Friday, January 28, 2005

Splatometer

Walking my dog every day around this small Wairarapa town, it seems to me there are very few insects around; the environment seems so sterile somehow. Inspecting my car after driving around the countryside, the windscreens and grill are relatively free of dead insects, no splattered moths and squashed flies and wasps and bees. Are insects disappearing? And what might be the consequences for our birds? When did I last see a stick insect, a dragonfly, a lady bird, or one of those brilliant native hunting wasps? And are moths as numerous as they used to be? So what is happening? Does anyone care? After all bugs are everyone’s bug bear!

Yesterday I watched a thrush stumble away from my dog, making me think that perhaps it had picked up a poisoned slug, having watched a neighbor put out slug bait the day before. And every night I watch the television advertisements encouraging people to slaughter everything that moves in and around the house. We have got very efficient at destroying bugs without a doubt.

How many people give the birds or other natural predators a chance to control the bugs? Does anyone educate the public about it? Birds will go a long way towards doing the job if given half a chance. The use of pesticides has never struck me as a very intelligent solution to a problem as the first thing that chemicals do is kill off the natural predators. Plants and insects have been waging chemical war fare since the beginning of time, trying to outwit each other in the evolutionary game. Plants produce the most amazing toxins to ward off insects. Rather than have gone the down the road of producing pesticides, it’s a pity our scientists have not learned to work with the plant’s ability to do the job itself.

But I have not been alone in wondering about that state of our insects. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) says species like tree sparrows and corn buntings are on the decline. It wants to know whether the apparent decline in the number of bees, ladybirds, moths and other insects has anything to do with this. . The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ (RSPB) Big Bug Count, staged throughout June 2004, aimed to paint an accurate picture of the population of the dreaded midge and the UK’s other 23,000 insect species. Nearly 40,000 motorists, including some 2,500 north of the border, attached a Splatometer - a cardboard grid to aid counting - on to their number plate and counted the number of "splats". They counted a total 324,814 insects at an average rate of only one splat every five miles.

Jonathan Osborne, RSPB Scotland’s Big Bug Count coordinator, said the survey - believed to be the first of its kind in the world - would form a baseline against which the organisation could compare data from future years. "Because this is the first survey of its kind, we can't yet say definitively that insect numbers have declined, but something worrying is going on, and potentially there will be an impact on our bird population. Britain's 23,000 species of insects are their bread and butter and the consequences of a decline have serious implications.”

Should we be initiating a similar count here in New Zealand?

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