When a Jonesborough elementary student, Skylar Paul, discovered caterpillars in what was once the Town’s certified native-plants arboretum, he became fascinated with the colorful forms and stages in their life. And, as Elizabeth Kolbert, science writer for the New Yorker describes in a March issue, awe and wonder about the metamorphosis process and resultant insects is well deserved.
Skylar studied and drew the endangered Monarch butterfly in its four stages — eggs laid on milkweed plants, the caterpillar depending on this plant’s leaves as its only food, the pupa in which it encases itself to develop legs, wings and the adult form and structure, and an adult Monarch.
As Kolbert describes in her article, “A little-known planet,” this mysterious development process, involving “radical, whole-body transformation” is ancient in geological times. It precedes even the dinosaurs. It is used not only by moths and butterflies – the night- and day-flying lepidopteran insects respectively – but also by beetles, wasps, flies and other plant pollinators.
The author follows David Wagner, a University of Connecticut entomologist, on caterpillar-collecting expeditions and other events involving those. She notes how prolific insects generally still are – at least two million species – but also their extraordinary risk, scale and speed of extinction. Their role was critical in building up over the eons our living world, and is so now in keeping it in functioning order. It was for reasons of an ongoing “insect apocalypse” that the scientist was studying plants in different American landscapes and what they might “yield” in harboring insects.
Kolbert notes the insects’ importance “in virtually every terrestrial ecosystem.” Three quarters of all flowering plants depend on them for pollination. They are vital seed dispersers and also de-composers of rotting plant material. And there are legions of other creatures, like the birds who feed their young on them during the breeding season, who rely on them for food.
In many places, in the Lake Erie Basin and New Hampshire’s White Mountain, as in Germany and China and others, scientists now are finding their numbers to have declined significantly, by as much as three quarters over the last three-to-four decades, and “food webs [to start] breaking down.”
“Every larva matters,” as the biological scientists say. As individual gardeners and concerned citizens, we can aid Skylar and all future children – through planting native wildflowers, trees and shrubs such as once were found in Jonesborough’s Ardinna Woods Arboretum – to keep the food webs intact through the insects’ vital work.