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The Monthly Column of Advice, by Diana Barnett

I have always been interested in all living things but as I have got older and understand more about the connection between all living things, insects in particular have become very important to me.

So it is with pleasure that I am reading the fascinating book Endless Forms Why we should all love wasps by Sierian Sumner a Professor of Entomology at University College London.  If you are the sort of person who thinks wasps are just here to scare little children and spoil your picnics (as I used to think), this book will explain just how important are the 200,000 wasp species.  It is an entertaining and extremely informative book.

If reading a book about wasps might not be your cup of tea, can I suggest you listen on BBC Sounds to the light-hearted science programme The Infinite Monkey Cage – Bees v Wasps.  Dave Goulson a Biology Professor from Sussex University, famous keeper of bees and writer of several books including The Garden Jungle argues the case for bees.  While Professor Sumner regales the audience with fantastic facts about wasps including tips for how to treat them so they don’t become a nuisance at the family barbecue.

Buglife – The Invertebrate Conservation Trust is a charity that is dedicated to conservation, education and policy change to protect insects, bugs and invertebrates.  They are running a citizen science project this summer (The Bugs Matter Survey) to monitor the insect population.  If you are making any car journeys from now to the end of August and have access to a smart phone they would like you to record the number of insects you find on your number plate.  The simple survey is based on the ‘windscreen phenomenon’ where people are noticing fewer insects squashed on their car windscreens compared to a few decades ago.  The data you can provide is very important for understanding the challenges insect populations are experiencing.  Go to https://www.buglife.org.uk/get-involved/surveys/bugs-matter/  for more information.

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We are all aware of the effect of air pollution on most living beings but recent research by teams from Australian, Chinese and American Universities are showing that exposure to particulate matter affects insects’ ability to find food or a mate which might be one of the causes of insect decline.  Researchers found that insects’ sense of smell was being detrimentally impacted by contamination of their antennae.

Research in bush-fire affected areas in Australia have shown that a whole variety of insects, including bees, wasps, moths and other species are contaminated by smoke particles clogging up their antennae, even at considerable distances from the fire itself.  This means they struggle to smell food, a mate, or a place to lay their eggs and it follows that their populations will decline.  (Source Air Quality News report by Paul Day July 2023)

We know our lovely river is struggling with pollution from all the manmade rubbish being dumped into it.  My concern is less for the humans who use it (we do have a choice), but more for the natural organisms, the diverse living things that depend on the river as their habitat.

Light pollution is something that is becoming more of a problem.  The glow that comes from our towns and cities at night – some is from street lighting, but a lot is from unnecessary lighting – empty office blocks, advertising signs, garden lights.  Some humans find this artificial light disruptive but so do other mammals, birds and insects.  We know that many night flying creatures, moths and bats in particular are affected by artificial light at night, but so are birds too.  Even garden birds like blackbirds are having their sleep patterns disturbed by outdoor lighting. This form of pollution seems an easy problem for us to solve if we care about the world we live in.  Just switch it off!

Finally the Planck Institue of Animal Behaviour in Germany has been researching the effects of loud noise – particularly fireworks on birds. Their findings on migratory Arctic geese show that they are so disturbed by the loud bangs on New Year’s Eve they take off at night leaving their safe resting grounds, fly further than they would normally, which results in difficulty finding the food they rely on for energy needed for the remainder of their flight north.  

Pet owners used to be warned to keep their pets indoors to avoid distress on Bonfire Night.  Unfortunately there’s a multitude of excuses for fireworks throughout the year here.  Such a shame for all sensitive beings.

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