Liam – April 8, 2019

During my final summer as a counselor at an overnight camp in Michigan, I experienced a harrowing run-in with a horde of earwigs. They’re those bugs that look a little like less-friendly lightning bugs with pincers protruding from their rumps instead of a pretty bio-luminescent glow. I was at the camp three weeks before the official opening day to help de-winterize the grounds. During the second week, exterminators walked throughout the cabin areas, spraying poison to eliminate the thousands or millions of insects that had made the cabin walls their winter homes. That night, I dreamt that my blanket came to life and began inching off my body and onto the floor. I could feel its little fibers running along my skin.

Then I woke up.

To my horror, my blanket hadn’t come to life, but what seemed like hundreds of filthy, ugly earwigs were crawling all over me, fleeing the poison that had been sprayed earlier that day. I leapt out of bed, shrieking like a half-crazed hungry infant, violently slapping at the bugs as I ran about the cabin waking the other guys up in the process. I barely slept more than four hours intermittently over the next two nights, despite pulling my bed away from the walls into the middle of the cabin. I still felt them trekking along my body every time I closed my eyes.

A bunch of bugs of every kind swarm together.

According to the New York Times Magazine, the insect apocalypse is here, and Danish conservationists are trying to do something about it. Photo credit: The New York Times

I’m not a big fan of insects. And I really hate earwigs. Bugs dirty up a windshield, drink your blood and leave you scratching uncontrollably at the welts left behind. In the case of ants, they can ruin a perfectly good picnic. But I understand that their annoyances are outweighed by their benefit to the health of planet Earth. That’s why I was shocked with concern after reading an article in the New York Times Magazine entitled, “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here.”

The article lays out what scientists call the sixth extinction — the sixth time in the world’s history that a large number of species disappears in unusually rapid succession. And it’s not just the insects going missing. Here are some frightening numbers:

  • Monarch butterflies in the U.S. have declined 90 percent over the last 20 years
  • The largest king penguin colony in the world shrunk by 58 percent over 35 years
  • Half of all farmland birds in Europe have disappeared over three decades
  • More than 97 percent of the ocean’s blue fin tuna is gone

The article also focuses on what scientists and a large swath of amateur conservationists are doing to better understand the disappearance of insects. It begins with a Danish father and son riding their bikes near their home outside of Copenhagen. Noticing the lack of bugs soaring through the summer air, the bike-riding dad, Sune Boye Riis, a high school science and math teacher, joined 200 other Danes in a joint study conducted by the Natural History Museum of Denmark, the University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University, and North Carolina State University. The volunteers outfit their cars with large nets conceived by Danish ornithologist Anders Tottrup. Driving through the Danish countryside, the nets collect what bugs are still among nature. Tracking the dwindling numbers provides insight into the problem. Concern over the lack of bugs became so great that the museum had to turn away volunteers.

A Monarch butterfly lands on an orange flower.

Monarch butterflies have declined over 90 percent in the U.S. in the past 20 years.

Denmark has a solid track record of active conservationism. The Danmarks Naturfredningsforening, or Danish Society for Nature Conservation, was founded in 1911, long before climate change was a hot topic. In 1973, Denmark became the first country to implement an environmental law. It hosted the 2009 United Nations Conference on Climate Change and, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, is at the forefront of biodiversity conservation in Europe. Denmark has also been a leader in cultivating wind power as a sustainable energy source, pioneering its development as early as the 1970s with many of the world’s wind turbines in use today, produced by Danish manufacturers. Wind power accounted for 42.1 percent of Denmark’s electricity in 2015. The country’s goal is to bring that up to 50 percent by 2020.

There’s no single proof point as to why the insects are disappearing, but the Danish study as well as studies being conducted in Germany (also outlined in the Times Magazine article) may bring the world closer to understanding why it’s happening and how we can stop it.

Yes, it will be nice if the mosquitoes and gnats and other bugs don’t overrun the Danish Home of Chicago’s Summerfest event this June. But the long-term effects of a swat-free afternoon on the Home’s beautiful grounds could lead to less beauty throughout the entire world.

Insects are a major player in the global food chain. Even if they’re not on the menu, they are instrumental in pollination. Bees, for example, are necessary for much of the world’s flora to thrive. Wild flowering plants are the foundation of life everywhere. And bees have disappeared at an alarming rate, a hard truth documented in the 2009 film “Vanishing of the Bees.”

Every bit of life on this planet is connected. Even the most seemingly inconsequential roly poly, or pill bug, has some influence over human life. And since humans still hold the title as the ultimate species, it falls on us to look after all the others. Really, even if a swarm of mosquitoes crashes Summerfest, it will still be a great time – especially since the theme this year is country-western: “A Little Country in the City.” As long as I’m not attacked by earwigs, I’ll happily take a few mosquito bites if it means all life on Earth can flourish.

I’d even go so far to say that if being swarmed by earwigs in my sleep is the only way to save the planet, I’d push my bed back against the wall and let them have at me. But I think Danish ingenuity will provide a better answer. Sooner than later, I hope. For all our sakes.