A Silent Spring?

Contributor: Esther Townsend.

Photos: Michaela.

With the declining insect population also come declining bird population. For the last two years since the ‘Great Fire of 2017’ I have noticed with concern how few insects we now have in our garden. In previous years the sunny front garden was a hive of activity year round; butterflies, dragon flies, lace wings, bees,  bee flies, beetles, the list goes on and on.  There also use to be an abundance of insect eating birds – gone are the thrushes, cape robins, white-eyes, hoopoes, fly catchers and more.

Insects fulfill an important role, such as pollinating flowers, decomposing leaf litter and in some cases controlling harmful pests, e.g. ladybird beetles feed on aphids. Insects are also a food source for spiders, frogs and toads, lizards, skinks and geckos, insect-eating birds and small mammals such as shrews and hedgehogs.  Many insects are breathtakingly beautiful and fascinating to watch, butterflies are the obvious example, but there are so many other insects that warrant a closer look.

Insects are often associated with pests, very often the few insects that occur in gardens are obliterated with insecticides causing great harm to the environment and biodiversity. That brings to mind a book by Rachel Carson that was published in 1962. Starting in the late 1950s, prior to the book’s publication, Carson had focused her attention on environmental conservation, especially environmental problems that she believed were caused by synthetic pesticides. The result of her research was Silent Spring, which brought environmental concerns to the American public. The book was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies, but, owing to public opinion, it brought about numerous changes. It spurred a reversal in the United States’ national pesticide policy, led to a nationwide ban on DDT and helped to inspire a worldwide environmental movement.

In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson definitively proves that pesticides do more harm than good. She details how ineffective most pesticides are, how toxic they’ve become, and how they’ve managed to radically alter entire ecosystems by killing off animals like robins and eagles.

  • Carson begins by noting that attempts to improve the efficiency of pesticides have merely resulted in their becoming even more toxic. As those toxins move up the food chain, they increase in potency to the point of killing many animals, including eagles.
  • Carson details how pesticides are bad for humans. The toxins are stored in fat, where they linger in the system, causing many problems, including diseases like cancer.
  • At the end of the book, Carson offers up several safe, natural methods that could replace pesticides, arguing that these methods could only improve modern agriculture.

Almost sixty years have lapsed since this book was written.  New and more toxic pesticides have been developed to the detriment of our environment. World wide insect populations have plummeted since 1962,  a study published recently in the journal Biological Conservation made headlines for suggesting that 40 percent of all insect species are in decline and could die out in the coming decades.

As gardeners and lovers of nature it is our duty to  create a friendly environment for these creatures. Given the riches that butterflies and other insects bring to the garden, be a little more forgiving, share the abundance of nature with these little creatures. They make the vast array of fruit and vegetables  we consume possible, they are a food source for insect eating birds,  they pollinate the ornamental plants that adorn our gardens, and they are responsible for  all the beauty of flowers and trees we see in nature.

Give nature a helping hand, plant not only seasonal nectar rich indigenous plants  but also plants that the larvae can feed on. And  please do not use any chemical pesticides or herbicides, there are alternative measures to safe guard your precious plants.