Another Reason to Curb Light Pollution: For the Bugs

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Photo by Klim Levene

We've extolled the virtues of dark skies here before, most recently with an International Dark Sky Park designated for Michigan. It turns out less light pollution is good not only for the human soul, but for our insect friends. A European group says badly placed solar panels should be another concern related to light pollution, because they can end up frying insects. Really? The new study by Buglife: The Invertebrate Conservation Trust says planners need to pay attention to solar glare when they go about siting panels. Solar glare, from the light reflected by solar panels? The British group's study says "artificial lighting and shiny flat surfaces in the wrong place and at the wrong time significantly disrupt ecosystems, and could be contributing to current declines and extinctions of invertebrates."

This makes sense, that artificial night light would disrupt the natural rhythms of light and dark that govern the feeding, breeding and migration patterns of nocturnal insects. It's no surprise to say that bugs like to congregate around artificial lights, like the ones near building entrances.

The group says a third of flying insects attracted to bright objects like street lights will be zapped by a hot lamp, or picked off by a predator. It may be hard to feel sorry for bugs that bug us, but bugs do serve a purpose after all. Bats eat mosquitoes for food, for instance.

But Buglife also wants to focus on "polarised light pollution." The group contends that "proliferating solar panels" have added greatly to the natural flat, shiny surfaces on Earth that reflect polarized light: ponds or rivers. Insects are attracted to these shiny solar surfaces, and have been known to even lay eggs there, believing them to be ponds, according to Buglife.

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Photo by James Cridland

On its face, this seems reasonable. The correct siting of solar panels is just as important as the correct siting of wind turbines, so there are minimal disruptions to the ecosystem, including for us humans. Let's just hope this doesn't turn into another cry for banning solar panels. The coal industry would surely love this to be a mantra: Don't hurt the insects with your shiny panels. Coal piles are nice and (cough) dark.

Buglife recommends numerous actions to curb solar glare, including incorporating patterns of rough or painted glass on solar panels. This issue has been studied before. A document posted on the website says most solar panels already use an anti-reflective coating and says dry sand can be more reflective than a solar panel.

Florida Power & Light says solar panels reflect about as much light as a field of planted corn. Still, these last two examples focus on human, rather than wildlife impacts. Are we doing enough to curb light pollution? Maybe solar glare is the least of our worries when it comes to artificial light that permeates the night. See an earlier story on this from Michael, "Solar Panels Fatally Attractive to Aquatic Insects." See also, a BBC story on the Galloway Dark Sky Park in Scotland.

More on Insects and Bugs
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