Saving Earth From the Ground Up

(National Pest Management Associa)
By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 30, 2007

You may have heard of the nematode, that microscopic gelatinous worm in your garden soil, but did you know that four out of every five living creatures on Earth is a nematode? The whole bloody planet is crawling.

A gram of soil might also contain 5,000 species of bacteria and untold fungi in a secret universe separated only by the soles of our shoes and our sad ignorance of our global home. These and other marvelous revelations come from the celebrated Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, who was in town this week as lawmakers, government officials and scientists took a little time away from pressing matters of state to consider . . . the plight and the future of bugs. Laughable? No, don't dis bugs -- your very life depends on them, it turns out.

Wilson, winner of two Pulitzers for his books on invertebrate life, lectured to more than 200 like-minded bug lovers as part of National Pollinator Week events and celebrations.

At 78, he remains a lithe figure, crowned with a mop of steel-gray hair and disco-age translucent brown glasses, as if hewn from amber but missing the frozen prehistoric mosquito. At Wednesday's talk at the Kaiser Family Foundation, Wilson was focused on putting self-absorbed Homo sapiens in some ecological context. If humans were to disappear -- he doesn't advocate this, for the record -- the effects on the insect world would be minimal. "It's unlikely a single insect species would go extinct except three forms of body and head lice," he said. Close relatives of the parasites could still live on gorillas. The primal, complex web of life would continue "minus all the species we have pushed into extinction." Ouch.

But reverse the tables, remove the insects, and what would happen? Wilson paints a Mad Max scenario, in which not only do the bees, flies, beetles, moths and butterflies disappear, but all the plants that rely on them to set fruit, nuts and seed vanish as well. No worries, you say, because two-thirds of the crops we eat are wind-pollinated. But insects, not earthworms, are the principal tillers of the soil, and without them this secret microbial universe in the soil would decline, too. Dwindling food sources and plunging human populations would bring out the beast in people, who would do what humans always do -- kill each other. Wilson speaks of "an ecological dark age" where "the survivors would offer prayers for the return of weeds and bugs."

This might be an amusing parlor game except for some alarming developments of late in our insect world. A National Academy of Sciences report released in October voiced fears that bees and other pollinators were in decline and that there has been insufficient scientific study to be able to measure their fortunes. Then came colony collapse disorder, or CCD, in one-quarter of the managed honeybee hives in the United States. Mostly affecting trucked hives used to pollinate crops such as apples and almonds, the phenomenon resulted in worker bees leaving hives and not returning. Wilson deferred to others on the topic. Kevin Hackett, of the federal Agricultural Research Service, said scientists are studying if the phenomenon is a product of "a perfect storm" of maladies, pests and environmental stresses, and are focusing research on the secondary effects of a parasitic mite called varroa as well as a disease called nosema. "We know varroa can transmit viruses," he said.

"It's a bad thing when any species is at risk," Wilson said of CCD. "But in a sense it's the Katrina of entomology." It has brought a public awareness to the plight of pollinators, which Wilson calls "the heart of the biosphere."

Laurie Davies Adams, director of the Coevolution Institute in San Francisco, told the audience that the plight of the pollinators has drawn bipartisan support in Congress with the introduction of proposals this week that would increase funding for pollinator research and for encouraging farmers, ranchers and others to establish and conserve pollinator habitat. Wilson sees a "tipping point in this country in terms of environmental awareness and concern. This is encouraging."

Exactly 250 years after the Swedish scientist Carolus Linnaeus gave science the means to catalogue the living Earth, with his system of scientific sorting and naming, "we may have discovered at a crude guess 10 percent of the life forms on Earth," said Wilson. "We are flying blind in many aspects of preserving the environment, and that's why we are so surprised when a species like the honeybee starts to crash, or an insect we don't want, the Asian tiger mosquito or the fire ant, appears in our midst." In other words: Start thinking about the bugs.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company