(Katie Orlinsky / The New York Times)

December 18, 2020

Insect Extinction: Why You should Care and What You Can Do

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In primary school, we learned that pollinators jump from flower to flower and help plants reproduce, giving us a myriad of vegetables, flowers and fruits. We learned that a pollinator can be a bee, a butterfly, a bat, a bird or plenty of other tiny creatures. Then, at some point in middle school, we learned that at the end of last century, agriculture started to turn towards pesticides and pollinators began to disappear. But now, in university, we don’t have to learn about bugs anymore. Unless we are entomology or environmental science majors, insects are the last thing we think about and their extinction is something to which we shrug, or even applaud. 

Even though primary school tried to teach us the importance of every species in the food chain, adulthood seems to suggest otherwise. Surrounded by insecticide advertisements and a societal phobia to bugs, insects are nowadays regarded as escalating summer nuisances or major threats. 

Indeed, some insects are no joke. Mosquitoes, ticks and flies – usually referred to as vectors – for example, are internationally known to transmit deadly diseases. On January 17, researchers from five leading universities published their findings on urban waste’s correlation with vector population growth and animal transmitted infections. It has also been identified that globally increasing temperatures will contribute to both, the disease and the inflating population, too (Erin Mordecai, Stanford Biology). So it is reasonable that insect borne threats have gained more attention; they are going to be on the agenda until we find ways of sustainably managing urban expansion, and we should not overlook them.

Nonetheless, this should not make us turn our backs on all little creatures and overlook other of their natural, more positive attributes. What most of us disregard is that without seemingly aggravating flying animals to pollinate crops, our diet would be based on hardly more than wheat, corn, rice and oats. There would not be many fruits or nuts— no apples, no almonds, no strawberries or blueberries. There wouldn’t be any summer kale salads or any thanksgiving pumpkin pie either, and no chocolate or vanilla.

The conclusion is that insects matter, even if we must regard it from such an anthropocentric view as what we eat, and it’s in our interest to maintain them if we want to keep indulging in the luxury of green produce and fresh fruit year round. As part of the Cornell community, we are in an especially good position to make sure this happens. More information, suggestions and interviews will be released in the spring, but for now here are five places where anyone can start.

1.     Educate yourself about Colony Collapse Disorder. At the start of the 21st century, entire colonies of bees began mysteriously disappearing until the average commercial beekeeper had lost between 30 and 90 percent of their hives. If you want to know what’s going on in the insect world, understanding this recent phenomenon is a great place to begin. Stay up to date on progress to understand this critical moment in the history of Earth, it will make you see the world differently.

2.     Make it a point to learn about insect lives and insect health. Many of insect biology’s most prominent characters have been or are right here where we study. From Anna Bostford Comstock ( Cornell 1885) to XXVI International Congress of Entomology’s Certificate of Distinction awardee Dr. Mariana Frederica Wolfner (Cornell Molecular Biology and Genetics), Cornell University is home to leaders in the field of insect study. Not to mention, our university prides itself on its liberal arts education and interdisciplinary possibilities. If you are a student, you have access to all three of these. Make use of them. Add a course of entomology or conservation biology into your Cornell Planner, seek public lectures from renowned professors, make the intricate clockwork of insect life one of the best things to learn from while you’re here.

3.     Advocate for food transparency. Understand that being educated is not enough; knowing about what is wrong will not make it right. Many of the threats pollinators currently face are because of choices made by the agricultural firms from whom we buy our food. Know what goes on your plate and where it comes from. Demand your food to be grown harmlessly. Know what impact you make when you open your wallet.

4.     Push for stricter requirements for organic labels. The word “organic” does not mean the same in France as it does in the United States. Some allegedly organic U.S. products are as harmful as their conventional counterparts. This only leads to confusion and evades the real problem: We are killing our pollinators.

5.     Push for a final ban on neonicotinoids. If you have any background on agriculture or entomology, or if you have watched any documentary on the topic, then you may already be acquainted with neonicotinoids. If you have not, however, neonicotinoids are a type of pesticide that intend to attack the nervous system of insects, while also harming birds, mammals and other small vertebrates in the process. In 2012 it was found to be the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, and action has been taken already in many countries across the European Union to limit their use. In theory the U.S. took this step in 2016, but it has now been announced that neonicotinoids will remain in the agricultural world. Now the Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed genetically engineering crops – plants tailored to resist these pesticides – be used in wildlife refuges in the Southeastern United States. They project that the first seeds will be released in the spring, along with the neonicotinoid load.

Andrea Miramontes Serrano is a freshman in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at am2389@cornell.edu.