Siouxland Observer

Master of Science

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Habitat for Arthropods: The Metamorphosis

Aretired farmer took pride in his garden.  Walking to a patch of potatoes, he checked a blossoming plant.  Friends and family who walked with him watched.  His garden was flourishing, but as he held the plant a potato beetle crawled out from a green, leafy fold.  The insect waved its antennae, apparently assessing the new situation when the farmer picked it off the plant, inspected it, and crushed it between his thumb and forefinger, dropping it to the ground.  He looked at his nearest guest, a grandson just back from California.  “What do you think about that?” he asked — Iowa, 1983.   

On October 25, 2013, The New York Times reported on a famous couple’s son.  Ronan Farrow, TheYoungest Old Guy in the Room is a story about the accomplishments of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen’s son.  The Times reported he received a college degree from Bard at 15, and was accepted to Yale Law School at 16.

The cliché about the canary in the coal mine is overplayed and tiresome. Save the bugs and the canaries will take care of themselves.

“ ... Mr. Farrow has barreled through life five years ahead of schedule,” according to the article, “reading Kafka in elementary school (The Metamorphosis, his mother said at a benefit) and becoming, at 11, the youngest student to enroll in Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Mass.” 

The Metamorphosis, which this reporter only recently read, is a novella about a man who wakes up one morning as a bug.  Had Farrow been among the farmer’s guests that day, there probably would have been much debate, and less silence in the post dinner, coffee-klatch stroll. 

Oddly, in The Metamorphosis, the protagonist’s family was a lot like those friends and family in Iowa, where patience and endurance, especially during the unpredictable, becomes a kind of godsend.  In the novella, a family’s acceptance, and initial stoicism of their son's sudden change, is somehow Iowan to its core.  In the face of worry, bugs and weather; or, as in the novella, neglect, starvation and death, the motto becomes: “That’s just the way it is....”

Not anymore.  Plainly, there can be no celebration, or even stoic acceptance, in the death (of anything).  The paradigm has to change.  Kafka’s novella is about acceptance (or perhaps overcoming stoicism), but what a farmer does in Iowa, or anywhere, needs scrutiny.  It may have been impolite in 1983 to chide a retired farmer for crushing an insect — even if the insect was potentially beneficial. But today the planet's biodiversity needs serious protection (for even arthropods are in trouble these days).  If folks had shown more concerned about planet-altering practices earlier, we wouldn't be playing catch-up today.

“The evidence is overwhelming,” Edward Wilson, a biologist, said in the foreword to The Forgotten Pollinators.  “Their ranks are being thinned not just by habitat reduction ... but also by the disruption of the delicate ‘biofabric’ of interactions that bind ecosystems together.”

And it’s not just pollinators.  Many beetles are beneficial as well.  They too are dying from lost habitat.

Wilson, who served as curator in entomology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, is well regarded in his field.  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Wilson was the foremost proponent of sociobiology, the study of the genetic basis of the social behavior of all animals, including humans.  Humanity, for its own sake, he warns “must attend to these pollinators and their countless dependent plant species.”

In Carroll, Iowa, a small town in west-central Iowa, monarch butterflies are often seen fluttering over strip malls and houses during their migration south, but not this year.  Visitors to the Swan Lake Recreation Center, home of the Carroll County Conservation Board, and others in the community, saw far fewer monarchs this year.

Sadly, The Year the Monarch Didn't Appear confirms this local observation.  Jim Robbins reported that not only are the monarchs disappearing, but habitat as well.

The loss of habitat is a serious concern.  In a YouTube video, Robert McLeman, an instructor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, said something as simple as letting clover grow on a lawn can help fight the problem.

“The over seeding of the grass with clover,” he said, “and allowing some dandelions to grow …   would provide some habitat where originally there was none.  So it doesn’t take a huge conversion, or a huge investment in space, to transform (lawns) from low suitability to high suitability.” 

In the video, Campus as Pollinator Habitat, the professor most certainly knows his idea won't work well off campus.  Anyone who owns a lawn knows most neighbors would not welcome an "ivy tower habitat" growing on a lawn next door.  Still, finding acceptance, or at least trying to find an equitable balance, is a worthy effort.  Simply, the world needs bugs, and the more people who speak out for their habitat the better.

Of course, it’s not hard to understand a dislike of insects.  The YouTube video shared here is a great idea, but who would not worry about the gardener with all the bugs living next door?  Not all insects are eco-friendly, and some can be a problem.  In There’s a Reason They Call Them ‘CrazyAnts', it's not hard to understand the need for exterminators.  Still, an insect haven next door is a small price to pay for all the fruits and vegetables we enjoy  and stand to lose.


There’s no question that the loss of habitat is huge, said Douglas Tallamy, in The Times article.  (He's a) professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, who has long warned of the perils of disappearing insects.  ‘We notice the monarch and bees because they are iconic insects,’ he said, ‘but what do you think is happening to everything else?’” 

Jan Riggenbach, in her column In The Garden, wrote about one of the iconic insects.  She reported that common milkweed spreads aggressively, but has all but disappeared in the wild.  In a monarch's early life milkweed is the only food it will eat.  Riggenbach plants “garden friendly milkweed" to attract pollinators and help feed caterpillars.

With detailed advice, she recommended swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) for wet, clay-like soil, and butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) for dry, sandy soil.  These plants add depth and beauty to the garden, while serving as a nursery.  Another, purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) grows in shaded areas, and is perfect along the treeline.  Riggenbach recommended others as well, and more information is available at

Yes, more needs to be done. There will always be negative stories about insects, but we need them to survive.  That’s why the farmer's visitors should have answered his question with a question: did he know for sure he wasn't killing an aphid eating insect?  Arguably he did, but no one bothered to ask. 

There is a growing urgency to save beneficial insects.  And maybe others as well.  The cliché about the canary in the coal mine is overplayed, and tiresome.  We need to move on; for there’s food and its pollination to think about.  Save the bugs  and the canaries will take care of themselves.    

In Memory of My Grandfather Eber