Sunday, May 20, 2007

It's Not Just Bees

One of my heroes, Edward O. Wilson, is warning that environmental stress threatens the survival of many invertebrate species, and without them we are truly fucked.

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."

I'll refer here to Ellroon who has blogged extensively on Colony Collapse Disorder within honeybee colonies. CCD has been the foremost warning of what Wilson is referring to. As he so astutely puts it, pollinators are "the heart of the biosphere".