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Insects that help feed the world

Apr 09 2017 15:06
Mandi Smallhorne*

HAVE you seen some large eyes peering at you from the corner of your ceiling or the pelmet above your curtains?

That’s Cyligramma latona, the Cream Striped Owl moth, which has arrived in numbers in recent weeks, puzzling Gautengers (including I Love Fourways).

The Cream Striped Owl moth is usually a sub-tropical and bushveld baby, with a range that extends up to equatorial Africa, according to my insect book, Field Guide to Insects of South Africa (Picker, Griffiths, Weaving, Struik 2002). They do seem to have been creeping slowly into Highveld areas for some time – I took the picture below of a slightly tattered individual in Cullinan in 2010.

There was one fluttering in my bathroom last night, a large member of a vast dancing throng of wings, ranging from almost translucent cream to rich sepia. I’ve never understood why people find moths scary; I know some superstitions hold that moths are signs of death (if that were the case, few families would survive an ordinary summer evening!) but to me, they’re signs of life. When not distracted by our lights, they do important nightshift work.

Many moth species are crucial pollinators, drawn by the night’s rich, sweet fragrances and nectars to flowering plants like Struthiola ciliate, a fynbos shrub, picking up pollen to transfer to the next plant they visit. Yes:

Gonna be some sweet [scents]
Comin’ down
On the nightshift…

Despite the rightful focus on honeybees-as-pollinators, all sorts of wild animals are vital to both agriculture and wild plants. Flies are perhaps second to bees in the pollination stakes, visiting apple trees, cashews, onions and coriander, to give a tiny sample.

Wasps are important pollinators too (avos are among their beneficiaries), as are beetles and bumblebees (apparently they love canola).

                      Cyligramma latona, the Cream Striped Owl moth. (Mandi Smallhorne)

Other nightshift pollinators are also often maligned. Bats trigger grils down the spine for many, but the fruit bat, with its appealing dog-like face, is the major pollinator of the baobab, for example. Mice also attract the ‘eeurrgh’ reaction, yet in recent years, scientists have discovered that some Protea species are pollinated by scurrying little rodents out at night.

If you like chocolate, you can thank those most-cursed creatures, the midges (what we call muggies), daytime workers spreading pollen from one cacao flower to another in cocoa plantations, according to Adrienne Mason in Planet Ark: Preserving Earth’s Biodiversity.

One in every three bites of food made possible by pollinators

The staple crops of the world (wheat, maize, rice and other grasses) are wind-pollinated, but many of our other food crops are dependent on living creatures, from ants to birds, to reproduce. “87 out of 115 leading global food crops are dependent on animal pollination. One in three bites of food you take was made possible by the work of pollinators,” Mason writes.

While South Africa does not use ‘managed pollinators’ (beehives trucked between agricultural regions) nearly as intensively as the USA and Europe, 87% of the beehives in the Western Cape, where half the deciduous fruit in the country is grown, are ‘managed pollinators’ of fruit trees (the fruit industry was valued at R9 800m in 2014).

In 2008, Mike Allsopp and colleagues did a valuation of pollination services and arrived at these figures: “The contribution of managed honeybee pollination is found to be between US$28.0–122.8 million […]; the contribution of wild pollinators is found to be between US$49.1–310.9 million…” That’s a lot of money. And if insects and other animal pollinators died out, of course, the replacement cost would be much higher – we’d probably have to invest in those little robot pollinators!

No fear of that quite yet: Wits zoology and entomology Professor Marcus Byrne (famous for discovering that dung beetles use the Milky Way to navigate) is in the bush as I write. Following late but good rains, he notes that all is lush and green and singing with insect life, evidence of “the resilience of our fauna to not only what we do, in continually removing or degrading their habitat, but also their ability to bounce back from a serious drought”.

However, I would suggest that we do not test that ability to destruction. Even if you don’t give a damn about the aesthetics of nature, or the intrinsic worth of the lives around us, these ecosystems clearly have a raw commercial value and are crucial to our food security.

Hence “the importance of maintaining natural and other forage areas for the conservation of insect pollinators,” as Allsopp et al write, instead of creating bleak and rebarbative deserts, and using pesticides to kill all known insects dead.

For example, in our pesticide-free garden, leaves are piled onto beds as mulch, and dead branches are left to quietly decompose, providing micro-habitat that supports insects, bats and birds – evidenced by the quiet humming of life here compared to more manicured and pesticided environment like the townhouse complex down the road. The same difference can be seen on a walk from ploughed and disked farmland to adjacent veld.

The need for havens that support and protect biodiversity, specifically pollinators and pest controllers, should be as much part of land use management policies as water use is.

Rejoice in the fluttering moth-wings at night; manage birds, bats and rodents in your office parks, housing developments and municipal buildingswithout sprays and poisons; campaign against development of every last wild haven in your vicinity. We need them more than they need us.

* Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

mandi smallhorne  |  opinion


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