December 28, 2021
This week on Factually we’re re-releasing one of our favorite episodes. Entomologist and professor Akito Kawahara joins Adam to discuss why insects are disappearing at an alarming rate, how humans must play a critical role in their survival, and how incredible insects truly are. Happy Holidays!
137 — The Mass Disappearance of Insects with Akito Kawahara (Re-Release)
Speaker 1 [00:00:22] Hello and welcome to factually, I’m Adam Conover. Thank you so much for joining me, everybody. If you’re listening, I really love having you here. We’ve loved having you here all year long. This is our last episode for 2021. I hope that if you’re in a country that celebrates a holiday that has some time off of work around this time of the season, hope you’re relaxing. Hope you’re playing some good video games, doing some crossword puzzles. Hope you’re getting vaccinated and boosted, if you can, in order to keep you and your loved ones safe. I hope you had a wonderful 2021 and I hope you have an even better 2022. We, this week, are rerunning one of my very favorite episodes from the past so that I can take some time off as well. I also need to relax a little bit, at least that’s what my therapist keeps telling me. This week we are rebroadcasting for you one of my very favorite episodes: my interview with entomologist Akito Kawahara from 2020. This interview was so much fun. His energy and passion and knowledge about insects is so infectious. I left this interview abuzz, alive to the possibilities of the insect world around me, and it gave me a new appreciation for a part of life that I had always not really considered and not really taken into account. Hopefully it’ll do the same for you. I don’t think you could leave this interview without having at least a little bit of his passion for creepy crawlies. It’s such a wonderful interview, and I know you’re going to love it. So without further ado, let’s get to my conversation with Akito Kawahara from 2020. Akito, thank you so much for being on the show.
Speaker 2 [00:02:03] Yeah, it’s great to be here. Thank you.
Speaker 1 [00:02:05] So I talked a little bit in the intro about the decline in insect numbers that we’ve seen, but put it in your terms for me. What is the starkest way it looks to you?
Speaker 2 [00:02:15] It looks pretty bad. There’s been a lot of studies that have come out recently that are showing that insects are declining in large numbers, globally. So most of the studies have been done in Europe, but there have been more studies now across the world. In terms of the starkest numbers, I’d say, a study recently suggested that 40 percent of all the species of insects might decline (or disappear or go extinct, in other words) in the next few decades.
Speaker 1 [00:02:43] 40 percent of insect species might go extinct. And is that just the ones we know? Or is that even species we have not identified yet?
Speaker 2 [00:02:51] So that’s based on the ones we know.
Speaker 1 [00:02:56] Got it. I spoke with Emma Maris (who’s a science and environmental writer) a few months back, and she pointed out the difference between extinction, which is how we often think about the decline in animal numbers: that species are going extinct, they never come back. Obviously, extinction is a big problem, but there’s also this related issue of abundance decline. That we might lose a large number of animals, even if the species is still hanging around. Maybe there’s a lot less of that species. I know I saw just a few months ago, there was a story that North America has lost a third of its birds. If you look around North America, you’ll see one third less birds. It’s not an issue of extinctions; you’ll just see less storks, less wrens, all those things. Is the same thing happening with insects?
Speaker 2 [00:03:49] We think so, yes. So the studies that have looked at this, one of the issues here is that we don’t have a lot of data still because they’re insects and we just don’t know what’s actually happening to the extent that we want to know. But from the studies that have been published, we see lots of numbers in abundance and also declines in the species themselves. So a good example of abundance is, for example, there’s a butterfly called the Regal Fritillary. It’s a butterfly that used to be found throughout North America (more or less) but was restricted to these habitats, these tallgrass prairies, which have declined 99 percent or so. Now these butterflies have no nowhere to go because the habitats themselves have declined so drastically. These numbers are declining in abundance and people have been doing recapture studies and checking the abundance of them. And we know that there’s very few of them now because the populations have been drastically reduced and the habitats are fragmented significantly.
Speaker 1 [00:05:03] Are we seeing an overall decline in insects, period? Is it that wide?
Speaker 2 [00:05:11] We think so. It’s happening in all kinds of different insect groups. So the first studies, there was a big study that came out a couple of years ago that looked at insect declines in Germany. They did a survey of insects over 27 years, and they showed that about 75 percent of insect biomass (that’s the weight, or the mass of the insects that are collected) has disappeared by 75 percent in 27 years or so. And these are malaise traps. So these are entomologists and insect enthusiasts going out and setting up these flight intercept traps; which is basically a trap in which an insect flies into it. It’s kind of like a screen, and the bugs crawl up and they go into a little jar and they keep them up for about a week or two. They measured this over the years, and they were able to show that the weight (or the mass) of the insects has gone down significantly.
Speaker 1 [00:06:13] So these are folks just trying to measure, hey, how many insects (or how many pounds of insect) – When you say biomass, you mean how many pounds of insect are we getting? Just taking a broad swath, and they’re just like, ‘That number is going precipitously down?’
Speaker 2 [00:06:28] That’s right. It’s happening more, across different insect groups now. So there’s lots of different studies that are coming out. Last week there was another one about Qantas flies. These are aquatic insects that live in streams and the larvae live in the streams. They’re really important sources of food for fish and things like that which live in the water. But their numbers are declining, too. So it’s not just bumblebees and honeybees and butterflies. It’s beetles. It’s happening with dragonflies. It’s happening with all kinds of insects.
Speaker 1 [00:06:59] For the person listening, saying, ‘OK, look, I know about bees. There’s been a lot of study about colony collapse. I’ve heard about that and bees are cute and I understand they help my food supply. Sure. But why should I care about beetles?’ What is the impact for us? Why should we care about insects? Obviously you care about insects, you’re an entomologist.
Speaker 2 [00:07:22] So there was a study that was published a while ago, that looked at the impact of insects and what’s the impact on the economy in the United States? That study was published over ten years ago now. But if we correlated it to modern times, or this year, it would be something like $70 billion annually, is the impact of all insects, together as a group,
Speaker 1 [00:07:48] We’re making $70 billion of these insects?
Speaker 2 [00:07:50] Something like that, yeah. We talk about pollination, which is very important, right? I think people don’t realize, if you go to the grocery store and you look at all these different kinds of fruits and vegetables and so forth: things like peaches, potatoes, onions, peppers, oranges, cabbage, tomatoes, grapes, watermelons. All this stuff is is pollinated by insects. So if you lose your insects, there’s a big problem. And it’s not just the honeybee. There’s lots of other insects that are pollinators that are important. In addition to that, insects serve a really important role: which is to act as physical decomposers. Decomposing and making the soil more rich. Animals that die, insects are there to take care of them and let them go back into the soil. They’re prey for birds. Something like 96 percent of songbirds rely on insects for their young. Freshwater fishes require insects for their food. Also, grizzly bears. Many people think of grizzly bears as being these these big animals that feed on fish, like salmon. But in reality, they rely more heavily on insects and berries and so forth. So those are the kinds of things that we need to be thinking about, in terms of insects. And of course, they’re also important in terms of progress, like scientific progress. Drones are being designed by looking at how flies fly, for example, and we do a lot of genetic research using flies and other kinds of insects. Silk is another example. It’s a huge industry, especially in Asia, and it’s dependent on a particular moth.
Speaker 1 [00:09:43] Silkworms, am I right?
Speaker 2 [00:09:44] Silkworms, right. Yeah, It’s a domesticated silkworm. It’s actually domesticated. The moth can’t fly anymore.
Speaker 1 [00:09:50] Wait, I heard about that. I’m sorry. Can we do a little tangent? I went down a Wikipedia rabbit hole about this once, and I want to make sure I got this right. Because I’m remembering and it’s blowing my mind all over again. We make silk using domesticated silkworms, which are a domesticated insect. We’ve domesticated it so thoroughly, that it can’t breed by itself in the wild. They can’t be let go and continue to do their thing. They now require humans to tend them because we’ve had such a long relationship with them, as a species. Am I right about that?
Speaker 2 [00:10:21] That’s correct. Thousands of years. That’s right. They can’t really do anything. They require us to give them food.
Speaker 1 [00:10:28] That is so fucking cool. You expect things like dogs, horses, whatever. But I didn’t know that we’ve had this thousand year long relationship with domesticated silkworm moths. Are we still using that silk? Like, if I have a piece of silk is it coming out of a worm’s butt?
Speaker 2 [00:10:53] It’s coming out of their mouth parts, actually.
Speaker 1 [00:10:55] Oh, OK.
Speaker 2 [00:10:56] It’s OK. They have silk glands and they produce silk, which is also a surprising and very interesting area of research. A lot of products that are important, like bulletproof vests and things. These are designed from things like spider silk because they’re elastic, but they’re very, very strong. It’s one of the strongest compounds on the planet and we rely on them and a lot of the research so far has been on a few species of spiders or the silkworm moth, but there’s hundreds of thousands of other insects that produce silk. So if you think about it, the diversity of an opportunity that we have here is astonishing, and we’re just beginning to find out what’s out there.
Speaker 1 [00:11:46] You have such a passion for insects. How did that develop for you? Where does that come from?
Speaker 2 [00:11:51] Yeah, it actually comes from when I was a child growing up in Japan. I’m Japanese. In Japan, there’s a culture where you can go to the department store and they sell beetles in cages as pets. You go to the park, for example, in the summer and you’ll always see kids running around with butterfly nets and looking at nature. That environment is pretty unique, and it’s where I grew up. It was actually my father who got me into it, when I was really young. We used to spend every weekend going somewhere to look for butterflies and insects. I started a little insect collection and it just all started from there. I’ve always loved insects since then.
Speaker 1 [00:12:39] That’s really wonderful. I feel like, in my experience with certain pieces of Japanese culture, I’ve seen that. That bug catching is much more of a hobby and much more of an interest, and it’s such a wonderful thing: to take a closer look at the environment. Because bugs are everywhere, we have bugs the United States. But nobody was encouraging me, ‘Hey, bugs are really cool. Go categorize them and catch them, learn about them.’ We have dinosaurs, et cetera. But I didn’t have that relationship with bugs. And that’s such a wonderful thing, because bugs are fascinating. I just nerded out with you about silkworms, I got really excited about it.
Speaker 2 [00:13:24] Yeah, it’s amazing. Bugs are really great. You don’t really need that much, to study bugs. You just need a flower pot outside of your window and there’ll be insects. I think it’s a great opportunity to look at the small things that are around us. For me, it’s an opportunity to meditate, too, and think about this amazing world that’s out there, in terms of nature. The opportunity for people to go outside, too. I think, right now, we have an opportunity to go outside and look at organisms and animals and nature and wildlife more. I think we should take that advantage, too.
Speaker 1 [00:14:06] So what does, as someone who studies insects love insects, this large decline feel like for you? Is this a horrifying prospect?
Speaker 2 [00:14:19] Yeah, it’s shocking. It’s really surprising. As I mentioned, I am Japanese and I go back to Japan pretty much every year. When I was a child, I used to see certain insects really abundant everywhere. Now, you go back and you can’t find them. You talk to some of the local entomologists and they don’t know what happened either. These are things, where you used to just see hundreds of them everywhere and you can’t find them anymore. We don’t really know exactly what the reason for that is, but it is very alarming. I think having that kind of perception to see insects and watch them, you begin to really see these kinds of trends. I think it’s important for people to try to see that. It’s something that’s unique, I think.
Speaker 1 [00:15:10] Have you had trouble getting attention for this issue? I saw this study about a third of bird species decline. I saw that headline and I was like, ‘This is apocalyptic.’ This is not, ‘Oh, there’s a warning light flashing.’ This is the world that we live in changing before our eyes. I grew up in the 90’s, when we had so much media about the environmental apocalypse where you see the fast forward to what the future could look like if we don’t protect nature. My god, seeing that a third of birds are gone feels like that. That’s like, ‘OK, we’re a third of the way to having no birds.’ We should all be panicked about that. This should be the biggest news story in the country. And yet, it was on the front page of the times for one day and that was about it. I can only imagine that with insects, it’s even tougher to get attention. Yet, you’ve convinced me that this issue is massive.
Speaker 2 [00:16:09] It’s massive, it’s really massive. And like I said, we’re just at the tip of the iceberg. We don’t really know what’s happening in the tropics. We know that there’s lots of insects there and huge biodiversity there. But are they declining? We think they are. We see some trends and some data, but the data are so limited. So we really need more people just documenting. I mean, we could just go outside and take pictures of insects, and that would be very helpful. There are sources, like iNaturalist, where you can upload your photo using a location.
Speaker 1 [00:16:40] I use iNaturalist. That’s a wonderful, wonderful app. You go take a picture, if you’re on a walk in the woods or you’re on a hike or even in your city, you see an interesting plant or bug or bird. You take a picture of it with the app and it’s actually shockingly good at figuring out what species it is, just from the picture. Then you upload it and you’re a little citizen scientists. And it says, ‘I saw a wren or a palm tree’ or whatever, and it goes into a database of where these species are.
Speaker 2 [00:17:06] Exactly. It’s really great. A lot of scientists are using these data now, too. As an individual, you can contribute directly to these scientific studies that require and need these data about the organisms around us. So I think that’s a great way to contribute.
Speaker 1 [00:17:26] So what are the causes of this? I’m sure there’s many. You talked about habitat destruction for this one particular species earlier. But when we’re looking at such a wide scale decline, it seems like it must be something larger. Is climate change playing a role? What is it?
Speaker 2 [00:17:46] Yeah. I mentioned habitat declines, of course. There’s also another very important aspect is agriculture. So because of human population growth, there’s more people on the planet now than ever before. We require more food and because we require more food, we need more land to create the agriculture and the crops that we need. So that is contributing to (of course) habitat declines, but also to increased pesticide and herbicide use. These toxins that are used to control pests are very strong. There are lots of very powerful chemicals that are being used and they end up going into the water systems and they get blown around to the nearby fields and so forth. More and more studies are now showing that the use of toxins and pesticides are especially problematic. So that’s one thing. You mentioned climate change, and I think there have been some studies now that are showing that climate change definitely is an important factor. With climate change comes changes in weather patterns, the temperature is going up. We can have greater water stress and things like this. When you think about insects, many of them are very restricted to particular habitats. For example, on the tops of the mountains in Hawaii, on these volcanos, there are some insects that only live there. In the whole world. As temperature rises and the climate changes, those icebergs and ice shields and things can disappear and those insects lose their habitat. It’s not just in Hawaii, it’s all over the world. But these habitats that are very fragmented, that can become influenced by the impacts of climate change (like weather patterns and changes like drought and things like that) we think will have a huge impact on insects. So it’s not really just one factor, but multiple factors caused by climate change, we think, will lead to many of these problems that we see.
Speaker 1 [00:19:58] What about artificial light? When I walk around my city, there’s so much light. I remember reading a study years ago about how pure darkness is now endangered, itself, in the United States. You got to go out in the middle of Montana or something to get a perfect level of darkness. This is a problem for astronomers because you go out with a telescope, you can’t see certain stars because there’s so much artificial light around. And hey, when I see a light and there’s bugs bumping into it, I’m like, ‘Hold on a second. This is messing with this bug’s habitat in some way. I don’t think this bug would, in nature, be bumping into a light over and over again.’ So yeah, how does that play a role?
Speaker 2 [00:20:38] Yeah, definitely. Light is a big problem. Some countries are now changing their streetlights to shift the wavelength. Because we know the UV light: the spectrum goes from UV to infrared, and UV light has a big impact on insects. It attracts insects because they’re positively phototaxic, meaning they’re attracted to light sources. So if you leave your light on, on your porch, if you’re using a big, strong UV light or something like that, all these bugs will come to it. What happens is, a lot of the bugs will fly around the light and they get exhausted. And a lot of times they’ll just sit there till the morning and the birds come and they all eat them, or they just die of exhaustion. Sometimes, we actually think that a lot of them become blinded by the sheer strength of the light, and they can’t go anywhere. Literally blinded by the light. So lights are a big problem, and it’s something that we know is a factor. But there’s been surprisingly few studies, still, on the impact of anthropogenic light on insects. But we know that insects are attracted to them, and the thing to do about this is really to turn your lights off. It’s pretty simple. Use a different wavelength light or just turn your lights off, if you can. You look at cities and lots of storefronts and things, lots of excessive use of light and electricity that is not necessary.
Speaker 1 [00:22:11] But let me get a little pessimistic, if you don’t mind. When I think about issues like that, light is just a thing that humans just want so much of. With the switch from incandescent lights to LED lights, lighting got so much cheaper. And the result is people put so many more lights out. The amount of light, the amount of actual photons we’re emitting, has gone up and up and up. And the thing is, it makes people feel safer. I’m just thinking about at my college campus, there was a movement to add more lights because people felt that it was unsafe to walk around in the dark. That was in the middle of upstate New York. You can only think about, in a city or other places where, ‘Hey, that alley is dangerous. Okay, let’s put a light up. So then people can see.’ It seems like a hard ask to ask humanity, ‘Hey, for the sake of the insects, let’s have 25 percent less light. Let’s have 30 or 50 percent less light.’ That, to me, is one of those things where it starts to feel like humanity is coming into conflict with insects, and we’re not going to be able to reconcile. I’m not trying to be that pessimistic and say that we can’t do it. But light is part of human life, you know? And if light is bad for insects, that means humans are bad for insects in a broader way.
Speaker 2 [00:23:39] Yeah, I think we should think of it in terms of not just insects too. I mean, it’s the insects that are serving as prey and food sources for all these other organisms that are around us. If we start to really lose all these insects, something like 40 percent of all the species, that is going to have an incredible impact on all of wildlife. We just don’t really think of insects. They are this invisible force that’s out there, that we just don’t really think about. But they’re really, really fundamentally important. I would argue that we really can’t let that happen. There are solutions, we can shift the wavelengths of light so they are further away from the UV spectrum. If we do that, we still can have lights that are lighting up areas that just don’t attract insects.
Speaker 1 [00:24:28] Got it. Better lights.
Speaker 2 [00:24:30] Yes, more efficient and better lights. That’s right.
Speaker 1 [00:24:32] Well, let’s talk some more about those solutions right after we get back. We’ll be right back with more Akito Kawahara. OK, we’re back with Akito Kawahara. Akito, I want to ask just because one of the ones that people have heard about the most is the decline in bees. That’s gotten a lot of press. I saw a Kickstarter for a rooftop apiary that I could put on my house to keep bees in and part of the pitch was that it helps support the bee population. ‘You’ve heard so much about it and you can help out!’ Let me tell you, my girlfriend was not excited about the idea, so we didn’t get it. She was not excited about the idea of keeping bees on the roof. Do we know, because I know for a long time these bee disappearances were a mystery, or do we have an idea now of why bees have declined so much?
Speaker 2 [00:25:33] Well, yes, to some degree. We talked a little bit about colony collapse disorder before. That’s one of the big factors that’s taken place recently with honeybees. With colony collapse disorder, that’s a situation where a huge number of the the colony leaves the hive and goes somewhere else and essentially abandon the queen and maybe a few others that stay in the hive. In that situation, all the workers go away. So we don’t have any workers left in the in the hive anymore. This has been shown to have some significant impact on declines of honeybees. Something like 10 million beehives were lost in the six year period leading up to 2013. There’s evidence that suggests that it’s probably pesticides, pathogens potentially being transmitted by things like varroa mites, possibly habitat loss and things like that. But pesticides seem to be one of the big impacts on colony collapse. Also bumblebees. We think of bees as being oftentimes honeybees, but the bumblebees are very important in terms of pollinators as well. There’s many species of bumblebees and they’re declining pretty rapidly, too. There’s been some really neat studies that are using museum specimen data. Places like the American Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, the museum here; we have historical records of all these insects that have been collected for hundreds of years, dating back to the seventeen hundreds and things like that. We can use that data to really understand how these bees and other insects are disappearing. When you start to plot and make those maps and you look at where they were in the past and what’s actually happening, you can model this and figure out approximately how much of it has actually disappeared. So yes, globally, bees are declining. Both honeybees and bumblebees. Bumblebees are also very important because there’s a lot of species that are potentially at risk right now.
Speaker 1 [00:28:05] Now why do you think that bees have gotten so much press in this issue? Ask the person on the street, they’ve heard that bees are declining. They haven’t heard about any other species you mentioned. Why is that and how does that reflect our maybe cultural misunderstandings of insects?
Speaker 2 [00:28:22] Well, I think when a lot of people think think of bees, they think of honeybees and they think of pollination in your yard. You go outside and you see some flowers and you see flowers being pollinated by these insects. But we should really think about the other insects that are there that are also pollinating. Flies are really important pollinators. Mosquitos, now we think, are pollinators. A colleague of mine, who is here in Florida, was recently looking at a mango tree. He was telling me that these mango trees, he thinks, are being pollinated by mosquitoes because you go there at night and these flowers are just covered in mosquitoes. So we think of mosquitoes as these horrible insects that come and bite you. But there are only a small fraction of mosquitoes that actually vector disease and harm human beings. There’s a ton of other things that are happening, and mosquitoes are very important to the environment and possibly helping us pollinate as well.
Speaker 1 [00:29:25] OK, so hold on a second. We may be able to do a correction of my work here, because on an episode of ‘Adam Ruins Everything’ a couple of years ago, we did an episode on little bugs. The name of the episode was ‘Adam Ruins Little Bugs.’ We did a little mini segment in that based on some research and argument that we had seen, that we could wipe out mosquitoes in order to prevent mosquito borne diseases. That we could use various techniques to conduct a mosquito genocide and that would be fine because the mosquitoes played almost no other environmental role or any benefit to us. The diseases that they cause are extremely debilitating. Malaria is one of the worst global diseases around. I just want to know, were we wrong about that, in your view?
Speaker 2 [00:30:19] Well, we know that some mosquitoes can be problematic. There were some diseases like Zika and things like that which were pretty serious a couple of years ago here in the US and globally. So there is concern, of course, for those kinds of mosquitoes. But there’s 3,000 or more species of mosquitoes on the planet, and most of them are not harmful to human beings. The mosquitoes that feed on leeches and other organisms that are not vertebrates. So I think we just need to think of that. We’re not just talking about one species of mosquito, but there’s lots of insects out there that are doing important things. And just because it’s a mosquito, it’s not necessarily a bad animal or insect.
Speaker 1 [00:31:15] Can I just say how much that answer moved me? Yeah. Your passion for these things and how much you care about mosquitoes, and how much you made me care about mosquitoes in that answer. Yeah, just because it’s a mosquito doesn’t mean it’s bad. I have been too judgmental of mosquitoes.
Speaker 2 [00:31:36] So Adam, did you know this? I have to tell you, can I just say something? This is really pretty interesting. There’s actually some mosquitoes that we think feed on other mosquitoes, too. So there are these big mosquitoes that you can find in ponds and streams and stuff like that, but they feed on little mosquitoes. So they’re actually a bio control agent for mosquitoes. It’s amazing what’s happening. So I guess my point is that we shouldn’t be just discarding mosquitoes as these horrible things and use bug zappers and just kill them all. That mentality is not really the right way to deal with the situation.
Speaker 1 [00:32:20] OK, well, consider that a correction for our segment. In the event that we’re able to do this on television, we will because I think that’s a good point. I think that take that we put forward there, which again was based on other experts that were putting that forward, we were signal boosting. But it’s glib, at the very least. I think what you’re giving me an appreciation for, is that in nature, there’s almost an infinite amount of detail. When we look at any species or any group of species, when you get really close, they’re definitely doing things that you don’t understand. The interconnections between them is so nuanced. The amount that is happening in any square centimeter of Earth, like the number of species are interacting there (a bunch of which are insects) are doing things that we don’t even understand know about because it’s like a fractal in terms of the closer you get, the more detail there is. Is that how you see it all?
Speaker 2 [00:33:21] Yeah, yeah, totally. I think, especially with kids, one of the things that we should do is bring kids out into nature and really show them this stuff. These little things that are happening; they can look at them really up close, and it’s just fascinating. The thing is, if you want to make a contribution to science, what you can do is become an entomologist. There’s infinite things that we can discover. Even in the United States, there’s estimates like eighty thousand species of insects or undescribed in the United States alone. I mean, that’s crazy. Eighty thousand species. You just go in your backyard and you’ll find new species. That’s what we’re talking about. That really is the case. So your contribution as a human being, to this world of understanding the world around us, everybody can contribute. Kids are innately interested in moving things. There’s actually a period of time between about 6 and 12 years old that kids will have the highest interest in the natural world. So in Japan, where I’m from, we try to encourage kids to go outside during that time period because they’re going to learn a lot. Even if they don’t become entomologists, just having a general understanding of the natural world into whatever profession they proceed is really important. It’s important to understand that the world is really complicated. There’s a balance between these different organisms and there’s all this stuff happening, even at the microscopic and fascinating levels.
Speaker 1 [00:35:00] Yeah, that innate fascination. I think of that all the time. I think of how interested I was in categorizing dinosaurs, for example, kids love to do that. This reminds me of how I read that the creator of Pokemon was a bug enthusiast as a kid. And that maybe they had a similar experience to what you were describing. I remember that story of, ‘Oh, catching bugs as a kid and learning about them and categorizing them. That led him to create Pokémon, a video game and transmedia intellectual property series that is about catching and collecting and learning about those things.’ I love Pokemon but if you’ve got a kid and you’re like, ‘Oh, my kid loves learning about how this one has a fire attack and this one has an ice attack.’ Well, your kid would love bugs in exactly the same way. That’s tapping into the same thing that kids are naturally good at. The thing that their brains love to do, and you can just say, ‘Hey, let’s go get some caterpillars and get a book about them and learn what they eat and learn what special powers they have.’
Speaker 2 [00:36:13] Totally, totally. We talked about iNaturalist too, they can be contributing directly. You can do things like contribute to science, you can create an insect collection. You can take pictures and you can organize them. Once you start looking at them, you realize how many there are. If you have a little backyard, you’ll see lots of different kinds of insects out there. It becomes more and more interesting, too, because you start to see rare ones. You start to see things that are typically not there, for example, and then you want to know what they are. So you try to find out about that insect, and it’s just this amazing world that it opens doors in ways that you can’t – It’s just hard to explain, but it’s amazing. And it’s really, I think, important.
Speaker 1 [00:37:03] Well, so that’s a really great thing we can do to help make the next generation more aware of these issues. What steps can we be taking, going back to this apocalypse that we’re talking about? What are the changes that we can make in order to slow or reverse it? Do you have hope that we can reverse it?
Speaker 2 [00:37:25] Yeah, I think if people come together and we take action. I think, yes, it’s possible to slow this down or even reverse the process. Clearly, a lot of this requires government level changes and things like that in terms of controlling pesticides, and those kinds of things will definitely need to happen. But as people, I think we individually can do some basic things where we can contribute to helping the insect decline. One thing we can do is, if you have a lawn, we can convert that lawn (or at least a little bit of it) into a natural habitat. So I encourage people to try to convert maybe 10 or 20 percent of your space in your your lawn. You just remove the lawn and just let it grow out naturally. If you can plant native species, if you can figure out what the native species are by looking online and getting information and planting those species, that’s great. But all you have to do is really just remove a little bit of your lawn. Because lawns are essentially deserts, they don’t help insects at all. If we just got rid of some of it, it will regrow and things will start to come in there. You’ll see a lot of amazing different kinds of insects and birds and everything coming back.
Speaker 1 [00:38:49] You’re blowing my mind because I’ve always thought of that as being like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s kind of nice. Native species are nice and maybe drought resistant too. Being in California, we should use less water.’ But you’re really talking about, ‘Hey, if we look at how much life and biodiversity is going to be in one square foot of ground, we’re talking about rewilding our own lawns.’ You’re replanting the rainforest, essentially, for that one little square foot and there’s a ton of life that’s going to benefit just from that change. That’s right.
Speaker 2 [00:39:24] That’s right. You won’t even have to do anything. It becomes wilderness and you don’t have to do anything. It’s actually less work than having a lawn. You’re contributing to these insects and their survival and wildlife in general. It’s really important because, we think about conservation: lots of conservation efforts are focused on protecting large parks and things like that. But we need these stepping stones. These little habitats are necessary for organisms to disperse. Even your little, several square foot of the converted lawn space can function in that way. If we all contributed a little bit of our lawn to something like this, we would essentially be able to re-naturalize our environment. And it would be great for this problem.
Speaker 1 [00:40:10] Are there any examples where insect populations have been brought back from the brink at all? Where you’ve seen a story we can look at to take some hope and some success from?
Speaker 2 [00:40:23] Yes, there’s been some work in Germany that’s pushing forward this idea of converting lawns and bringing back natural populations of wildlife or plants. They’ve already seen some of these changes taking place. So it’s still pretty young. We’ve just started to do these kinds of efforts, but it’s very promising. I’m convinced that it will work if we all do it and we just need to do it. I think there are other things too, we don’t want to be using pesticides in your yards. Things like limiting the light outdoors. Don’t put up that bug zapper outside of your house. Those bugs zappers are not really killing mosquitoes, they’re killing all kinds of other insects that are attracted to the UV light. Even when you wash your car, it’s better not to wash your car in your driveway where a lot of these soaps and things will just go right into the ground. We should be thinking about biodegradable soaps and different kinds of things. Even driveway sealants are also problematic, too. We know that there’s lots of toxins and things that go into the runoff and it can cause problems. So I think just being conscious of these kinds of things, in terms of what we can actually do, if we all do it together then we can have a big impact on the world.
Speaker 1 [00:41:51] So let me just ask you about these lights. At my house, we put our outside lights on a timer, because the way our street is organized makes the street feel a little bit safer for everybody. But I have this concern now that these lights are detrimental to bug health. I don’t know what kind of lights they are there, they came with the house. They’re probably LED lights. LED lights from Home Depot. There’s only a couple of them, there’s like three. They’re not super bright. They’re not floodlights. They’re just little lights along the walkway or something. But should I replace these lights? And if so, with what? I’m gonna turn this into Adam’s Home Improvement.
Speaker 2 [00:42:35] I think, yes, we should definitely try to. One thing we could do is put them on timers. You did mention that earlier, using frequencies of light more towards the infrared, so a little further away from UV. UV range is very problematic for insects. Many different insects are attracted to that area of light, so we want to move away from that. So generally, lower dimmer lights are better. So if we can get LED lights that are dimmer, if you can use those, that would be much better. Better the more towards the infrared spectrum.
Speaker 1 [00:43:14] Is that a type of light I can buy?
Speaker 2 [00:43:17] Yes, you can buy some of these lights now that are for this purpose.
Speaker 1 [00:43:22] What do I look for?
Speaker 2 [00:43:24] So you want to look at the light spectrum, the wavelength. So the wavelengths should be around 700. If you can go closer to 700 nanometers, that’s better.
Speaker 1 [00:43:36] Got it. What do you say to folks who are – You probably get this question all the time, but I’d like to know how you approach it. Folks who are like, ‘Ahhh bugs are gross. I don’t like them. I don’t care about this. I have trouble relating to them.’ Do you have anything to say to those folks?
Speaker 2 [00:43:55] Bugs rule the world. I would say that there are bugs everywhere. There’s bugs everywhere you look. They’re really amazing. When you stop and look at them, they’re incredible. For example, like fireflies. When we think of fireflies, we think of the beautiful lights in the summertime. But we now know that these fireflies, a lot of them use their flashes to attract other species. So the females of some species can mimic the flashing lights of other species females to attract males of that other species. What they do is they call these males of other species that are not related to theirs, and the males think it’s their mate. So they fly to that female and then the female eats it. So fireflies are predators. They eat other insects, but they actually eat a lot of other fireflies and they can switch their light. They can actually switch the light between the light flashing patterns to attract these other species
Speaker 1 [00:45:07] They’re doing like a false flag mimicry in order to draw their enemies in and destroy them. Or eat them as their food.
Speaker 2 [00:45:17] Totally. Totally. Yeah. Another thing, something that we do in some of the research that I do with one of my colleagues, Jesse Barber at Boise State University. So we study moth/bat interactions. So bats are flying around at night and they rely on moths for food. What we now know is that moths of these hearing organs. Over 80,000 species of moths have hearing organs and lots of other insects also have them. They can hear high frequency sounds like the echolocation calls that these bats are producing and the moths have figured out ways to jam the sonar. So they basically can hear the sound of the bat when it’s flying around. So the bat is coming to attack the moth and the moth will just send out this really loud noise. And it messes up the radar, so they can’t actually figure out where the moth is. And some moths actually are toxic, too. Sorry, I can go on and on.
Speaker 1 [00:46:18] Please go on and on. This is amazing.
Speaker 2 [00:46:19] Yes, there’s some moths that are toxic. They eat some toxic plants as a caterpillar and they keep the toxins inside their body. When they become adults, they use that to tell their predators like bats. But the thing is, because it’s dark outside at night, they can’t use colors (like monarch butterflies that are toxic). So instead of using colors, they use sound. So they actually tell their predators, these bats, that they’re chemically defended by making a certain click in the sky. So there’s a lot of sounds that are happening at night, and we can’t hear it because we can only hear low frequency sounds. But if you use a bat detector at night in your backyard, it is so loud. And it’s because these bugs are talking to the predators, the bugs are talking to each other, et cetera. Then there’s all this interesting mimicry and stuff that’s happening, where some insects are warning their predators, ‘Don’t eat me because I’m chemically defended and toxic.’
Speaker 1 [00:47:19] You’re blowing my mind every 30 seconds. I mean, yeah, that kind of makes sense. In a predator/prey relationship; where the predator is like looking for the prey, the prey will do things visually. They’ll mimic another species, or they’ll hide or they’ll camouflage or things like that. Or they’ll make themselves look scary. They’ll operate on the visual dimension. So obviously, if bats are navigating using sonar, their prey would respond using a sounds and would have sonic defenses. I never thought of that before. These are sonic defenses that the prey are coming up with. The insects are coming up with.
Speaker 2 [00:48:04] Right, right. We really don’t know much about this. One of the insects that I really like is the Hawk Moth. These are big, big moths. They produce sounds using their genitalia.
Speaker 1 [00:48:22] I can do that too. I can do that too. It doesn’t sound like what you think, but I can do it. Just wanted to toss that in there. Go ahead.
Speaker 2 [00:48:32] So the males of these moths stimulate their genitals really quickly in flight. So they’re flying like five meters a second, or something like that. Some real fast speed. But when they hear the sound of a bat coming, they just stridulate their genitals and it just goes crazy. And it essentially jams the sonar of the bat and they can’t actually locate the moth.
Speaker 1 [00:48:54] Wow, that is incredibly cool. OK, we got to wrap up at some point, but give me one more. You got one more cool insect insect story like that? Someone put you on TV and give you a show about this stuff, because this is some of the best expert-ing I’ve heard in a while. Give me a little more.
Speaker 2 [00:49:18] So another one is that there’s a really interesting beetle that was recently discovered from the Amazon. It’s a longhorn beetle and we have long horned beetles in the United States, too. But this longhorn beetle is really spectacular because it has venom glands on the tip of their antennae. So they’re essentially scorpions, and you can actually get stabbed by this thing. But they have two of them. These are big insects, and they have these antennae and they can impale predators using their their antennae.
Speaker 1 [00:49:56] Man. Thank you for giving us an appreciation of how amazing these insects are, and it definitely makes me more concerned that we’re losing so many. How do you approach trying to get people excited about this issue? How do you try to make this as exciting as honeybees or even as birds to people? Do you have hope that we’re going to make that change and how can folks at home be a part of it? To take us home.
Speaker 2 [00:50:22] I would say go outside. Go to the yard. Just look in your backyard or look in the windowsill plants that grow outside and start looking carefully at what’s there. Every day you’ll see change: different things coming and going and try to understand what’s out there. Show other people, take pictures of them, post them on social media. All of these things are good things that I think can contribute to this whole process.
Speaker 1 [00:50:53] Well, Akito, thank you so much for being here. This has been an incredibly fascinating conversation, and I have so much more passion for insects now. I’m sure our listeners do too, and thank you for sharing it with us. Well, thank you once again to Akito Kawahara for coming on the show, I hope you enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. If you did, stick with us in 2022. We’re going to have a bunch more amazing interviews. We got some big news to announce. It’s all coming together. We’re going to have a great 2022 together. Thank you so much for listening this year and I hope you have a wonderful new year and we’ll see you on the flip side. I want to thank our producers Sam Roudman and Chelsea Jacobsen. Our engineer Ryan Connor. Andrew W.K. for our theme song. The fine folks at Falcon Northwest for building me the incredible custom gaming PC that I’m recording this very episode for you on. You can find me online at @AdamConover or at adamconover.net. Until next year, stay curious. Be good to each other. All those good sign offs. Have a happy, healthy. Thank you, folks so much.
July 26, 2022
How can we best help animals, when it’s we humans who cause their suffering? Animal Crisis authors Alice Crary and Lori Gruen join Adam to explain how the same systems that hurt and kill animals also harm humans. They discuss the human rights abuses that happen in industrial slaughterhouses and how palm oil monocrops are devastating the world’s rainforests. They also share how we can have solidarity with animals in our daily lives. You can purchase their book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 19, 2022
In times of turmoil, it can be useful to take a longer view of history. Like, a LOT longer. Paleontologist and author of “The Rise and Reign of the Mammals” Stephen Brusatte joins Adam to explain how mammals took over the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago, and why we survived and achieve sentience when dinosaurs died out. Stephen goes on to discuss why taking a deep look at our history can help prepare us for the crises of the near future. You can purchase Stephen’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 13, 2022
Trans people have existed as long as, you know, people have. But the barriers to legal inclusion and equality are still higher than most people realize. “Sex is as Sex Does” author Paisley Currah joins Adam to discuss why institutions have been slow to give legal recognition to trans identities, why Republicans have shifted their attacks from bathroom policies to trans youth in sports, and why the struggle for trans equality is tied to feminism and women’s liberation. You can purchase Paisley’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books