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Re-bugging Our Environment Equals Big Bucks For The Economy

Native insects are worth big money, well over $57 billion a year according to a recent study. In a joint Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and Cornell University analysis published in Bioscience, authors John Losey and Mace Vaughan explain in detail the basis for this estimate. Findings include only direct services provided by native, wild insects in the United States.

NUTRITION FOR WILDLIFE: Wildlife—including small game and migratory birds like quail, grouse, pheasant, ducks, and geese—all depend on insects for their survival. Most freshwater sport fish eat insects, and many saltwater fish spend part of their life in fresh water, consuming insects as well. Insects are also a crucial element in the food web with insect-eating small mammals in turn serving as food for larger game.

Nearly as many people are employed in hunting, fishing, and wildlife industries as in the U.S. computer industry says the National Wildlife Federation. Americans spend a whopping $50 billion a year on these same activities, with the largest chunk spent on bird watching and other wildlife observation, conclude Losey and Vaughan.

PEST CONTROL: We may yearn for a bug free environment, yet without beneficial insects we would instead have a vastly greater number of pest insects. Beneficial insects that help control crop-damaging insects save an estimated $4.5 billion each year. Not included in this figure are the savings we reap in pesticides and labor spent in our battle against weeds and on insects that attack us, our livestock, and other animals. Furthermore, Losey and Vaughan´s figures don´t include the benefits of other insect-like creatures including spiders.

POLLINATION: It´s not news that insects are essential for the pollination of many crops and are responsible for 15 to 30 percent of our food supply. Production of many fruits, nuts, vegetables, and oils would plummet without insects to pollinate their flowers. Meat and milk animals are also fed forage dependent on pollination. Surprisingly this study places pollinator services at a seemingly low $3.0 billion. The reason for the low dollar estimate is that this number includes only direct services of native pollinators. Thus honeybees, European natives (currently threatened by mites and disease), are not included.

Also not included are other native insect benefits like the competitive interaction between native bees and honeybees, perhaps doubling the amount of crops pollinated by honeybees alone. Further, native bees including bumblebees sonicate (buzz pollinate) certain flowers instead of directly pollinating them. Tomatoes, for example, are wind pollinated but bumblebees release additional pollen by grasping the flower and vibrating the pollen from the flower´s anthers. Sonication can increase fruit set and weight by as much as 200 percent. Yeah bumblebees!

DUNG BURIAL: Yes, dung burial. Not a subject most of us have thought about, yet Losey and Vaughan conclude that the lowly dung beetle saves $380 million each year. Of the nearly 100 million head of beef and dairy cattle raised annually here in the United States, perhaps three quarters spend their lives on pasture and rangeland where dung beetles play a role in breakdown of much of the dung. The bottom line? Dung beetle activity produces a 19 percent decrease in the time dung makes forage unpalatable, preventing an estimated 6.18 kg of animal weight loss each year due to forage fouling. Add to that savings from reduced cattle parasites and pest flies.

Dung beetles also promote dung decomposition into plant nitrogen, saving costs and labor related to fertilizer application, increasing forage growth, and again increasing beef production.

That all adds up to a lot of hamburger! However this study did not include the indirect value of produce or meat that is turned into other products, whether hamburger, ketchup, or peanut butter. If this and other indirect benefits were calculated, the value of insect services would soar to perhaps ten times the $57 billion estimate of this study.

WHAT WE CAN DO: We no longer have an American frontier relatively untouched by development. Continued growth along with accelerated climate change seems certain. Stewardship of our remaining lands has become imperative.

How to help:

• Preserve open space, thereby conserving an environment for native insects whenever possible.

• Grow a variety of native and flowering plants in our yards and public spaces to provide native insects with food and shelter.

• Rely on non-toxic or less toxic chemicals to manage undesired insects and other pests. Go to ipm.ucdavis.edu to find less toxic ways of dealing with pests in the garden and home.

To find out more about the statistics quoted in this article, on the web go to: Economic Value of Insects . See you, and your insect friends, in the garden.

Reminder: The last Master Gardener public demonstration of the season will be held tomorrow, October 28, 10:00 a.m. at the Cassina Demonstration Garden, 251 S. Barretta St., Sonora. The subject is Herbs to Grow.

Each year Sonora Master Gardener Vera Strader is delighted to find more insects and other wildlife in her almost-pesticide-free yard.