the article I mentioned above.
Another deep-dive article explores smoke’s impact on a variety of insects.
Do consider following Bev Wigney’s blog. I shared a link to one post above. Here’s another post that will give you a good sense of what Bev likes to write about.
Sue Heavenrich writes fantastic kids’ books. One of my favorites is Thirteen Ways to Eat a Fly. In addition to being a noted author, Sue describes herself as a backyard explorer. You can find out more on Sue’s website. She has a terrific page full of activities and books that help kids and their families understand and help pollinators.
And, finally, Sue’s picture book, The Pie That Molly Grew, is the perfect book to read to your littles during this pumpkin pie season. It even has a recipe!
Here’s my review of the book, posted on Amazon and elsewhere:
Seed, soil, sprout, sunlight, pollinators…pumpkin…pumpkin pie! Using a ‘House that Jack Built’ rhyme scheme, this clever, engaging book follows Molly as she discovers what happens after she sows a seed. We watch a series of plant processes that eventually produce a pumpkin—and then a pie. The book is a fun read, translating botany into a kid-friendly romp through one plant’s life story. The book also features the role of pollinators, both in the story and in back-matter explaining that without bees, there would be no pie. The illustrations are accurate but fun depictions of the plant’s development. They help kids visualize plant scale, such as the very long roots that support even a tiny sprout. I especially appreciated one image that adds additional ‘characters’ to the plant’s story. It shows earthworms and insects that gardeners know are essential to soil health, a great discussion-starter on the role of non-pollinators that help bring food to our tables.
I highly recommend this terrific book.
Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.