What’s happening to Michigan’s insects? A farmer’s tale.


Bill Westrate’s home near Cassopolis is surrounded by large farms. (Bridge photo by Brian Allnutt)

CASSOPOLIS — As a young farmer, Bill Westrate would walk outside most nights with a white sheet and black light to lure swarms of insects to the side of his barn in Cass County. “It would scare most people,” he said. But he didn’t much mind the bugs that would land in his hair and crawl down his shirt.

“It was just an absolute cloud of life.” 

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Westrate would fill specimen cases with insects on his land, where he farmed corn, soy and Christmas trees. Sometimes, he would try other methods — putting ladders up to collect insects from porch lights,  or using malaise traps, tents made of fine mesh that collect a variety of arthropods.

Then, a couple of years ago — while watching a local television show where someone was using a similar trap — it occurred to him: The insects that once blanketed his land were mostly gone. And he wondered what happened to them. 

He began to survey his southwest Michigan farm with a closer eye. He noticed that common insects like leafcutter bees, mud dauber wasps and orb weaver spiders were vanishing. And his holly bushes and wisteria vines no longer bore fruit, suggesting a lack of pollinators.

Of course, Westrate is just one farmer. But he’s also the former president of the Michigan Entomological Society; a “citizen-scientist extraordinaire,” in the words of Jennifer Tank, a biologist at the University of Notre Dame. 

And what he saw as he walked his land was in line with insect declines observed across much of the United States and Europe.

 A sphinx moth from Bill Westrate’s collection. (Bridge photo by Brian Allnutt)

In one oft-cited study in Germany, for instance, total biomass of flying insects studied in preserves fell as much as 82 percent over 27 years. It wasn’t just a loss in the diversity of insect populations, but in total numbers, imperiling organisms at the base of the food web. 

It’s unclear exactly what’s causing the declines. Scientists say they’re likely a result of a host of variables including habitat loss, climate change, pests, disease and new classes of pesticides such as glyphosate (the primary ingredient in the popular weedkiller Roundup) and neonicotinoids. 

Together, these factors could help dramatically reorder the landscape in Michigan, affecting insects and in turn “every aspect of ecosystem function,” according to ecologist Nick Haddad of Michigan State University’s W.K. Kellogg Biological Station.

Audrey Sebold, a horticulture specialist at the Michigan Farm Bureau, notes that “most of Michigan's fruits and many of our vegetables” require pollination from insects. Honeybees and native pollinators like bumblebees are important to fruit crops that thrive in Michigan, including tart cherries and blueberries, and vegetables such as tomatoes and squash. 

Beyond the impact on agriculture and wildlife, continued declines in insect populations could lead — eventually — to “a tipping point,” said Haddad, “where we go from a habitable earth to basically uninhabitable.” 

That may sound extreme, but scientists such as Francisco Sánchez-Bayo from the University of Sydney point out that with studies showing a rate of insect decline of 2.5 percent per year, “in 10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left and in 100 years you will have none.” 

Hence, the appearance of cheerful hashtags like #insectarmageddon

Alas, not all scientists view the future as so bleak, citing both the resilience of a million-plus species of insects and a shortage of comprehensive research around the globe. 

“Not going to happen,” Elsa Youngsteadt of North Carolina State University told The Atlantic of insects’ demise. “They’re the most diverse group of organisms on the planet. Some of them will make it.” 

Insects are certainly diverse and adaptable, lending credence to the they-will-survive chorus. However, as a study in the journal Science showed, wildflowers have been declining in correlation with their pollinators, raising “the possibility of community-level cascades of decline and extinction.” In other words, it’s more than just bugs we have to worry about losing.

“But that's in the future,” Haddad said. “We're not at the extreme yet and we've got to head things off now...”

Preventing a worst-case scenario means getting a better picture of what’s driving the decline of insect populations.   

A much-noted 2018 report in the New York Times titled, “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here,” was based on studies in Europe, which were geographically limited.  

Clearly, more research is needed and likely much of it will come from “citizen scientists” like Bill Westrate, volunteers who can record insect data where they live to paint a detailed picture of what’s happening to insects in Michigan.

Butterflies and bumblebees

Haddad, the MSU ecologist, studies butterflies. 

He says they provide an historically important record for documenting insect declines. “If we go back 150 years, the way people knew about the natural world is what they knew about butterflies,” he said. 

Butterfly collecting has helped create a wider record of insect numbers and diversity, especially in Europe where several of the most significant studies on insect declines have taken place.

Michigan’s butterfly numbers seem only to go reliably back about seven years. But to our south, Ohio has extensive data across the state, showing losses of two percent a year, and 33 percent over 20 years, results comparable to those from the United Kingdom and northern Europe.

“Butterflies are just indicators for the rest of insects that we don't have the ability to monitor,” Haddad said. The factors driving down butterfly numbers also could be reducing those of other invertebrates like tiger beetles and stoneflies, and probably don’t stop at the Ohio-Michigan border.

Ecologist and butterfly expert Nick Haddad of Michigan State University’s W.K. Kellogg Biological Station. (Photo courtesy of Michigan State University)

Bumblebees — the large and fuzzy cousins of honeybees — offer a better barometer of insect numbers in Michigan, but here too the news is not good. The decline of domesticated honey bees has received plenty of attention, but bumblebees are important and efficient pollinators for many crops and wild plants. 

A study of bumblebees based on specimens from all Michigan counties going back to 1887 found about half of 12 species once common in Michigan were in decline by 50 percent or more. One, the rusty-patched bumblebee, is effectively extinct in the state, while American bumblebees declined 98 percent.

Tearing out fencerows, eliminating weeds 

Westrate, who is now mostly retired, said he’s noticed that farms are getting bigger and growers are tearing out fencerows and woodlots that once served as wildlife corridors to make more room for crops. 

He also noted increased reliance on various sprays, genetically modified crops and seed treatments that have become ubiquitous in farming communities.

In the early 1990s, farmers began using glyphosate, an ingredient in  Roundup, to dry out crops so they could be harvested sooner. This allows farmers to clear their fields before the onset of bad weather. The practice started in Scotland but increased dramatically in the U.S. Midwest as GMO “Roundup-ready” crops came online.

These wasps are part of a collection that fills much of Bill Westrate’s dining room. (Bridge photo by Brian Allnutt)

Such crops could withstand being sprayed with Roundup, but surrounding weeds — which provided insects with food and habitat — were eradicated. The chemical has been implicated in the huge loss of monarch butterflies as milkweed plants — where monarchs lay eggs, then feed on them as caterpillars — nearly vanished from fields. 

Another class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” have flooded Michigan farms as a seed treatment since 2000, typically for corn and soybeans. As the name implies, neonicotinoids are chemically similar to nicotine and can work systematically through a plant, even showing up in pollen and nectar

Neonics have been shown to impact pollinators including bees, songbirds, bats and, though originally thought safe for mammals, deer. By 2011, roughly 80 percent of corn seeds and a third of soybeans were planted with neonic-treated seed. 

Farms relying heavily on neonicotinoids and glyphosate cut a wide band across southern Michigan and into the state’s thumb region. 

“It's uncanny the decline [of insects] that happens concurrent with the arrival of those two pesticides,” Haddad said. He adds, however: “I don't think there is one smoking gun, so it's not fair to say that, but…there's good reason for concern.”

Some Michigan growers — including blueberry producers — may suffer pollinator declines while spraying neonicotinoids. Rufus Isaacs, an MSU entomologist specializing in pollinators, said roughly 80 percent of blueberries are pollinated by honeybees, which often are trucked in from out of state. Despite dramatic die-offs, beekeepers can usually regenerate colonies. So far, pollinator declines don’t seem to have affected blueberry production as much as unpredictable weather during flowering. 

Sebolt, of the Farm Bureau, said fruit growers have good incentive to spray responsibly, so as not to hurt honeybees or other pollinators. Growers who rent honeybee hives “try as best they can, and they do a pretty good job of not spraying when the honeybees are out,” she said. 

Kevin Robson, executive director at the Michigan Blueberry Commission, has been involved in efforts to protect pollinators in the state. He defends the use of neonicotinoids, citing the Environmental Protection Agency’s continued approval of most neonics as evidence of their safety and said they’re an important part of integrated pest management, which requires a range of strategies. 

In Europe, some growers have argued that banning neonics could make farmers resort to even more dangerous chemicals.  And, as Robson noted, neonics are “normally cheaper,” for blueberry growers, who are also dealing with labor shortages and a competitive global market for their crop. 

“If they’re not able to sell their blueberries for a profit, they're not going to be in business, anyway,” Robson said. 

European bans on neonicotinoids (and glyphosate in Germany and Austria) may help Michigan farmers get a better view of what might happen if these chemicals “are removed from the landscape,” Haddad said. 

A way forward

Studies in Germany and the Netherlands also show how citizen scientists can play a crucial role in monitoring insect populations. The data at the core of the New York Times story was collected by a network of volunteer entomologists in the German city of Krefeld, whose entomological society keeps records dating from the 1860s.

Technology can help as well. Isaacs, of MSU, recommends a smartphone app called Bumble Bee Watch, which allows anyone to gather photos or data and submit them to taxonomic experts for a database that tracks bumblebee numbers across the country.

The Michigan Butterfly Network organizes volunteers to conduct field counts of butterflies, similar to the Audubon Society’s “Christmas Bird Count,” one of the oldest and most successful examples of volunteer-led research. 

“The best data coming out about why monarchs are declining come from these citizen science efforts,” Haddad said. It’s also a productive way for people who might be concerned about climate change to manage anxiety.

Land conservation programs might be an easier sell in farm country. 

In Michigan, the Department of Natural Resources’ Large Grasslands project was created to preserve and restore prairie ecosystems. The project mostly focuses on creating habitat for birds like the Henslow’s sparrow and ring-necked pheasant. But Isaacs said such efforts are also likely to benefit insect species.

Nationally, the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program is set to see modest increases in funding that would pay farmers to set aside environmentally sensitive land for wildlife and create corridors for the migration and dispersal of species, while helping farmers with pollination and erosion control.

This aligns with another Haddad project: creating wildlife corridors, which can be connected parkland or land along waterways to help preserve insect habitats and increase breeding populations threatened by urbanization or large farms. 

Westrate, meanwhile, said he’s on board with efforts to find more folks like him — amateur entomologists happy to gather data to study insect declines, losses he still can’t seem to wrap his mind around.   

He said he recalls back in the 1980s when he first noticed five-lined skinks (slinky lizards) and leopard frogs disappearing from his farm, another dramatic change that’s never been fully explained

“But who could have imagined the insects?” Westrate said. “Who could have imagined that?”

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John S.
Mon, 06/22/2020 - 4:52pm

Thank you for this informative post. Declining biodiversity appears to be the most serious environmental problem today, more serious even than global warming. The solutions (although economically and politically difficult) seem to be better known than the problems that will only be understood through further research.

Mary Gaspar
Tue, 06/23/2020 - 8:56am

I have seen a decline in insects also, not one honey bee in our flowers this year. Lots of small bumble bees. I have not seen any monarchs either, but there's an article titled: 2 deaths trigger alarm at Mexican Monarch Biosphere Reserve. It's a huge area where the monarchs return to every year, millions of them, but loggers and avacado farmers are cutting down the trees the monarchs overwintered in. I plant butterfly weed and last year the Great Grandchildren got to see one that just hatched from the Pupa and dry it's wings. I saw the worms munching away on my flowers (butterfly weed), hardly any butterflys of any kind yet. I also have butterfly bushes but they haven't bloomed yet. I'm sure that the weed killer they put on the fields to kill the weeds for no plow isn't helping. So plant those butterfly weed to help them survive.

NatureSoil Products
Fri, 06/26/2020 - 10:23am

I was going to say the same.
I live in Vermont and have noticed an alarming lack of pollinators this year.
I do organic growing, seed harvesting, and composting. I grow flowers specifically for their attractiveness to pollinators, yet those pollinators aren't even close to numbers this year that I'm used to.
There should be an abundance, but instead there is scarcity.

I do vermicomposting, and noticed something is negatively impacting my worms. I've been doing this for a good long time, and have never seen the problems I'm seeing now.
Reduced reproduction, population declines, even damage to existing worms.
Something weird is going on. And I'm not doing anything differently than in the past.

Glyphosate (among other human creations), as a Broad-spectrum systemic herbicide and crop desiccant, is known to negatively impact microorganisms.
Microorganisms are the essence of life.

Earth worms largely eat the microorganisms that begin the decomposition process.
I'm noticing lesser molds & fungi in my compost bins.
I'm concerned that Glyphosate, and/or other pesticides and herbicides, are doing extensive damage to those molds & fungi.
Glyphosate has been shown to exist in a growing number of foodstuff.
As I place that foodstuff waste in my compost bins, I fear the residual Glyphosate is killing the microorganisms.

You are what you eat.
Same goes across the entire food chain.
If products, like Glyphosate and others, are negatively impacting microorganisms, they're likely negatively impacting up that food chain.

Microorganisms are essential for many natural functions, like vitamin production, natural antibiotic production, enzyme support, creation and/or bioactivity of polyphenols and flavonoids, even supporting the basic functioning of plants (numerous studies have shown how bacteria & fungi work with the respiratory/circulatory system of plants to keep things working correctly).
They form a symbiotic relationship with plants, starting with the root systems.

Just like humans have an necessary & essential microbiome, so do plants (and the rest of Nature).

Damaging the very essence of that microbiome is just bad practice.
Very unethical. Very unsustainable.

Mary Gaspar
Tue, 06/23/2020 - 9:04am

One of the reasons for the decline of monarchs is habitat destruction in Mexico where they return in the fall, a huge area of land, MILLIONS of monarchs arrive there every year, BUT there's an article called 2 deaths trigger alarm at Mexico's Monarch Biosphere Reserve. I also don't think that the killing of milk weed and butterfly weed (orange flowers) helps.

Pat Kolon
Tue, 06/23/2020 - 9:14am

The article started with a farmer's story. Yet I noticed he raised only 3 crops. Diversity is the healthy pattern for the land and its people. I love that the farmer described the swarm of insects around him as an "absolute cloud of life." What's healthy for the land is also healthy for people: people of different races, nationalities, abilities, genders, religions, etc. are also the "absolute cloud of life!" I would certainly hope that folks in farming communities, as they work to restore the balance of diversity on the land in their care, also compassionately value the diversity of people. I'm writing from Detroit with painful awareness of how black farmers throughout this country have been driven off land they too cherished. The racism in our country and in each of us living here needs to be acknowledged and shifted to an honoring of diversity. Corn, soy beans and Christmas trees are not "better than" other crops, just "better" for making money; not for the health of the soil or people. Racism is a cherished thought/pattern of behavior that says/impliments policies that make some people--"white" betters than black, red, brown, folk for the purpose of Money. "white" is a construct to keep money/power in the hands of those who thought/think they are"better than" others.
In my back yard garden in Detroit, black soil matters. So do the lives of my neighbors! And I pray that the farmer and all connected with agriculture in this country will take to heart the wisdom of nature! Blessings.

George Hagenauer
Tue, 06/23/2020 - 10:04am

One factor not usually talked about is that we need fewer people (and rankly where climate change the virus and ecosystem collapse is moving us is to fewer people but not voluntarily). If you look at all the factors, increased demand for energy, increased planting of crops etc. it ends up with meeting the demands of an increasing population. So in addition to the technological changes we need to look at the fact that we need to be supporting a decline in population worldwide before nature does it for us. As a side note , as a child over 60 years ago growing up in an industrial and heavily polluted section of Chicago's south side , I reveled in collecting butterflies. They were everywhere. Sadly to my grandchildren it is a rare experience to see even one.

John Chastain
Tue, 06/23/2020 - 10:10am

The two things that stand out are the increased use of genetically modified seeds and the associated chemicals and the loss of habitat. I've lived in Michigan my entire life and have family throughout both Michigan's peninsulas. So in the 60+ years I've lived and traveled the state I've seen the decline in habitat and the even more dramatic decline in insect population. The years and movement among diverse areas of the state gives one a perspective that a strictly rural or urban one might not. The damages and the cause and effect cycle behind them have differences and similarities depending in the habitat affected. But both have the chemical use and habitat loss in common. We have to address them in order to save diversity within both areas. Genetically modified mono crops that can only survive through the application of poisons is as much a potential long term loss to the farming community as it is to the wildlife. Soil loss and degradation because of decreasing buffer zones and plant based soil retention affects the profitability of family farms. Its in the agricultural community's best interest to address these long term losses against the short term gains of over-planting and the use of harmful chemicals.

Chuck Jordan
Tue, 06/23/2020 - 11:16am

We have a honey suckle bush I used to call the "humming bush." Every spring it would buzz loudly and when looking closely were hundreds of bees. Now there are a few bees, but not nearly as many. No loud buzzzzz. One thing we could do now is stop planting corn to use in gasoline/fuel. That makes no sense now if it ever did.

ILAH Dickinson
Thu, 06/25/2020 - 3:44am

I live in Oklahoma. I’m so sad about the decline in the butterflies and bees here also. It’s everywhere. I’ve talked to people in different states and they’re all concerned . We have had fewer hummingbirds and lizards too. My granddaughter used to catch frogs at night then let them go just to see how many she could get. Dozens. We do do to see a couple a week now. What can we do?

Alana Ronald
Fri, 06/26/2020 - 7:24pm

I grew up in Ontario, in a house surrounded by fields, in which there were all kinds of butterflies. I now live in Quebec, but when I have gone back to Ontario in the summer most of those fields are gone, and I was told that there are fewer butterflies, and see the decline here, as well. Most of those fields from my childhood were lost to development, & I see the same here over 30 years. Very sad, indeed.

Sat, 06/27/2020 - 10:57am

I know what happened to all the insects.... you goddamn bug people caught and killed them all!

Peggy Bradbury
Sat, 06/27/2020 - 12:20pm

This is a good article, but .... Continuing to "study" won't do squat for the current catastrophe. We can see what's going on! In my St. Charles MO yard, which has a lot of native plants now, and no pesticides for at least 20 years, I have seen one butterfly in three weeks, a checkerspot, with no mate in sight. This spring no bees buzzed the fruit trees; it was too cold. Again. I noticed butterflies declining in the 1990s, especially the late '90s. In the 1980s, in contrast, mutilated bodies of hordes of insects butterflies and insects stuck to our vehicles. There were so many when we drove it wasn't possible to avoid them (though I tried). Why not take a look at geoengineering or solar remediation (aka weather manipulation)? It started in earnest in the 1990s as aerosol sprays that looked like crop dusting insecticides criss-crossed the skies from horizon to horizon. It's a NASA program. This morning the air smells so heavily of pesticide I'm afraid to go outside, and there are lead-colored skies above. Coincidence?