When I was a child, the world of insects meant mosquitoes who always seemed to find my hot and sweaty body while completely ignoring my Grandma. It meant the angry yellow jackets in late summer who’d swarm the mouth of your soda pop can and get tangled in your ponytail. When I had my first apartment in New York, it meant cockroaches. And when we were a young couple, scraping to get by and buying dried goods in bulk, it was the scourge of meal moths. Of course, there were moments of wonder: dancing fireflies on a warm summer evening; the rolly-polly black and brown caterpillars leisurely crossing a walking path in autumn; a squadron of dragonflies coming off the lake and up the hill in Sheboygan resembling B-52 bombers; and the clouds of small yellow butterflies delicately clustered on the silt along the bends of a stream. Even with these exceptions, I mostly saw insects as pests.
It’s not until I came here to Lake Mills that I fell in love with bugs and am beginning to understand how they support the cycle of seasons, underpinning the fabric of the natural world. For me, it starts in late March with swarms of non-biting black midges which herald the coming of the swallows. These midges are the first food of the season. Swallows twist and turn, darting about, feasting on the midges. It’s incredibly strange to, quite suddenly, walk into a cloud of midges and then just as quickly, have them disappear. Sometimes you can see swarms of midges rising from the candlesticks of new growth at the tops of pine trees in Korth Park, mimicking drifts of smoke.
Then in the summer months, the mayflies emerge. There are so many varieties—most of them sport delicate wings and crazy forked abdomens. My favorite are the white mayflies. If you’re lucky, in the hours before twilight, you might catch sight of them coming up off the lake—their wings are delicate and large and their whole being seems iridescent. Their flight pattern flutters, rising and falling, in an unpredictable and magical way. The first time I saw them, I knew in my heart they could have given rise to the tales of fairies. Our lake also offers a great variety of dragonflies. Yes, we have the B-52 bombers but we also have delicate blue-bodied damselflies; black and white striped wing Skimmers; and orange and brown striped wing Halloween Pennants.
I remember, many years ago, hearing in some science class lecture:
“The truth is that we need invertebrates but they don’t need us. If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change....But if invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt that the human species could last more than a few months.” E. O. Wilson
At the time, I mentally shrugged at the hyperbole and secretly eye-rolled, “Really?” Now, I realize that I wasn’t seeing the breadth of the insect world’s impact. Practically every songbird needs caterpillars to feed their young. Could we live in a world without songbirds? Without the call of frogs? All those fisherman out on the lake, what would they be able to catch? I also thought that insects were basically indestructible and plentiful. Didn’t our society spend a fortune killing insects as pests to crops and lawns? Weren’t chemicals re-engineered since insects were so crafty they could become resilient in just a few generations of the little guys? According to one of the first global scientific reviews cited by The Guardian, “More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered…The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles.” There are places in this world where laborers walk through fields, hand pollinating crops--not because it’s some artisanal product differentiation, but because they have to. Incredibly, there’s not enough pollinators left to do it. If that happened here, would you be able to afford the handful of almonds that you casually toss into your mouth as a snack or that forkful of cherry pie?
Much to my husband’s skepticism, we’ve pledged to let nature take its course. No pesticides or herbicides. Live and Let Live. I will plant native species which will support our insects. And I will also try to take Douglas Tallamy’s advice when the sawflies decimate my dogwood bushes: “Take ten steps back and all your insect problems go away.” Mostly, I guess.