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Where have all the insects gone?

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Carole Teator, guest columnist

I have been spending a lot of time in my yard the past couple of weeks, trying to catch up on some much-needed weeding. I have had my glasses on and my face close to the ground, trying to make sure I properly identify the plants I want to keep and those that needed to go.

As I knelt on the ground with my face among the plants, I gradually noticed that there weren’t as many insects around as I might have seen in past years.

In fact, I have noticed that there aren’t as many insects at my porch light at night or even on my car after I have been driving in the evening hours.

This morning, I decided to visit a nearby prairie, where there are many flowers currently in bloom and where I thought I might see more insects than in my yard in town.

But I didn’t.

In our sanitized modern life and in the midst of societal angst about the Zika virus, some might think seeing fewer insects is a good thing.

But it’s not.

We have been hearing a lot lately about the plight of monarch butterflies. But monarchs are just one of many insect species in trouble, and insects are only part of a larger classification of animals, called invertebrates, that are also in trouble. In fact, in a 2014 study in the journal Science, researchers estimated a 45% decline in the number of invertebrates in the past four decades.

We do not completely understand the role insects play in our world, whether in regard to pollination, in providing food to other animals, or in keeping other insect populations in balance. But we can limit the damage we do to them. We can provide more habitat and protect the habitat that already exists. We can ask our elected officials to enact stricter regulations of pesticides that threaten beneficial insects. We can try to understand why this is important to us as individuals and to those we love and want to protect, both now and for generations to come.

But maybe the first thing to do is to fall in love. Whether it’s your garden, a prairie or woodland at the edge of town, or a creek or a river, get to know a place deeply and as thoroughly as when you first fall in love with another person. It might break your heart when you start noticing that place is in trouble, but at least you will notice.

And there are other, less potentially heart-rending, actions each of us can take. We can plant more flowers, preferably native species that the insects we live among are best adapted to use. We can restrict our use of pesticides, particularly insecticides. We can buy organic, local foods and limit our consumption of stuff. We can talk to others about why the health of insects and our planet is important to all of us.

Or we can simply start to see what is around us. If you like to watch birds in your yard, if you revel in the riot of flowers in your garden or in a prairie or in the vase on your table, if you enjoy watching fireflies on a sweet summer night or if crickets provide the soundtrack to your best summer memories, if you like to eat, then you must take notice.

• Carole Teator, of Cedar Rapids, is the director of programs at Trees Forever and on the Board of Directors for the Iowa Wildlife Center. Comments: cteator@treesforever.org

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