Small mercies as insects buck the trend

THE other day I set off for a business lunch in a pub in a country town.

The man I was meeting is of middle years, I don’t think he’d mind my saying that, and fond of motorcycles. It’s not surprising he arrived at the pub before me – he was on a Harley Davidson.

He was sitting at a table in his leathers with his helmet on his lap, polishing the remains of flying insects off the visor. He explained that this was one of the problems with motorbikes in the warmer months of the year. But he said it wasn’t anything like as bad these days. Twenty-five years ago he would have had to stop at least once an hour to clean the visor but there just weren’t as many insects nowadays.

I found this interesting. Every now and again you come across articles about the worldwide decline in the numbers of bees and other insects and how this is starting to affect the pollination of certain food crops. But small observations like this one from a lifelong motorcyclist bring home the fact that a gradual but rather alarming change is taking place in the natural world.

My own observations suggest that while this long-term decline is happening in Ireland, this past summer has been an exception to the general trend. Insects seem to have fared rather well this year and this has had a knock-on effect for many other wildlife species.

This opinion was reinforced by another recent encounter in a pub – no, I don’t spend all my time in pubs, but some of the time I do spend yields valuable information.

This time, I was sitting outside the pub on a sunny evening and a customer who had come out for a smoke started to talk to me about swallows. There was a canal in front of us and the birds were flying over it at high speed and dipping to pick insects off the water with amazing accuracy.

The man pointed to a shed behind the pub and told me that the swallows had reared three broods in there this year and the last brood had only fledged a couple of weeks ago. Would birds that young be able to make it back to Africa? I didn’t know but I thought the fact that the shed had housed three successful broods in a season was proof that there must have been a greater number of flying insects than usual this summer to supply all those birds with food.

As the light faded, the swallows disappeared but were almost immediately replaced by bats. All Irish bats feed exclusively on flying insects, although one or two species, such as the long-eared bat, are such controlled flyers that they can actually pick an insect off a leaf or even off the water surface, just as the swallows had been doing.

Bat numbers are also in long-term decline in Europe but again this year I have seen more of them than I have for several years. The number of flying insects around affects more than just the pollination of plants.

The decline in flying insects is usually blamed on insecticide use. I’m sure this is a factor, particularly where bees are concerned. Bees have also been affected by diseases and parasites. But the bulk of the flying insects that feed swallows and bats spend most of their life-cycle under water. In Ireland over the past 50 or 60 years there has been a huge amount of land drainage and bog destruction. I’ve a hunch that a loss of wetlands for insects to breed in has also contributed to the overall decline.



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