Where Are All The Bugs? | Episode 1
With Tanya Latty, Entomologist, University of Sydney
Remember when you were a kid and a drive down a country road meant maneuvering through a cloud of insects. Now consider, when was the last time you had to clean bug guts off your windshield? It’s often referred to as “The Windshield Phenomenon”.
Could this mean that some insects are on the verge of extinction? The question was bugging us, so we tracked down entomologist and insect ambassador, Tanya Latty for the answer along with some highlights of a recent insect study – the largest of its kind in world. It suggests an insect “apocalypse”, with as much as a third of all insect species being threatened with extinction. “It’s really the case of the perfect storm – of a whole bunch of negative conditions making life really difficult for a lot of living things,” says Latty.
Put down the fly swatter and tread softly – on this episode of the Big Blue Marble, we explore how insects are vital to our existence. From pollination to preventing us from drowning in our own waste, arthropods are threatened little super heroes that are vital to our existence.
The story behind these pictures can be found in this episode.
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Full Interview Transcript
Voiceover: You are listening to the Big Blue Marble Podcast with Anwar Knight.
Anwar Knight: I think they sound pretty good. There was a, my boys four and seven singing. Like we now know is the song of the summer Old Town Road from Little NAS and Billy Ray Cyrus. You know, we must have heard that song two dozen times as we were driving on an awesome road trip in the Canadian Rockies truth, be told I stopped recording after the 13th, but it's still, it's a smile on my face.
And I hope the same for you. I, in fact, today's episode was inspired and what my voice discovered on that particular day, I recorded them more on that in just a second, but first a warm welcome my friends. Welcome to the Big Blue Marble Podcast. My name is Anwar Knight. I appreciate you joining me today and spending some of your valuable time with me, whether you're on your way to work, maybe at home, walking the dog, or perhaps enjoying some downtime.
It's great to have your company. This podcast is all about our changing planet. You know, we're not going to debate here about greenhouse gases or carbon. This show is about the effects what's happening right now. And in many cases, In our own backyard, we'll chat and meet with some fascinating guests and experts from around the world.
And my goal is to inform, engage and inspire us all to come together, to help save the Big Blue Marble because simply time is running out. So let's get to it.
Voiceover: For the latest stories on our changing planet. Plus show updates and an exclusive look behind the scenes with Anwar Knight in studio visit big blue marble dot earth.
Anwar Knight: So over the summer, as I mentioned, we ventured out on a road trip in Western Canada. You know, we wanted our children to see an experience nature at some of them beautiful surroundings, honor. I don't think we need to hear that again, but I think. Thank you. On this particular day, we were heading to a Moraine Lake that's in Banff National Park, and it's just stunning, beautiful, deep blue waters with a backdrop of snowcap mountains.
It's probably really one of the most photographed spots in Canada, possibly the world. In fact, um, and this lake was featured on the back of our Canadian $20 bill for about 10 years. And I'll let you be the judge. I'll tell you what I'll, I'll post a picture of it on our website. At big blue marble dot earth. That's big blue marble dot earth, check it out. If you'd been there, you know what I'm talking about. But anyway, we parked and we were walking down to get to a path that gets us right down to the lake. So we pass dozens of cars. I mean, this is high season. Parking lots are full, but one of them was a large pickup truck.
Now I'm no car guy. I couldn't tell you what type of engine was in there, but this was a big pickup truck. It could easily tow an RV, but as we came to it, my kids stopped and looked at it. They were in awe and you know, something. So was I, because on the front of this truck, from the lights wrapped around on the hood to the windshield, it was covered.
With the carcasses and blood splotches of bug guts, I'm talking insect guts everywhere. There were legs, wings antenna, abdomens all over the place. The kids have never seen anything like it. And I, I can't remember the last time I've seen anything like it. You know, I remember when I was a kid, my dad used to buy this thing, this cleaner, I think it was called Bug Off. It was a concentrated cleanser. You'd put it in a little, a bucket of water and you use a sponge and it was specifically designed to get like the blood off the license plate, you know, and get the blood and the splotches all off the front hood of your car. I don't know if they still sell that, but it got me so intrigued that I had to look this up and it's known as the windshield phenomenon, that being the lack of bugs on our windshield or the front end of your car.
So are bugs disappearing, well, one recent study says, yes, in fact, a third of all insects species are threatened with extinction. We're going to find out as we chat with Tanya Latty, who is an entomologist at the University of Sydney. And that's where this study originated from. Plus we'll also update the blue files, a quick scan of some of the other unique stories from our changing planet, including a super organism that is keeping what some are calling a vampire tree alive and we'll download your questions with The Inbox. It's all here on this episode of the Big Blue Marble.
Voiceover: Have a question, comment or show idea. Let us know at big blue marble dot earth.
Anwar Knight: Tanya it's great to have you here. I think we are overdue for a bug ambassador to join us here. Really. I think with the exception of perhaps bees and butterflies, insects get very little respect.
Tanya Latty: It's true. They really, we tend to underestimate how important insects are to pretty much, you know, our whole existence of between insects really are carrying the world on their backs and we just ignore them most of the time. And it's a terrible shame.
Anwar Knight: And especially if you think about we encounter. These living things perhaps on more occasions than any other wildlife say it's a centipede in your basement or an ant in the kitchen, or maybe that spider that you know, is cascading down in the shower stall. I think the only place we don't see them now, at least it seems is on our windshields.
So is this term, the windshield phenomenon real.
Tanya Latty: Aw. I mean, that's a great question and that's a really hard one to answer. I mean, I certainly remember when I was a kid driving to the cottage, you know, our windscreen is going to be covered, just covered in insects. And now that feels like that doesn't happen. Um, you hear similar things with people saying, Oh gosh, you know, when I was a child, I remember hearing cicadas all the time and now I don't hear them as much, or, you know, I used to see lots of insects around lights and I don't anymore.
And the problem with all of these things is that. They're what we call anecdotal evidence. And as a scientist, it's difficult to work with that data because there's other potential explanations. So. We think of the windscreen aspect, for example, it could also be that our cars are more aerodynamic and maybe those insects are just, you know, getting out of the way because they're not getting hit as much.
Um, there could be normal boom and bust cycles with insects. So, you know, if the first time you went to a cottage happened to be in a year where there were lots of insects that kind of sticks in your memory and you believe that that's the baseline when really insect populations maybe have been going up and down.
And that was just a natural high year. And we're now a natural low year. And so. I think it comes back to the fact that unlike things like wolves and bears, where we have long-term monitoring programs, we've kind of neglected the insects. We haven't been for the most part, doing these kinds of long-term monitoring, where you have people counting insects in the same place in the same way every year.
And so for many groups, we have very little idea. Of whether they're actually going up or down now, personally, I think there've been enough studies coming out, sort of patchely from different places of the world. Enough for me to be concerned that we might be seeing declines. Um, but it's just so hard to know from things like the windscreen effect.
How big a problem we actually have.
Anwar Knight: Well, let's refer to this study then that was published, published recently in the Journal of Biological Conservation by one of your colleagues, in fact, at the University of Sydney. Uh, and as I understand it, this was the largest insect survey of research in the world and its findings are very alarming, essentially a potential collapse of the insect world.
In fact, I have a quote here. "A third of all insects species are threatened with extinction". That's pretty powerful.
Tanya Latty:It is. I think what was interesting and important about that particular study was that they took the time to go through the literature and try to collect all of these little studies that have been done here in, uh, here and there about insect populations.
The problem with interpreting that information is that they use the keywords, insects and declines. Now, if you do that, you're obviously you're going to get studies that find insect declines. And what it doesn't do is compare. How many did we find declines in with those search terms to ones that may be found stable populations?
The second problem is that people, you know, research money is limited, obviously, you know? And so we tend to focus those kinds of studies on species we think are already in trouble. We're not going to do a long-term study of something that we're fairly certain is stable or increasing because, you know, what's the point.
And so it's really difficult when you see a study like that and they say, Oh, we found declines in you up to 70% of the studies. Well, that's fine. But you'll find that if you're looking for the keywords insect decline. So I think it's an important study because it kind of got the conversation started. I mean, more now people are really talking about insect declines.
I know more and more people are now saying, hey look. We really do need to start these kinds of long-term monitoring programs, but on its own, it's impossible to say, uh, on what that says about insect populations in general. I mean, keep in mind that there's at least 1 million named species and probably as many as five to 10 million insect species altogether.
I mean, a handful of studies tells us nothing about the vast majority of those species. Um, it's a huge problem.
Anwar Knight: Can you give us an example of an insect then that maybe was in that study that is perceived to be one of the most vulnerable right now.
Tanya Latty: I can give you a good local example. So there's, um, the rusty patched Bumble bee, which is a local species around Ontario and Canada.
It's gone through massive declines and we know that it used to be in the eighties, uh, particularly one of the most common bumblebee species. It was everywhere. Um, now it can only be found in a few small protected areas. So we know that there have been enough studies on this one, um, and enough research attention paid to it to say pretty strongly that that population is crashed now, Bumblebees and butterflies, and some of those bigger charismatic species, they're the ones that get the attention. They're the ones that we're tracking. What worries me is that they're really only a small fraction of actual insect diversity, and it's the small things and the things that people don't really stop to look at that we have no information about
Anwar Knight: So why do we think that it, you know, particular insect that bee is being threatened or, or other insects, even from the study, what what's causing this in general?
Tanya Latty: Well, I think it's probably not one thing. I mean, habitat loss is a huge problem for lots of species. As we convert say forest and meadows into housing and into agriculture, we lose all of that habitat and the associated species.
So that's probably the biggest problem, but one of the issues we have now is that that's coming at the same time that we have. Um, huge amounts of over use and incorrect use of insecticides, uh, insecticides kill insects that's what the point is. Uh, and the problem is if they're not used correctly and if they're overused, then they end up killing all sorts of other non-targeted insects not just the things, eating our crops.
Uh, we also have climate change. So that adds this added layer of stress to species that might already be stressed by habitat loss and insecticides. Uh, and when you get all of these things coming together, it causes problems. In the bee case, there may also be spillover of disease from non native bees. So like honeybees, uh, or from farmed bumblebees as well.
And so, yeah. It's really the case of kind of the perfect storm of a whole bunch of negative conditions. Making life really, really difficult for a lot of animals and a lot of, a lot of living things in general right now.
Anwar Knight: So what, what can an individual do to help this.
Tanya Latty: Yeah. I mean, I think there are lots of things we can do as individuals. Lots of things. On a small scale, whatever space you have trying to make that space. Good habitat for insects is so helpful. And that can be as simple as planting flowers, which is great. Like who doesn't love flowers. Um, the more flowers you plant. The more food you provide, not just for things like honeybees, but for all of our native, um, flower feeding insects.
And there, there are lots of things that need flowers. Um, it can be as simple as looking at a lawn and saying, I'm going to convert half of my lawn into a flower garden, um, on their own lawns are kind of like deserts for biodiversity. There's not a lot of things that can live on a normal lawn. If you put in a flower garden, You're creating habitat.
If you let your garden get a little bit messy so that there's sticks and twigs and habitat, that's helpful. So on an individual level, we can do things like that. We can try not to use insecticides in our homes and in our gardens. Um, because you know, from a farmer's perspective, there are a lot of times when farmers really do need to use insecticides. In your home that is a lot less frequent in our gardens again, it's a lot less frequent than we actually need to use insecticides. Um, And those kinds of actions can help make our local communities better. We can get involved with green space initiatives, all of those things, but on a higher level, what we really need to do is start making a lot of noise for our governments and that's everything from local government, straight up to federal governments, because ultimately these are the people that make the laws that protect or don't protect our natural spaces.
Uh, and so we need to make it really clear for whatever party you vote for. Make it clear that you won't accept what they do unless they conserve the environment because they, their job is to listen to us so.
Anwar Knight: That's a part of the evolution of this podcast, really, you know, to help people navigate through some tangible actions that will help our planet heal.
I think at times many of us, we feel defeated and powerless that we can't do much as an individual, but we can. And you've just listed some examples, you know, action and engagement is key and you have to start somewhere and that will help propel a new wave of change. And that's been proven. Social scientists have found that when one person makes a sustainability oriented decision, other people do too.
And the time for that clearly is now, as you mentioned, we've thrown so many hurdles at nature of most certainly including insects and perhaps we've reached the breaking point. Now with the warming of the planet, you know, bugs are not immune to the effects of climate change.
Tanya Latty: Yeah, that's absolutely right. I mean, it's, it's this additional stressor, insects are tough. They can handle a lot of things, but when you have all of these problems layered on top of each other, and then you throw in drought, um, you throw an extreme heat events, um, just extreme weather in general, then you're, you're stressing a population that's already facing a lot of threats already. So, you know, it's trying to minimize as many of those as we can and to protect when you know what we have left. I mean, yeah. I think we're at a point where we've already lost some species. I mean, we're probably losing species at this point faster than we can actually name them, which, you know, it's, it's incredibly tragic, but that doesn't mean we just give up.
Um, we have to put our efforts into saving what we have left and we still have a lot left.
Anwar Knight: You know, it's interesting because you mentioned about the species that are disappearing. I was floored with some of the stats out of this study. Some reports suggesting that flying insects across Europe have declined 80% on average causing bird populations to drop by more than 400 million in three decades.
So beyond pollination, what are some of the other amazing things that insects do instinctively to our benefits? Certainly they're a food source, but what about to, in terms of helping humans? I think we may be surprised about that.
Tanya Latty: Yeah. I mean, there's a, there's a quote that says, you know, insects are the little things that run the world and it's true. They really, they really are. So yeah. Many of the insects. We don't like things like cockroaches and flies and dung beetles. Those insects are doing really important work by burying all the nutrients, all the feces, all their waste products that we produce as a society, and basically keeping us from drowning in our own waste.
That's super important. I know. Yeah. In Australia where I work, um, there was a problem where there was too much dung building up. This is back in the fifties and that's because a lot of animals that have been imported from Europe, things like sheep and cows, the native insects were unable to deal with that type of poop.
So the federal science agency imported a bunch of dung beetles, lots of species of dung beetles, and they were able to bury all that feces. And there's a saying that the reason you can dine outside in Australia during the summer. Uh, is because of all these beetles, because before that time, there were huge fly outbreaks and there were flies everywhere to the extent that people didn't want to eat outside.
And that's simply because of lack of insects that can bury feces. So it's not a glamorous job, but it's an important one. Insects are also important parts of pretty much every food chain. So if you think of all the fish and birds and lizards, most of those animals are feeding on insects and they rely on the fact that there are lots of insects.
Um, normally insects reproduce in huge amounts and that sort of forms a nice stable base to these food chains and food webs. Uh, if you take that out, you're going to have huge cascading effects all the way up to, to birds and to fish and everything else.
Anwar Knight: So starvation could be a real threat for some animals just simply because certain types of insects could become endangered or extinct, right?
Tanya Latty: Absolutely insects are super important food source. And we often forget that insects are an important food source, not just for animals, but also for a fairly large portion of the human population. Um, large parts of Asia and Africa rely on insect protein, particularly in times when other sources of protein aren't around, uh, insect protein may also be one of the ways we can lower our reliance on livestock, uh, things like methane producing things like cows by eating more insect protein, which has a much smaller ecological footprint, um, and as much better at converting waste into food that we can then eat.
So there's lots of ways insects are helping people or could help people. Um, but we will lose that. The more species we have we lose when we, um, start to have extinctions.
Anwar Knight: You know, um, I actually have eaten a chili lime crickets before, and they're actually produced for, for consumption. And I gotta be honest there's some people shaking their heads. It was actually pretty good.
Tanya Latty: I always say to people, if you eat things like shrimp and lobster, you're basically just eating aquatic, insects. You know, it's just a psychological issue that made it so that, you know, we eat one, but don't like the other.
Anwar Knight: Very true. And the reality is we may want to be forced to consume insects. You know, it may be a viable option in helping save the planet, but perhaps that is a discussion that should be had at another time. I wanted to ask you about the bad bugs though. You know, the ones that are looking for an opportunity and nature it's survival of the fittest.
It's a balancing act, which enables a food chain for all species, but when man-made interruptions throw it off balance. Now it can put creatures at an advantage. And I would imagine this could able some insects to thrive and not in a good way.
Tanya Latty: Yes, absolutely. And it's, it's, again, it's a problem. So many of the insects, which we consider pests or insects that have done very well to adapt to us. They're the things that can survive us.
Um, That's not always a good thing. Right? So we think of mosquito populations. There are some species of mosquito that, because it's getting warmer, they're moving further North than they have ever been seen before. That's a problem because they carry diseases that we don't really want. Um, and that's, that's a huge issue.
Things like cockroaches. I mean, I love it.
Anwar Knight: You're the one.
Tanya Latty: I know they are actually among my favorite insects, but we don't necessarily want a world that's over run with like the three or four species of cockroach that are good at living in cities. There are actually hundreds of species of cockroach.
Most of them will not be so good at adapting to a super urbanized world. And so, yeah. Yeah, in some ways we're making our ecosystem much simpler, but we're taking away a lot of the controls that keep those pests under, uh, you know, at reasonable levels. Uh, and we're changing the world into one where there are just a few species that run around and not that huge diversity we grew up with.
I mean, one thing you said that I think is really important is that it's really been in the last. 30, 40 years that we're seeing these declines, like that's in my lifetime. It's not something that's been going on for centuries. It's something that's really been happening in a terrifyingly short amount of time.
Um, you know, that's, that's bad.
Anwar Knight: It must be frustrating though, at times, you know, with the exception of maybe the bee and the butterfly. To most people they're just bugs, but you know, we need bugs. We need to appreciate and respect all the bugs.
Tanya Latty: Absolutely. I mean, you know, I'm, I'm at heart an optimist. And I like to think that if people just recognize what we have to lose, um, that they'll do something ,they'll start to care enough to start to protect all of these, um, insects and all the other animals that we stand to lose because. You know, we hear a lot of doom and gloom in the news, but if you take a long view, like we, as a society are doing really well, like in a lot of indicators, we're doing well. And I think the risk we run is to go backwards instead of forwards, which is where we should go. And, you know, the fact that we don't recognize some of these problems, it's like sleepwalking towards a tragedy that doesn't need to happen.
Um, and I think that's what bothers me the most that this isn't something that's. You know, unsolvable, it's not something where we have no idea how to deal with it. It's just making some very easy, well, not easy, but it's making some changes into the way we live. Um, and that could fix a lot of the problems.
Anwar Knight: Without question, you know, entomology is, is such a captivating field of study.
You mentioned earlier, uh, some of the things that have been documented, I, I was really intrigued. I did quite a bit of reading that, you know, there's some 12,000 species of ants. 400,000 species of beetles. It's mind-boggling and yet it's still probably, you know, one of our planet's greatest mysteries.
There's so much that we still don't know in the bug world.
Tanya Latty: Yeah. I mean, we don't even know how many species we have. So those numbers as big as they are, are almost certainly a massive underestimate. I often tell people, if you want to discover a new species, you really just need to go outside and look. I mean, even in the heart of cities, people are discovering new species and it's because, you know, we're really good at discovering big things.
Um, we're not so good at noticing the smaller things or things like flies, which haven't really got the charisma to get a lot of research. And so, I mean, there are new species. Everywhere everywhere.
Anwar Knight: Tanya, thanks so much for your time today. We really appreciate your insight and your love and passion for insects. All insects.
Tanya Latty: No worries. Thanks so much for having me.
Anwar Knight: My guest has been Tanya Latty, entomologist and research and teaching fellow and entomology at the University of Sydney.
Time now to travel around the world. As we open up the Blue Files. We begin in France where the world was captivated watching that country's most famous landmark, the Notre Dame Cathedral, being ravaged by flames. The restoration efforts were almost immediate with the hope of that structure being saved.
But now it's not the heat from flames. That is a problem. It's heat from the sun. A blistering heat wave dry the masonary that is still wet from firefighters efforts months ago, too quickly causing the ceiling of the historic structure to shift almost to the point of collapse in an effort to keep track of the sun's ravaging rays crews have actually installed special sensors to monitor movement in the vaulted ceiling.
But unfortunately, as feared, some of the mortar is cracked now forcing of historical pieces from the ceiling to fall to the ground. Paris recorded a temperature of 43 degrees Celsius. That's 107 Fahrenheit. The hottest temperature ever recorded in the French capital. All time heat records were also broken in other European countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Scotland.
Two ecologists Dr. Martin Bader and Dr. Sebastian Losing we're hiking in West Auckland, New Zealand. When they came across an amazing discovery. The stump of a kauri tree, just the stump was keeping itself alive by fusing onto the roots of its neighboring trees. Those healthy living trees have become essentially a life support system, exchanging water and resources through the grafted roots.
This new research was published in iScience suggesting that a perception of trees may be incorrect. Trees don't live independently, but may in fact work together to ensure survival in the forest as a super organisms from Dr. Leuzinger of Oakland university. Well, root graphs are common between living trees.
The ecologists were curious if a tree reduced to a stump would continue to be a part of a super organism along with thriving trees. And in this case, the answer is yes, the discovery is calling on more research now to look at the survival of trees and the ecology of forests especially with our changing climate and the risk of more frequent and increasingly severe droughts .
And new research reveals some scary details. Listen to this. Now, a study examined rivers across 72 countries and they found antibiotics in almost 70% of the samples, environmental pollution from antibiotics is is one driver of microbial drug resistance, which threatens public health, worldwide William Gays an ecologist at the University of Exeter Medical School in England says that even if wealthy countries curb antibiotic pollution. Drug resistant microbes can hitch a ride across the globe with traveling people, migrating birds or traded food in livestock.
The highest number of drug polluted waterways were found in Asia and Africa, but it was not only in third world nations parts of the Austrian Danube and an American river in Iowa were also monitored. Both of which were near many animal farms. So how does it get there? Well, the report says that in some instances, the result is runoff from pharmaceutical plants.
The researchers hope their work leads policy makers around the world now to take action toward curbing antibiotic pollution. And that's this edition of the Blue Files.
Just before we wrap up your questions answered with The Inbox. Sonia from Halifax, Nova Scotia sent this in wants to know if Canada will see more hurricanes like Dorian due to climate change. It's a great question. Sonia, I have to tell you all the indicators are suggesting that indeed will happen. You know, Hurricane Dorian was quite a beast for so many reasons, but let's break down some of the facts.
First of all, warm water is a hurricane's primary source of fuel. The water has to be in the Atlantic, at least 26.5 degrees Celsius or 80 Fahrenheit, or it's not going to develop. And that's why peak hurricane season in the Atlantic is mid towards the end of September. It takes all that time for that heat energy to start boiling up. If you will.
Plus the world's oceans have absorbed more than 90% of the warming of the past 50 years. That's from science out of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Hurricane Dorian too, wow, broke lots of records for its intensity and it moved painfully slow. I mean, it was one of the slowest moving storms in Atlantic hurricane history. Of course it was much more devastating in the Bahamas. In fact, sadly, there will be a victims that never will be found because they were simply washed away into the ocean because it was so catastrophic. And this is now the a fourth straight year in which a category five hurricane formed in the Atlantic, the longest such streak on record.
So without question, we're seeing a trend it's starting to develop. And we have to remember now it's not the number of hurricanes. It is indeed the strength and the intensity of them. We in theory could have some seasons with less storms, maybe evenone or two. But if those are monster category five storms, that's the issue.
You just need one of those. And it is a catastrophic event. It seems now that the category five storms are becoming the new category three. So unless global conditions change, yes, we certainly could see more Hurricane Dorians and that could impact parts of Canada. We thank you for the question Sonia. In fact, we appreciate it and welcome it.
Comments questions, show ideas anytime all the time. Just join us on our website at big blue marble dot earth to connect. And that's where you can subscribe to the show and hear it on your favorite podcast player. Of course it's all free and it will guarantee that you never miss a show.
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I'm Anwar Knight, thank you for listening and wishing you a great day on the Big Blue Marble .