Article 62 – ‘Unseen enemies’ Part 1

Hi, and welcome to Taiga Bonzai in article 56 ‘Bug apocalypse’ we discussed a topic that was hot news to many horticulturists and conservationists at the time re: the continuing decline in insect population that is causing great concern as they are vital to our survival.

Introduction – this 4 part series ‘Unseen enemies’ discusses an even bigger issue – the increasing problem of pests and disease that is devastating the world’s tree and crop plantations and the ultimate effect on society. How this phenomenon occurred is the result of mankind’s actions. Since the dawn of time these actions have caused catastrophic consequences in many ways, now the world is facing unprecedented challenges that will be extremely difficult to resolve. Have we reached the point of no return – some believe that we have past it whilst others are more complacent, ‘yes these situations need to be addressed but they can be resolved’; but can they?

During our travels around the globe we have been privy to some extraordinary and amazing locations, returning to them at a later date we note that many have been destroyed – piles of rubble, barren land, some are now heavily polluted – rife with pestilence and disease. Such experiences do not wane, they remain strong and clear in the mind. How have we arrived at this juncture, follow our journey as we try to shed some light on the issue.

The beginning – according to scientific research vegetation had evolved on Earth approximately 700 million years ago and fungi and bacteria approximately 1,300 million years prior, this evidence is based on the earliest fossils of those organisms. The general consensus is that organisms also called microbes are beneficial for example, they keep nature clean by helping break down dead plants and animals into organic matter.

However, in the dinosaur periods Triassic (251.902 to 201.3 million years), Jurassic (201.3 to 145 million years) and Cretaceous (145 to 66 million years ago) we know creatures that roamed the planet were predominantly herbivores; but not all. Carnivores also existed and confrontation between the two resulted in carnage on an immeasurable scale. All animal and vegetable life whilst decaying gives off a rank fetid odour attracting bacteria and pathogens to take hold and multiply and thus eventually spread and infect. Fortunately early hominins had yet to evolve hence were oblivious of the problems of that time.

Paleolithic Age

Mankind’s contribution – the Hunter-gatherer culture developed among the early hominins of Africa, with evidence of their activities dating as far back as 2 million years and according to Richard B. Lee & Richard Daly of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers “was humanity’s first and most successful adaptation, occupying at least 90 percent of human history“. In addition, it is understood that through archaeology, anthropology, genetics, linguistics and the advent of writing from primary and secondary sources this information is relatively common knowledge.

Colin Tudge in his book ‘Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers: How Agriculture Really Began’. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press (1998) contends that.”The Neolithic saw the Agricultural Revolution begin between 10,000 and 5000 BC in the Near East Fertile Crescent” (Mesopotamia). During this period humans began the systematic husbandry of plants and animals and as agriculture advanced, many humans transitioned from nomadic to a settled lifestyle as farmers in permanent settlements. The relative security and increased productivity provided by farming allowed communities to expand into increasingly larger units, fostered by advances in transportation.

However, Alina Polianskaya of Inews.co.uk (March 15th 2018) points out that “Early humans may have been trading with each other much earlier than previously thought, scientists excavated ancient artefacts at Middle Stone Age sites dating back 300,000 years at the Olorgesailie Basin, in southern Kenya. They uncovered weapons made of materials that could not be found there, suggesting hominins at the time may have exchanged goods with others.”

In his paper ‘Evolution: What Makes a Modern Human’ Nature. 485 (7396) (2012) Chris Stringer tells us that “Modern humans spread rapidly from Africa into the frost-free zones of Europe and Asia around 60,000 years ago.” This notion is supported by Adam Hart-Davis in his work ‘History: The Definitive Visual Guide’. New York: DK Publishing “The rapid expansion of humankind to North America and Oceania took place at the climax of the most recent ice age. At the time, temperate regions of today were extremely inhospitable. Yet, by the end of the Ice Age, some 12,000 years ago, humans had colonised nearly all ice-free parts of the globe“.

The Silk Road – a network of trade routes connecting China and Far East with the Middle East and Europe, was established when the Han Dynasty in China officially opened trade with the West in 130 BC. Although these Silk Road routes were protected from exterior forces by the Han and other countries under signed treaties, ‘unseen enemies’ (pests and disease) also travelled with the traders causing infection, sickness and often death, because those who came into contact with these infectious bacteria had no immunity for example. In 541 to 549 AD the Justinian plague recorded by the Greek historian Procopius court historian to Justin 1st. (r. 527–565) was the first major outbreak of the first plague pandemic.

Emperor Justin 1st

The plague Yersinia pestis is a gram-negative rod-shaped, coccobacillus bacteria that is related to both Y. pseudotuberculosis and Y. enterocolitica. It is a facultative anaerobic organism that can infect humans via the oriental rat flea. Y. pestis was discovered in 1894 by Alexandre Yersin, a Swiss/French physician and bacteriologist from the Pasteur Institute. Strains of Y. pestis closely related to the ancestor of the Justinian plague strain have been found in the Tian Shan, a mountain range on the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and China, suggesting that the Justinian plague originated in or near that region. It is estimate in some quarters that the Justinian plague killed between 30 and 50 million people – about half the world’s population at that time and that was just the beginning of what was yet to come.

Alexandre Yersin

The Silk Road routes remained in use until 1453 AD, when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with China and closed them. It has been nearly 600 years since the Silk Road was used for international trade, but the routes have had a lasting impact on commerce, culture and history that resonates today and now they are being reopened. Today international trade is arguably the most important factor in the modern world as nations rely on others to supply the many types of commerce they need, hence agreements are signed to lessen the bureaucracy. Nonetheless, international trade does bring problems as we shall find out in this series.

Some countries enforce stringent rules on imports for example, Australia probably has the strictest regulations on what is imported, meat products, fruit and plant material including seeds from many countries including Asia and Middle East are prohibited, but some are permitted if the exporter is registered and has the required documentation. Unlike the rest of the world Australia (although having its own disease problems) is free of many other known diseases and has been since 1872, due to stringent pre and post-border measures; meanwhile the rest of the world continues to battle with disease containment.

Today much has changed we have advanced – science and technical horticultural knowledge has allowed us to become adept in food production; new plant species have been introduced, more variety and apparently more taste – but have we gone too far? -The reason why this question is asked is because for every action there is a reaction often resulting in irreversible consequences.

In part 2 of ‘unseen enemies’ we continue our journey giving more factual information on for example, how pests and disease endemic to a particular part of the world are now commonplace in many other regions; the result of man’s actions and the devastating outcome. Until next time, BW, Nik.

Article 56 – ‘Bug apocalypse!’

Introduction – ‘Bug apocalypse’ is a prelude to a 4 part series ‘Unseen enemies’, which looks at the increasing problem of invading pests and disease devastating agriculture, horticulture, natural woodlands and forests across the globe. These will be posted at a later date because, this article concerning the decline of our insect population looks at a problem that is now making headlines around the world.

The decline – Over the last few decades there has been an increasing decline in the insect population. Disappearing are many helpful predators including, Ladybugs Coccinellidae, Green Lacewings Chrysopidae, Honey Bees genus Apis, Praying Mantis family Mantidae, Spiders family Arachnida, Ground Beetles family Carabidae, Soldier Beetles family Cantharidae, Assassin Bugs family Reduviidae and Robber Flies. Asilidae

These insects are part of the food chain they eradicate unwanted pests including aphids, scale, mealy bugs and saw fly and in turn are the main resources for many birds, small mammals, fish, reptiles and other creatures. Moreover, they are an important key for human food production because, many crops depend on insects for pollination leading to fruit and seed production. Insects play a very important role in decomposing organic matter allowing nutrients to return to the soil and support the on coming crop season. Therefore, in terms of insect ecological importance, a sharp decline in their abundance is of great concern.

The arguments – Here are the points view from others whom are mindful of this issue. Will de Freitas asks if we are facing insect Armageddon he states that, “A recent study found that German nature reserves have seen a 75% reduction in flying insects over the last 27 years. The researchers involved made stark warnings that this indicated a wider collapse of the general insect population that would bring about an ecological catastrophe if left unchecked.”(article – October 25, 2017 – The Conversation)

Damian Carrington Environment editor for The Guardian in his article (10th February 2019) argues that “The world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems.” “More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles; the total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available.”

In the February 2020 journal Biological Conservation no, 242 (a leading international body of scientists in the discipline of conservation science) Editor in chief Vincent Devictor of the Institut des Sciences de L’Evolution de Montpellier, France stated that. “We are causing insect extinctions by driving habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation, use of polluting and harmful substances, the spread of invasive species, global climate change, direct over exploitation and co-extinction of species dependent on other species.”

Devictor goes on to say that “With insect extinctions, we lose much more than species. We lose abundance and biomass of insects, diversity across space and time with consequent homogenization, large parts of the tree of life, unique ecological functions and traits and fundamental parts of extensive networks of biotic interactions. Such losses lead to the decline of key ecosystem services on which humanity depends.”

According to http://www.magnificentmeadows.org.uk “The UK’s remaining rich grasslands now cover a minute fraction of the area they once covered, even relatively recently in the early 20th Century. There were once natural wildflower meadows in every parish – today only 2% of the meadows that existed in the 1930’s remain. Nearly 7.5 million acres of wildflower meadow have been lost so far and they are still being destroyed.”

The blame game – These are but a few of the arguments from scientists and conservationists from the many we have researched and from these points of view it appears we have a major situation on our hands. There are many theories as to the decline in insect populations they include, habitat destruction by intensive farming and urbanisation, pesticide use, introduced species, climate change, eutrophication from fertilisers, pollution and artificial lighting; the latter used in huge polyethylene tunnels for intensive crop production.

Yet, despite the scientific evidence provided, globally our performance in instigating effective insect conservation is below par, we need to realise this fact and act accordingly. This would involve more inclusive education, better decisions with land managers and government officials in maintaining unique habitats, across the globe. To have more expansive sustainable agriculture and forestry, improved regulation and prevention of environmental risks and greater recognition of protected landscapes.

But the frailty and idiosyncrasy of human nature is what it is, the world’s heads of state congregate at summits and conferences to find ways to solve problems, each pointing the finger blaming the other for their misgivings when they themselves are equally responsible for the same actions. It is fickleness, bureaucratic hypocrisy by the asinine in an attempt to maintain ‘stability’, (economic, environmental and social or profits, planet, and people) a mind set proposed for the wealthy not the masses.

As the world’s population increases more land for housing, food production, highway construction and industrial complexes are required to support the increasing demand resulting in irreversible changes to the environment. Insects are a major component of the tapestry of life and failure to protect them will have dire consequences. It is now time for heads of state and their minions to refrain from ‘putting their heads in the sand’ and listen to the scientists to prevent a ‘Bug apocalypse.’ Until next time, BW, Nik.