Climate Change with Your Backyard Illinois Insects

Insects are in trouble here in Illinois and the rest of the world. A 2019 Biological Conservation study stated, there are “dramatic rates of decline that may lead to the extinction of 40% of the world’s insect species over the next few decades.” And that’s not including the insects that have already gone extinct.

Even here in Illinois, scientists have been seeing drastic declines in insect populations, such as butterflies and bees. In Illinois, it’s a combination of insecticides, habitat loss (99.9% prairie loss), and the extreme weather from climate change, which compounds the other two, explains Abigail Derby Lewis, senior conservation ecologist at the Field Museum of Chicago. 

Scientists hypothesize that these warm winters and higher temperatures are contributing to a mismatch of plants and insect cycles. Paul CaraDonna, professor of conservation science at Northwestern University, explains plants and insects used to emerge at the same time in the spring. But now, the cycles are separated and therefore, “the plant doesn’t get pollinated. The pollinator has no food to eat,” CaraDonna says. That also impacts the food chain since Chicago is a prime location for bird migration as well.

Notably, in March 2012, Chicago saw 8 days over 80 degrees, which is very unusual. That sustained heat caused both plants and insects to respond to the warmer air and soil temperatures, but birds “don’t get the memo,” Derby Lewis points out.

Both scientists point out that there is so much we don’t know about insects and their coevolution with other organisms so the long term effects may not be known yet.

Photo Credit: Susan Day/ UW-Madison Arboretum

One of the first bee species put on the federally endangered list is the rusty patched bumble bee. Estimates vary about the insect’s decline in population from 87% to 95%. While scientists believe that decline is the result of several factors – habitat loss, insecticide, disease, droughts/warmer weather, it’s possible that all these stressors at the same time may play a huge role in bees being more susceptible to diseases, parasites, and other catastrophic events. CaraDonna likens it to trying to study for a test while sleeping badly, eating poorly, and dealing with the death of a family member.

While many people have been energized by “save the bee campaigns,” honey bees are not the answer, both scientists say. The insects are not-native and can outcompete native bee species. CaraDonna compares honey bees and native bees to Walmart’s impact on mom and pop businesses.

Instead folks should focus on the 400-500 different species of native bees in the state of Illinois alone, as well as other native pollinators. That can be done by planting native plants to feed native and migrating insects and/or participating in citizen science projects like Budburst, where people can help document plants and insects they see to help scientists better understand local ecologies.

Photo: USFWS Midwest Region “Bumblebee” This bumble bee was found in Illinois on restored habitat for wildlife. Photo by Mike Budd/USFWS. Copyright: PDM 1.0 DEED