We are heading for an insect apocalypse, which would spell disaster for humankind. It's time we turn our lawns back into productive plant communities.
We are a country obsessed with large swaths of lawn. Lawn grass is the most-grown crop in the United States, yet one that we can not eat. Lawns require a dizzying supply of water and chemicals, while depriving pollinators and other insects of the support they need.
There is a long list of all the reasons that lawns are an ecological nightmare, but the insect situation may be the most urgent.
The great insect extinctionLast year, the first global scientific review on the worldwide decline of insects was published and it was just really grim. It didn't get much fanfare, even though it found that more than 40 percent of insect species are declining and a third are endangered. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. At the rate insects are declining, they could vanish within a century.
As I wrote about the findings, "if we lose all the insects, then we lose everything that eats the insects, and then we lose everything that eats the things that eat the insects and so on. They are also essential for pollination and the recycling of nutrients. You can see where this is going: As the authors put it, a 'catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems.'"
According to the authors, the most significant driver behind these plummeting numbers is habitat loss and conversion to intensive agriculture and urbanization.
Which brings us back to lawns.
Lawns are bad for bugsWriting in The Washington Post, biologist Douglas W. Tallamy notes that "Unfortunately, we humans are now in a position to declare victory in our long war on insects." But Tallamy, the author of "Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard," says that the catastrophic decline of insects is not inevitable.
"Each one of us can work to bring back those populations by collaborating on what I call the 'Homegrown National Park,' a collective preserve built in and out of our own private yards," he writes.
And it's a brilliant idea.
Almost three-quarters of the continental U.S. is privately owned, so it's up to landowners to help steer this ship into safety. "Our public parks and preserves are vital, for they are where biodiversity is huddling," Tallamy writes, "but they are not large enough and are too isolated from one another to sustain for much longer the plants and animals that support our ecosystems."
He suggests that if every landowner converted just half of their lawn to productive native plant communities, we could transform more than 20 million acres of "ecological wasteland" into insect-supporting habitat.
Now that he mentions it, doesn't it seem so obvious? Lawns are egregious water hogs; they also degrade our watershed, and thrive on chemicals that taint our waterways. And to what end? All so we can be a bit more like the 18th-century European elite, who started the lawn craze in the first place? Meanwhile, these expansive carpets of status symbol could be put to crucial use in helping to stave off the extinction of insects.
What to plant instead of a lawnTallamy suggests removing invasive species, and then plant native plants that support the most insect species, he writes:
"Homeowners in all but the driest areas of the country should plant oaks, Those who want meadows should be sure to have goldenrod, asters, and sunflowers. In general, native plants support the life cycles of 10 to 100 times more insect species than nonnative plants, and a few plants (such as native cherries and willows) serve as hosts for 10 to 100 times more insects than most other native varieties."
(You can let the National Wildlife Federation's Native Plant Finder be your guide in determining which plants are good choices for supporting food webs in your area.)
And here's another crucial thing to remember: Insecticides kill insects. Profound, I know, I know. But people don't seem to realize that getting rid of a pesky insect comes with collateral damage: getting rid of the beneficial ones. Amazingly, homeowners use more insecticides per acre than farms do. Ugh.
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Tallamy talks about planting plants for pollinators, which is something we write about frequently on TreeHugger (see related stories below). He also mentions light pollution, noting that putting motion sensors on security lights and replacing white bulbs with yellow LEDs are both important ways to ensure that insects aren't suffering under our strange need for illumination. (Another topic we write about frequently on TreeHugger.)
In writing for Scientific American about American's obsession with lawns, Krystal D'Costa writes that, "Lawns are indicative of success; they are a physical manifestation of the American Dream of home ownership." But what good will home ownership be in the midst of the collapse of nature?
"We can no longer leave conservation to professional conservationists; there simply are not enough of them," writes Tallamy. "Along with land ownership comes responsibility for stewarding the life associated with that land. The task is not as enormous as it seems. Just take care of the life on your property."
Which means it's time to give up the lawn, and turn meadows and pollinator gardens into the new American Dream.
For more, check out Tallamy's book: Nature's Best Hope A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard.