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October 16, 2023

41 Minutes

Guests: Scott Black

Tags: insects, endangered species, climate, habitat, community science, staff guests,

Insects — who needs 'em? We do! We’ve all heard that insects are in decline. From bumble bees to monarch butterflies to fireflies, people are noticing fewer insects on the landscape. Should we be alarmed that invertebrates are disappearing from our planet? The answer is yes, and while this is the start of a grim tale, there is hope. In understanding the impact and cause of decline, collectively, we can change the outcome of the story. But we need your help.

Guest Information

An internationally renowned conservationist, Scott Black has been at the forefront of the conservation movement for three decades. Not only is Scott the executive director of the Xerces Society, he has led to the protection and restoration of habitat on millions of acres of rangelands, forest, and farmland as well as protection for many endangered species.


Rachel: Welcome to Bug Banter with the Xerces Society: where we explore the world of invertebrates and discover how to help these extraordinary animals.

Rachel: Hi everyone, I'm Rachel Dunham in Missoula, Montana.

Matthew: And I'm Matthew Shepherd in Portland, Oregon.

Matthew: We've all heard that insects are in decline from bumblebees to monarch butterflies to fireflies people are noticing fewer insects on the landscape in the gardens in their parks. Should we be alarmed that invertebrates are disappearing from my planets? I mean, the answer is yes.

Matthew: And while this seems like the start of the grim tale. There is hope in understanding the impact and causes of decline. Collectively we can change the outcome of the story, but we need your help.

Matthew: Joining us today is Scott Black, internationally renowned conservationist who's been at the forefront of the conservation movement for three decades. Not only is Scott the executive director of the Xerces Society and my boss and Rachel's boss, he has led to protection and restoration of habitat on millions of acres of rangelands, forest and farmland as well as protection for many endangered species.

Matthew: So Scott, thank you so much for joining us today to talk about this important topic.

Scott: I'm delighted to be here, Matthew.

Rachel: Well, thank you for being here, Scott. So insects are often dismissed as pests or being annoying. But they are really important to our world. Can you start by giving us a sense of the roles that they play in our environment and in our lives?

Scott: Sure, definitely. They are really important. What most people don't realize is that there are a million species of insects.

Scott: I'm going to say it again, a million species of insects. If you add their allies, the other invertebrate groups like crustaceans and mollusks, that number goes up to about 1.4 million and because there are so many of them. They really fill what are called niches in almost every environmental circumstance right there they're everywhere and what this does this diversity it really leads to them being really important.

Scott: Whether you're talking about fresh water, whether you're talking about a meadow in the mountains, whether you're talking about a crop field these animals are really, really important. And here's a couple statistics.

Scott: You know, one third of our diet comes from insects. Really one in three mouthfuls of food we eat and drink. That's because pollinators, mostly bees but also some other insects really are pollinating our food.

Scott: And it's not just our food. The 85% of flowering plants require an animal mostly an insect to move pollen. So really we would not have good healthy food to eat but neither would other animals have the seeds and the fruits from pollination.

Scott: Insects are also really vital for most other animals on the planet. You know, you think about song birds, 96% of songbird’s rear their young on invertebrates, a lot of them insects.

Scott: You wouldn't have fish in our streams without insects. I like to bring up grizzly bears or brown bears. They are insect obligate animals. You know, most people wouldn't think that - they're big, you know, you think of the grizzly bear, right? But they rely on salmon and salmon would not make it to the ocean and back without small insects where they were born in their stream.

Scott: And they also rely on berries, which are pollinated by insects. So when it comes down to it, our ecosystems really are really are driven by the number and types of insects. You know, in short, if you like good food to eat, you can thank an insect. If you like birds in your trees, fish in your streams, you should really be concerned with insect declines.

Matthew: Yeah, that sounds great. I mean, we, we hear a lot in the news about insect declines, which is great because for the longest time most of the media outlets were just not covering this as an issue. But now we're beginning to see articles, you know insect apocalypse and big headlines and these, those kinds of things.

Matthew: I mean, how significant are insect declines and, you know, what’s causing them?

Scott: Yes, I would say Matthew it is good that people are talking about it when you said it's great to hear about insect decline.

Matthew: Oh yeah, sure. I wish we didn't have them too, but yeah, no, thank you. Wish we didn't have to but it is important that we're talking about this issue.

Scott: You know, study after study now, from all over the world show that where we look insects and their allies the other invertebrates are showing decline.

Scott: Just a couple little benchmarks to get everybody on the same page. An analysis was done by the United Nations Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in a number of years ago. And I was one of over 300 authors on, on this policy analysis and, and what we concluded is that greater than 40% of insect pollinator species may be facing extinction and this is particularly bees and butterfly.

Scott: So extinction over the next several years. But it goes beyond just the pollinators. We're seeing declines in aquatic insects. A study in the upper Midwest found that mayfly biomass declined by over 50%.

Scott: About a third of our tiger beetle species are rare enough that they would be considered threatened or endangered.

Scott: And a really important paper came out in 2021 in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And what they found is that although - you know anytime we're looking, remember I said there's a million species and there's just a lot going on out there, so there is variation in the studies we're seeing - but on average, studies are showing that populations of species of insects are declining at one to 2% a year.

Scott: Now that may not seem significant, but 2% annual decline is approximately 30% decline over 20 years. That's an almost a third of insects may be decline each 20 years. And that's just not sustainable because as I mentioned, fewer insects mean less pollination, less bird food, less food for fish and all the other services that they provide.

Matthew: Yeah, I was just relating that to my own age and that's like 30% every 20 years. I mean that I've had three 20 year segments now. You know and if there's one third less each 20 years that's astonishing and I remember as a kid driving at night and you'd have the headlights and there were the moths you'd see in the headlights everywhere you went and I don't I don't see that anymore.

Scott: Yeah, no, you don't see it anymore and I remember driving, it's interesting in the daytime, of course, cleaning off your windshield. But I remember once at night in Nebraska that my dad actually got out to clean off the headlights because they were so covered with insects that it was dimming the headlights.

Matthew: Well, Scott, thank you for giving us kind of this picture of decline and what's happening. I think some of those numbers are really shocking.

Rachel: You know, what is causing this? I think everybody can probably think of one or two things, but it seems like maybe there's a lot of different factors that are interacting with each other even maybe, that's causing this decline.

Scott: Yeah, and I will say, so that people don't tune out right now, I am going to talk about solutions. We've got solutions. I like to say that part way through so that people are like, oh my gosh, this podcast, I don't want to hear it.

Scott: But unfortunately, Rachel, it's us. We are the cause of decline of insects. It's the way that we live our lives. It's the way we grow our food. It's the places in how we live, right?

Scott: So the first and biggest issue is habitat loss. We grow our food and we build our houses in a way that really excludes all wildlife, not just insects. If you look at corn fields or where we grow our almonds in California, these areas have little or no habitat in most cases.

Scott: And where there's little or no habitat left, there aren't going to be these insects. But on the other side of it, we also the way we live, the way we build our houses and the landscapes we build there are 40 million acres of lawns. And lawns provide little to nothing for insects.

Scott: So number one, habitat loss. Number two though is habitat degradation. Oftentimes I’ll be at a corn field and there's no habitat and over the fence there's you know a roadside. And the roadside has some habitat, yet we're mowing it three, four times a year, not allowing that habitat to grow. So over mowing over grazing, invasive plants, that's called habitat degradation.

Scott: So we got lost, degradation. Next only to that is pesticides. We use more pesticides now than we ever have in human history. We do that in our farming. We do that in things like mosquito management. And what most people don't realize is we do it in towns and cities.

Scott: Some studies show that we're using more pesticides in towns and cities than we do in certain agricultural areas. And it's the quest for that perfect lawn that we've put in and you know the perfect rows which is just really unfortunate.

Scott: We are bringing beauty supposedly into our landscapes at the same time excluding, you know, pretty much all other animals in many cases.

Scott: You add to that many other issues. We live in a global society, so we've got diseases that pass from managed bumblebees to wild bumblebees from even honeybees, to, our wild bees. Things like lights, you know, lights affect a lot of night time insects. People don't really think about insects at night, but you know we have tens of thousands of species of moths and they mostly come out at night. We've got fireflies, lights mess with that.

Scott: And then probably the other overarching issue is climate change. One study showed that if we see the worst climate change, we will see the loss of half of the habitat for all invertebrates on the planet. So you add this together and a colleague of mine, you know, called it death by a million cuts.

Scott: It seems like we're doing everything we can to harm insects to harm invertebrates as well as to harm other wildlife and we do need to really change our direction here.

Rachel: Thank you for talking about lawns. I think people often think - it's a green it's good, right? But not all green is created equal in that way and same with flowers, you know, not all flowers are helpful for pollinators. So, thank you for bringing that up and I think we need to redefine what beautiful means.

Scott: Exactly. And you know, to me, beauty is when you have a diversity of flowers, and then the diversity of animals that are visiting those flowers. And, and we'll talk about that but one of my favorite things is to go out in my garden and look not just at the flowers but to look at the bees and the butterflies and other insects that are coming to those flowers, which are amazingly beautiful as well.

Scott: It's just much more enriching. It's much more beautiful than the manicured green lawn and a few, few flowers that don't provide anything.

Matthew: Yeah, I mean, seems like a real kind of doom and gloom. I know we said that at the beginning. It's kind of depressing when you when you hear those numbers the scale of the losses the scale of the losses the those numbers, the scale of the losses, the range of things that we're doing and obviously we should be worried because you were describing the importance of these little creatures to our lives.

Matthew: All the different things that they bring to us that you know benefits that are directly daily in our diet and the beauty of the landscape around I mean the natural beauty not that you know the artificial pesticide laden beauty.

Matthew: But I mean there must be hope. Yeah, I mean, there must be things we can do.

Scott: Yes, there's certainly hope and you know I talk about this issue a lot and to me it is important that we ground people in the real issues that we don't sugar coat that we've got a problem out there because unless we can really understand the problem, we can't get to solutions and unless we can let people know that there's a problem, I don't think we can engage them in solutions.

Scott: But there are really solutions. I wrote a paper with several colleagues including Matt Forster from the University of Nevada, Reno several years ago that that that was titled you know Insect Decline: We Know Enough to Act now, and in that paper, we outlined conservation projects that that have made a difference in a meaningful way in a meaningful timescale, whether it's restoration of a stream or a river or whether it's re-flowering farms or better management of wild areas or even my yard.

Scott: My yard actually gives me hope. I moved into this neighborhood eight years ago and there was nothing really. I mean, there was lawn and there were non-native plants and some of the non-native plants were pretty cool.

Scott: I can get into cool plants but they were really providing little to nothing. We really, over time, changed our landscape to provide both. A great place for us humans, my, me and my kids and my dogs. I guess they're not humans, but they're part of our family.

Scott: So for our family, but also a habitat for and really an oasis for bees, butterflies, other flower visiting insects and birds and then we grow a lot of food plants like tomatoes and apples and raspberries and blueberries. And I saw it, for lack of a better word, bloom. We have so many flowers that bloom throughout the season.

Scott: We have so many insects visiting, we have so many birds eating the seeds of what we grow and yet we can still use the lawn. We have a little bit of grass. We have a trampoline, you know, we have chairs that we sit out in. This doesn't take away. And on top of that, I know I get way more comments from people walking by my yard than anybody with the normal manuscript.

Scott: People go by and go, wow, what a beautiful yard. So that makes you feel pretty good too. But we can do it and that's the cool thing about insect conservation. We do need to work on polar bears and wolves and Bengal tigers. That's a really important conservation work. But I probably can't go out and, work to somehow restore Bengal tiger habitat.

Scott: But I can restore habitat for bees, butterflies, and other insects.

Matthew: Yeah, for me that's one of the things that Is brilliant is that direct connection, the ability to go out and do something. And see the benefit.

Rachel: So Scott, I'm glad you brought up the example of your own yard and something that you as an individual have done. And we talk about these big issues like climate change or loss of habitat or pesticide use. I think it's hard even for me at times even working for a nonprofit that works for insects and other invertebrates that I as one person and making a difference.
I'm just one person am I really making that to give a difference? What are your thoughts on that for viewers who feel like maybe there's not much they feel that they can do as an individual?

Scott: Yeah. Oh, even me who sees the benefits of all this work from all our incredible staff. I get I have these feelings, right? We're seeing these big challenges that we're seeing with climate change, with biodiversity loss, are we making a difference? So on the level of a yard, we are. You can see that what I did in my yard is going from almost no animals in the yard to being the yard with the most animals in the neighborhood.

Scott: We've got other people who are seeing what I'm doing and actually taking action and planting for pollinators. We've got a neighborhood association who's having, partly because of our work in habitat at a local park, wanting to do a showcase of what people could do in their in their in their habitats or in their yards to create habitat. And so, you know, one yard, you can make a difference on a small scale.

Scott: If we can get a hundred people, we can make a difference in a neighborhood. If we can get a million people, we can make a difference in a region. If we can get a hundred, one million people, we can really, really make a difference. And the thing is, it's not just about your yard.

Scott: That's the cool thing about it. I mean, it's really fun to work in your own space, but you know I've got a natural area close here where we work on removing invasive species and ensuring that we've got the native species growing.

Scott: You know you can go work with your perks department and volunteer. We've got volunteer events to help do restoration and you know management of invasive species. With we work on a larger level so I don't want to say that just homeowners can do this on their own because this is really an all hands on deck approach.

Scott: You know, we work with farmers to put in large habitat projects on farms. Some of our farmers, I'm not saying all farmers, but a lot of farmers really get it. Because they get that if they don't have pollination, they're not going to have the livelihood that they have growing their food. We work with other land management agencies, state agencies and other agencies on, habitat projects.

Scott: And they're just so much that we can do to together. And I think that the thing is that that we do need to think outside of the box. You can work in your lawn, you can try to, get your park engaged, you can get your neighbors engaged. But we also as I pointed out in our paper it's time to act now. We need our governments to act as well.

Scott: So one of the very important things you can do is vote and think about who you vote for and are they conservation minded and are they science focused? You can also, if you have a little bit bigger pocketbook, you can help. Bye buying organic and sustainable food.

Scott: We all need to lower our carbon footprint as well. One of the nice things, I'm not saying that COVID was good, but I just saw a paper yesterday that working at home can cut carbon footprints by about 50%. Right? Because we're doing things like webinars, things without traveling.

Scott: So we just need to take these steps and there are many different steps people can take. And the biggest thing though is to do something, to get started. And then if you're feeling comfortable, talk to your neighbors. I know that's a big way to get a movement.

Scott: And again, if you can plant some flowers, people will notice and they'll go. You know, why the heck are you planting flowers? You can tell them and I've seen the difference in our own neighborhood.

Matthew: Yeah, no, that's great. We were going to ask you what people could do, but I think you just answered that one.

Scott: Okay, sorry.

Matthew: No, no, it's great. I mean, it, it makes our task so much easier, you know. But I mean, we're always interested in things that people can do because it's so much of what people can do needs, cause it's so much of what people can do, needs land, you know, their own garden, the community garden or whatever.

Matthew: And you touched on some things that people can do, in their own garden, community garden or whatever. And you touched on some things that people can do, if they don't like, you know, volunteering in a park or and all of that. But I know there's also community science, which is another element of what people could do to contribute to finding some of the solutions that we need to insect decline.

Scott: Yes, so community science is really vital for our work on insects. You know, I will go back to what I said that, you know, we've got 1.4 million insects and other invertebrates. And as somebody calculated, Xerces is approaching 90 people that's still 20,000 insect species per staff person at Xerces. You know, that includes our accountants and things. So that's a lot to focus on.

Scott: Conservation, that is, done in a way that maximizes the benefits of our conservation. We have to understand the animals that we're conserving. And we do that by working with academics scientists. We've got hundreds of academic scientists that we work with across the world.

Scott: But that only scratches the surface of what we need to know. And Xerces staff have been amazing at harnessing now tens of thousands of community scientists to help us get data on bumblebees, on monarch butterflies, on fireflies, on freshwater muscles, on dragonflies, we've been able to get really meaningful data that helps us to use our conservation funding really wisely. And, and I think that's, that's really important.

Scott: And the cool thing about becoming a community scientist, I think, although I guess I'm geeky, is you get to go out and interact with these insects. You get to understand more about these insects. We've had so many of our community scientists just really excited all they've learned. And then the other benefit of community scientists is they often become leading voices in their own communities for conservation efforts on these.

Scott: And so yeah, community science is really, really important and I think it is really one of the reasons Xerces has been able to do what I think is the high quality conservation work. Because again, I will just say one more time, you have to understand the animals, you have to understand where they live, how they live. So that your conservation efforts have maximum benefit to them.

Rachel: Well, Scott, you've brought up the Xerces Society a few times, which is the organization that you lead and the one that we all work for. And you've talked about the importance of the work that we do and kind of given us, I think a pretty good picture of maybe not the whole breadth of what we do, but quite a few things.

Rachel: So I'm going to get through a curve ball at you here. If you had to do an elevator speech of why the Xerces Society is so critical to invertebrate conservation, what would you say?

Scott: Well, I would say that the Xerces Society uses really a proven holistic approach. We use applied in community science as the underpinning of everything we do. We use this information to educate. And inspire the public. To conserve, manage, restore habitat. And this science also in forms our advocacy and our policy work because as I said Yeah, we need a hall hands on approach.

Scott: We need better policies that protect biodiversity and at the same time we need everybody or as many people as possible to take action in their own lives and I think this science-based approach is really key to Xerces success.

Scott: And then I will just say that, you know, we have been successful. We look at our metrics. We have protected and restored over 3.5 million acres of habitat. And really improved management on tens of millions of acres of additional habitat with the support of our incredible volunteers, our incredible staff. And our incredible supporters. And, and partners.

Scott: So, at its core too, I will say that Xerces is a partnership organization. We don't own land so our goal is to work with folks to provide them the information so that they can better restore, manage, protect the lands that they are on, whether that's your yard, whether that's a national park or whether that's a farm or everything in between.

Matthew: Yeah, well, I'm just trying to work out how many floors we went up in the elevator. Just like the Birch Khalifa, elevated speech. No, no, no, it's great.

Scott: Yeah, I wasn't the elevator speech, I guess. That was my, that was my talk when I'm sitting next to somebody and they're stuck with me on an airplane.

Matthew: Ha ha.

Matthew: Yeah, I can see that you're the kind of person who would engage the neighbor in a conversation and probably get them, you know, get them have make a donation at the end, I'm guessing.

Scott: Well, we had a challenge at one point years ago, with a couple of us staff people who, and, I did get more people to become Xerces members on airplanes than anybody else.

Scott: One thing just so you know, you know, we're talking about all of these issues. I think it's important that people know that I and people at Xerces are traveling less than we used to on airplanes. Airplanes are a major source of carbon into the atmosphere. It's really as important sometimes to travel, but there's a lot of ways we can do it now without traveling so now I guess I've got to practice this on Zoom.

Matthew: Okay, yeah, no, but I think it's true that you've touched on another issue there that although we've talked about things that you can do. There are changes we can make in so many different ways to our own lives to reduce our impact. I mean obviously carbon and climate change is one that seemed to be on our minds.

Matthew: A lot these days after unseasonal hurricanes and wildfires and floods and whatever else I mean. And that today, the day we're recording this, United Nations is having a special climate session, you know which sadly, some of the national leaders are skipping.

Matthew: Which it's like this is a big issue and people are not getting in but I diverge and off there but but no, I mean simple things that we can make to our lives, like driving less, buying local food. All of those little things can help our insects, which after all, are little, so it's almost like little steps, little actions to help little animals.

Scott: You brought up something now that I maybe should have mentioned. The other really cool thing about invertebrate conservation, the restoration, the management, is that we can do it in a way that actually captures carbon and provides resilience for biodiversity. The neat thing about the habitats for insects and other invertebrates is that they need to be focused on native plants.

Scott: Native plants are the best plants for actually capturing carbon in their roots. And they need to be diverse and diversity leads to resilience. The more diversity of plants and animals you have. The more resilience you have to potentially that drought.

Scott: Some of these plants might do better, some of them not, some of the insects that are living there will do better, some of them not in that year, right? So you have these up and downs, but you have that diversity. And so this is called nature-based climate solutions.

Scott: And all of the projects that Xerces’ focused on really have the dual goal of protecting biodiversity, you know. The insects and other invertebrates and the animals that need them to survive and capturing carbon which is really cool. So your yard can actually capture carbon if you grow the right plants and it can provide for all of these animals.

Scott: So that I find really, really important. And a study in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a couple of years ago showed that about 20% the carbon capture we need to prevent us from going to 2°C above what we were could come from nature based climate solutions. So, yeah, just get out there and see if we can get more landscapes, these diverse landscapes will support diverse insects and I kind of like to say it's like we have ripped the fabric of the planet, the plants and the insects are really the fabric of the planet.

Scott: We ripped that fabric in too many different pieces and now it's important to try to stitch it back together. And together we can do we can do this and I've seen it work on small scales and on large scales. But we do need to amplify this approach. We need to get as many people engaged as possible. That's the key.

Matthew: Yeah, thank you. That seems like a positive note on which to begin to wrap this up. This has been a great conversation. And I appreciate all the work and dedication that you've put into Xerces and you know saving insects.

Rachel: Yes, definitely. And we want people to get involved. We want people to do community science, you know, invertebrate conservation is for everyone. There's literally something for everyone and reach out if you have questions or if you want to get involved and you're not sure how to start and keep listening to the podcast.

Rachel: Well, to end here, this is my favorite question to ask folks. I will shamelessly admit that. Scott, I want to know what inspired you to dedicate your life or at least a big portion of your life to invertebrate conservation?

Scott: Well, I'm the youngest of nine kids and we lived in a neighborhood in Omaha where you know we didn't have a huge amount of money and so we didn't go on far-flung vacations. But what I had was a little area that didn't yet have houses about a block and a half from my hands.

Scott: And I was a dirty little boy with dirt all over me from turning over rocks and digging in the little ephemeral stream and finding, you know, butterflies and beetles by day, fireflies, which are beetles, by the way, by night.

Scott: And I will say it wasn't just those, it was snakes and lizards and anything that was cool. I didn't have the ability to interact with large wildlife. So I interacted with small wildlife and I fell in love with them.

Scott: Now when I went back to school, my goal was really to take science. And make it applicable to conservation. But I never dreamed I get to work on my favorite subjects which were insects and other invertebrates. I figured I'm going to do this and I'm going to go work on whatever large, you know, I didn't really know until I found out about Xerces Society.

Scott: And it was a perfect fit for me to come in and, we were quite small at that time and we've been able to attract incredible talent like you two and many many others. But that's why I do it.

Scott: And that's why another reason to make sure that your parks have wild areas where people can really experience nature. Had I not had that area? Would I be doing what I'm doing now? I don't know. Maybe, maybe I would have found it somewhere else, but, but, but that's how I did it and, and if you're a mom or a dad. Make sure you put up with these young people who will bring insects into their homes. And my mom would go to with me to, the thrift stores and buy aquaria so that I could look at these insects.

Scott: And you know, would just sort of shake her head like, oh my goodness, what is my son doing here? But she allowed me to do it, which was another thing. She didn't get creeped out. She said, oh, well, this is interesting even though not 100% positive. She was nearly as interested as me.

Scott: But. Anyway, that's how I got into this. I lucked into it by being interested in the topic and then Xerces Society had already been around for 25 years, or more than that when I came on board. So I was lucky I had a platform to explore my passion.

Rachel: Well, thank you for sharing that Scott and I find a lot of people are inspired when they're kids that's really, you know, such informative years and I love that you're able to find it in your backyard.

Rachel: I think often times people think of nature as national parks and these giant landscapes that are wild, but you could walk out inside and find a spider, that is nature and you can connect to that spider. So finding it all around you and fostering that, especially in young people, I think is so important and has obviously had an impact on you and your own in your own personal life.

Rachel: Thank you so much for your time, Scott. It was wonderful to have you on the podcast. We hope to have you back again soon. Thank you to our listeners.

Scott: Thanks this was delightful.

Matthew: Bug Banter is brought to you by the Xerces Society, a donor-supported nonprofit that is working to protect insects and other invertebrates -- the life that sustains us.

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