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Look at your windshield: Where have all the bugs gone?
by Dan Brawner Columnist · September 7th, 2017

Two weeks ago, I stepped out onto our front porch, glanced up at the ceiling and stopped dead in my tracks. I had seen things like this before, but not since I was a kid. It was like seeing a VW microbus, or Elvis, or an encyclopedia - you know - made on paper.

What I saw was a Japanese Luna moth. It was the most exquisite color of pale green, swallowtail, with chestnut brown edging, a full three inches across. I was afraid to move for fear of scaring it away, as if it were some exotic creature, long thought to be extinct.

When I was growing in the country outside of Mount Vernon, Luna moths would batter our porch lights in the summer, flitting through the night sky, big as bats. My brother caught numerous varieties and displayed them inside picture frames.

Back then, August was teeming with insects. Every step would stir up a half dozen flying grasshoppers, rattling off with the sound like shaking a paper fan. There were monarch butterflies and cabbage butterflies and red admirals. There were lady bugs and lightning bugs and stink bugs and earwigs and soldier beetles and box elders. There were house flies and horse flies and fruit flies and those big lazy flies like flying blueberries. There were wasps everywhere - paper wasps and yellow jackets and hornets and honey bees and bumblebees. The late summer air was so hot and humid, it made your head spin, and the relentless pulsating of the cicadas made it seem like a fever dream.

In those days, when you drove after dark, you had to stop periodically to clean the dead bugs off your windshield. The grill of the car would be matted with the squashed, dried bodies of moths and mosquitoes. Bugs were a real problem. Of course, that's all changed now.

Entomologists are calling it the "windshield phenomenon." It is a rough gauge for illustrating that we don't have as many bugs as we used to. So where have they gone? The Krefeld Entomological Society of Germany has been monitoring insect populations since 1989. In 2013, they were startled to discover that the total mass of their collection had fallen off almost 80 percent. The following year, the results were the same. Widespread use of pesticides and monoculture farming with crops like corn and soybeans are thought to be major factors.

A recent issue of National Geographic highlights the decline of the world's insect populations and their ecological importance. "If humans went extinct tomorrow nothing too much would happen to the planet," they write, "but insect extinction could be cataclysmic."

The article explains that insects are essential for pollinating crops, disposing of organic waste, providing food for birds, bats and amphibians, and returning nutrients to the soil. A recent Stanford University study shows that insect populations worldwide have declined 45 percent over the past 40 years. Twenty years ago, a billion monarch butterflies would migrate to Mexico. At last count, the number had fallen to 56.5 million.

Our Luna moth stayed on the ceiling for three days without moving. Then, it was gone. I hope it left to go have lots of healthy moth babies. I would love to see them next year.
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