Carolina Curious: Are Bugs Disappearing in North Carolina?

Carolina Curious: Are Bugs Disappearing in North Carolina?

7:29am Jan 13, 2020
Winston-Salem beekeeper Brad Niven examines a hive in his backyard. APRIL LAISSLE/WFDD

This time of year, it’s hard to spot many insects buzzing around the Triad. But can we expect them all to return when the weather warms up? That’s what listener Don Rumsey wanted to know.

“Are there far fewer honey bees, bumblebees, lightning bugs, June bugs, and butterflies than there were a few years ago?”

WFDD’s April Laissle visited a backyard beehive in Winston-Salem to find out for this edition of "Carolina Curious."

In front of beekeeper Brad Niven’s driveway, hundreds of honey bees buzz around a wooden box atop a waist-height stand.  

It’s a happy sight for Niven. These days, he says, it’s been hard to keep his hives thriving. This season, he started out with 16 hives. Now, he has eight. 

“One of the worst things that can face a beekeeper is when you open up a hive and you either see no bees or you see dead bees,” he says. “You automatically assume it's your fault.”

It’s a reality many beekeepers have faced for years. In North Carolina, hive losses in the 2018 year reached as high as 25 percent, according to data from the BeeInformed partnership. It’s hard to say whether other insect populations in the area have experienced similar declines. A study published last year revealed that globally, certain species of bees, butterflies, moths, and beetles are all threatened with extinction. 

Professor of entomology at North Carolina State University Clyde Sorenson says while there are many anecdotal reports indicating local insect losses, there isn’t enough data to draw any concrete conclusions. 

“But that being said, there are a number of threads that suggest yes, that certainly some insects are declining,” he says. “And, you know, that's a source of a great deal of concern.”

Lower insect populations could mean lower overall animal populations and fewer healthy crops, among other things. 

Sorenson says there are a number of reasons why North Carolinians may be seeing fewer bugs in their backyards. Certain pesticides may kill more kinds of insects than intended. Parasites, particularly the varroa mite, have resulted in honeybee losses for years. Habitat changes brought about by land development can also lead to insect declines. 

“And then it's almost certain that climate change is still another piece of the equation,” says Sorenson. 

He says climate change could impact insect populations both positively and negatively, forcing some bugs to relocate to North Carolina, and drawing others away from the state.  

“If we have milder winters, you would think, well, that's going to be good for insects. But if we have milder winters with more severe cold snaps interspersed amongst them, that could be bad for them if the plants that insects rely on break their dormancy in a different way, a different time than they used to,” he says. “That could have a huge impact on insect populations.”

There are steps local gardeners can still take to bring bugs back into their yards. 

Leslie Peck is the director of the Arboretum at Tanglewood Park in Clemmons. The park includes a garden filled with plants native to North Carolina, including tall grasses. 

“That's one thing that the insects like for shelter,” she says. 

Native grasses and other plants like Purple Coneflower have all thrived in the space. And, she says, in the spring, the arboretum is swarming with butterflies and bees. 

“The American dream with the lawn, that's not what was here before we built all our houses,” Peck says. “And so it's not where the insects are living. Fireflies, for one, it's said they like tall grasses. So if you have an area that you can turn into a more natural area with grasses or higher vegetation, they're going to be more likely to hang out there than in your nicely manicured lawn.”

The state legislature has also recently moved to safeguard some native pollinators. The Pollinator Protection Act would limit the use of certain pesticides thought to be harmful to pollinators like honey bees. So far though, the bill has not moved out of committee. 
 

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