Have you ever considered how your home and garden can be cosy places, but not just for you? Many thousands of invertebrates, both visible and hidden are probably sharing these spaces with you. And I hope you don’t mind. From the fly catching spiders in your bedroom, to the worms in the soil in your garden or park, or the teeny pollinating wasps in your window box, they live amongst you and are useful. You may know how important bees are for pollinating plants - and a third of all our crop plants do need pollinating – but it’s so much more than that.
My new book Rebugging the Planet explains why they matter, what they do for us, and what we can do for this critical part of nature as they need our help. I came up with the book idea when reading alarming new data from scientists assessing the health of insect populations. Insect and other invertebrate (like spiders, worms, millipedes and zooplankton) numbers and diversity seem to be crashing globally. More research is essential as too much is local and regional and there are huge gaps in the data, but we also need more people to care. This will drive the demand for research and ensure more action is taken by governments and businesses.
My book explores how we can change our attitude to the smaller creatures of the land and ensure that the younger generation is not led to fear but revere the invertebrates.
They provide critical pollination and seed dispersal services, as well as helping to create soils ideal for crops, create clean water and deal with vast qualities of plant and animal waste. We are also learning so much from their design, activities and skills. Bugs are essential elements of our lives. Yes, they can be a nuisance and worse, and we need to control them sometimes, but we’ve spent so long finding ways to kill them and destroy their homes that we’ve forgotten to ensure they can live and thrive and do all the useful things they do.
For someone who knows a fair bit already, as I did my research I was constantly amazed by the incredible things bugs do. The social insects, that can live in large ‘super colonies’, are particularly astounding - the bees, ants and termites – their organizational, communication and construction skills are so well designed. They create incredibly efficient air and temperature controlled homes, hugely complex communication systems using chemicals, sounds, visuals and can produce huge ‘cities’ of millions of related insects - in Brazil there is a still living 4000 year old termite community that stretches to 200 million mounds covering an area the size of Great Britain. We can learn so much from such bugs. Scientists are using bug design, building tools, and communication and organizational approaches to design better systems for humans – from better buildings, to complex IT organization.
Yet they are in trouble...
Pesticides and intensive farming, loss of wildflowers, hedgerows shrubs, trees and forests, accelerating climate change, pollution of water and soils, plastic micro-particles, light pollution and so much more are causing problems. They are making life so hard for bugs to live, to eat, find refuge, places to mate, lay eggs and recolonize.
It’s a global problem exacerbated by increasingly globalized trade in food, clothes, timber and by the too powerful agrochemical companies driving unsustainable consumption.
But you can help. What you buy (and don’t buy), how you live in your home and community and, just as critically, how you interact with the politicians making decisions critical to the survival of bugs, here and globally - these all matter. Here’s a few of the ideas from ‘Rebugging the Planet’:
1. Buying products like food and clothes that have been produced without pesticides and with nature in mind will really help those farmers and growers doing things differently. The organic and pasture-based meat labels are great labels to look for and buy fresh if you can (the more processed food is the worse it is for you, the farmer and the planet). Growing cotton and extracting other materials like timber can really hurt the places invertebrates need to live globally like forests and rivers. Repair, reuse and recycle as much as possible to reduce pressure on the land and the bugs.
2. Leaving some of your lawn uncut and letting it go wild is so much more interesting than a boring grass monoculture. And you may be surprised what plants arrive as well as the bugs – from moths to beetles to hoverflies – that will appreciate the food and shelter you provide. I have found so many invertebrate species in my tiny 5metre square urban garden – I still have a lawn to lie on and borders – they are just wilder and more fun. And the buzz is loud in spring and summer.
3. Helping the next generation of ‘rebuggers’ is vital. If you have children and youth or look after them, do make sure they can stay fascinated - don’t spread a fear of bugs. The joy and curiosity young children show to these magnificent creatures can be easily stamped out by a harsh word when you see a wasp or spider...suppress your fear and build a new gang of protectors. Take the kids on a minibeast treasure hunt – looking for signs like leaf mines or empty ladybird pupae cases - and learn how to build bug palaces to give them a nest.
4. Joining a local park group to help put in flower rich areas and trees and shrubs for the pollinators can be great fun. Lobbying your local council will let them know you want to keep wildflower verges and green spaces uncut and unfertilised and not sprayed with herbicides so wildflowers can thrive and provide food and space for pollinators.
5. Taking part in bug watches (surveys you do at home) can take little time but means you are helping scientists to assess the health of different species populations. There are wasp and bee and butterfly surveys which scientists have designed so what you spot in a given time contributes to their work.
6. If you have a bit more time, do start getting political and campaign for more space for nature, and support for farmers to use less chemicals. Many organisations make it quick and easy to do this with emails...or if you are more adventurous to go and see your MP. The lobbying power and budget of big chemical companies and junk food manufacturers is huge and they are part of the problem. And you don’t have to do this alone. Be part of the movement that pushes back.
7. Join the rebugging movement! Take photos, share and talk about them with friends, family and colleagues. Talk about why bugs matter. Scientists have been clear that they need public support for doing more to help invertebrates and to stop the decline in numbers and diversity. They need you to tell the stories.
All this, and many fascinating invertebrate stories, is what I explore in:
Rebugging the Planet: The Remarkable Things that Insects (and Other Invertebrates) Do - And Why We Need to Love Them More
(Paperback, forward by Gillian Burke, published by Chelsea Green, out September 16 2021)