I saw a post on Instagram today from the Natural History Museum of Jamaica: two schoolgirls, frowning slightly, holding between them a container full of insects (one was a butterfly). The girls were participating in the Museum’s Biodiversity Awareness Programme. (Please see details of the NHMJ’s Earth Day competition at the end of this article!)
I am not sure if the children were a little afraid – or perhaps, felt rather badly that they had caught a butterfly – but they were certainly fascinated. The picture told me how much we tend to hold these tiny creatures at arm’s length. The children were clearly not used to getting up close to insects. These days, many of us would rather not have anything to do with any kind of insect. These entomophobic people (that means people with a fear of insects!) shudder, emit a small scream and reach for a tin of Baygon to spray them. After all, they might bite, or invade the house, and they are dirty.
This is a culture that has evolved perhaps fairly recently. It may not be a purely Jamaican tendency; it may extend elsewhere. But I remember that as a child I did not run away from insects. I was drawn to them. I would spend hours watching troops of ants. I would put tiny obstacles in their way – a small stone or a stick – to see how they would handle it. I was especially fascinated by beetles – especially stag beetles, sci-fi characters with jaws like carefully crafted antlers. Then there was the hornet I found in a rotten tree stump, one summer holiday in the New Forest. I remember it vividly – shiny yellow and red, almost toy-like. But yes, hornets do have a sting.
The fact is, though, that these creatures, in all their wondrous and perfectly designed forms, are in drastic decline. With all the concerns over the declining numbers of the large creatures (yes, we know and realize, to our horror, that giraffes are now endangered – giraffes?) our insect populations are collapsing several times faster than land mammals.
Why are they declining? The answers seem to be somewhat predictable – a litany of woes, including pollution, habitat loss, the overuse of pesticides, wildlife trafficking and poaching, unsustainable agriculture – and last but not least, climate change.
In case we didn’t realize it, too, the fate of insects is closely tied up with that of many other species – including us humans. If all creatures great and small are declining, in numbers and in their variety and diversity, then what hope is there for us? When (if ever) are we going to realize that we are all connected? A new study suggests that insect populations have decreased by more than 75% in Germany in the last 28 years. Keep in mind that 80 per cent of wild plants rely on bees and other insects for pollination, and 60% of bird species depend on insects for food. Small mammals eat them. Yes, all connected.
For Earth Day 2019, the global theme is Protect Our Species, and this will be the theme for the Natural History Museum also. Amidst the gloom and doom and the frequent use of words like “decline” and “decrease,” there are ways that we can at least slow things down – perhaps, even, eventually reverse the trend. Advocacy, and educational programmes like the NHMJ’s, will help. We can also address what we believe are the root causes of these declines. We can clean up our act, reduce pollution; use fewer harmful chemicals, at home, in our yard, on the farm; craft legislation to clamp down on man’s extraordinary greed that fuels trafficking and poaching. We need to preserve and create new habitats, with native plants that will attract butterflies, bees and birds. We need to think about it.
I have to confess that I am not fond of mosquitoes (having suffered from three vector-borne diseases) or cockroaches (they fill me with disgust and I think they do like dirty places). I am trying to reevaluate my relationship with these two, but it’s hard!
Nevertheless, let’s adopt the Buddhist First Precept of not killing anything – and that includes ants and the lizards that eat them. Let’s think about all creatures great and small. Every species has its part to play in the incredible balance of the universe – delicate, yet strong, hanging together so beautifully. To use an insect metaphor: the universe is like a spider web. If you touch one part of it, the whole web quivers.
One morning, birdwatching in Hope Gardens, an exquisitely tiny insect landed on my hair. When carefully removed and examined, it turned out to be a miniature praying mantis. He perched there on my fingertip.
He was perfection.
Contact the Natural History Museum of Jamaica, a Division of the Institute of Jamaica, at 876 922-0620/6. Visit them at 10-16 East Street. Follow them on social media @ilovenhmj (Twitter, Instagram).
Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for guidelines and further information on the Earth Day competition. The deadline is MARCH 6, 2019! Get the teenagers involved…