An aerial view of the problem


This is a typical satellite capture from the middle regions of North America. We can gnash our teeth and pull our hair about disappearing bees and butterflies, but until we address the fact that approximately 100% of the ex-prairie landscape above is either plowed under, paved over, or lawned in, we’re just fiddling at the edges.

GMOs, pesticides, blah, blah, blah. We can blather on about these largely irrelevant side issues, but they are just that: side issues to the fact we have replaced a landscape covered by hundreds of plant species with a blanket of corn and soybeans. There is simply nothing left for bees and butterflies to eat. Insects that can’t eat soybean won’t eat organic soybean, either.

15 thoughts on “An aerial view of the problem”

  1. Still, having a garden, or an uncut “flower prairie”, instead of a trimmed turf lawn is often illegal according to city rules. Turf is the first irrigated crop in terms of area coverage (40 million acres)…
    Great for biodiversity! (sarcasm).

  2. At the Home Bug Garden in Edmonton, we got rid of all the front lawn except a 2m wide strip at the front. That land belongs to the City anyway, and I hoped it would be enough to keep the lawn nazis satisfied. Seems to have worked. The rest is a woodland motif mixture of native and non-weedy exotics. From 3 species of bees we’ve gone to at least 20 (Megachile, most Halictus, and Andrena are too difficult for me to do better than size class). So, you can make a difference at a local level, at least if a pool of colonists is within flight range.

    When I visit the Midwest, though, I am always amazed at what a wildlife wasteland it is. It does seem as if an attempt has been made to grub out all of nature.

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  4. Joseph Spencer

    High commodity prices are also playing a role. When corn (ca. $8/bushel) and soybean ($14/bushel) crops are valuable as they are now (5 years ago corn was close to $2.50/bu), growers are more likely to pay for aerial broadcast application of fungicides + insecticides that *might* increase yields by 1-2 bushels/acre. The cost of an application, maybe $15/acre, can be recouped with only a minor yield gain. The chemical applications are treated as cheap insurance against yield losses. And these are very cheap in the big picture where all non-land (i.e. rent) expenses to grow corn are $520/acre in Illinois. The cost of adding a bit more extra insurance is small relative to the overall budget. When commodity prices are low, you need to get a larger potential yield increase on the added chemicals to make it worthwhile. Low commodity prices make integrated pest management and more ecologically-minded approaches to pest management attractive. As long as commodity prices are high, the spray planes will be flying during the summer!

    1. Although, as I believe Myrmecos is trying to indicate with the above photo, widespread habitat destruction/modification may make pesticides a largely irrelevant issue by comparison, in that the species are dying out anyways (without any actual habitat to occupy).

      1. Joseph Spencer

        Habitat destruction has certainly struck a devastating blow against the local biodiversity. Yet, there are still patches of unmanaged non-crop vegetation (albeit *mostly* low quality), ditches and remnants of prairie tucked here and there amidst the farms and highways. My point is that what remains available to host and produce the tough survivors is threatened because agricultural economics has made it cheap to spray a vast area with insecticides–this is something that is unprecedented on this scale in recent times. Because of the way ag fields abut wilder spaces, drift from pest management activities cannot help but also affect lots of non-target organisms. Part of the reason monarchs are declining can be traced back to an insurance approach to pest management in corn and soybeans. As bleak as the map may look, there are still lots of things to find in the corn and soybean desert–thanks to all the wild patches here and there. However, in recent years I’ve entered fields that were remarkably silent and empty–that’s a sign that perhaps I should leave, too!

  5. Excellent, excellent post Alex.

    The irony is that you shouldn’t file this post under navel-gazing. I think it’s a pretty damned important topic. Habitat loss might be one of the most important topics in the history of man. Fence rows and roadside prairie patches have all but disappeared in some places. The patch across the road from me once had lots of native plants but five years ago they all started dying due to spraying of glyphosate when the farmer started planting roundup-ready beans. Now it’s just bull thistle, annual exotic weeds, and a nasty grass of some sort. Same thing with another 300′ stretch of roadside wildflowers that disappeared due to someone building a house and mowing it into a lawn. Very very sad. Wisconsin used to have such lovely roadside native plant reserves but they are indeed being killed off. Garlic mustard isn’t helping.

    I wish we could convince people who don’t know or care anything about biology to spend their money preserving habitat–rather than on something like the newest I-phone.

    And your post is not a rant, either. You are using this rather popular blog as a forum to educate about habitat loss — a very important topic in my opinion.

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  8. Jim Thomerson

    I lived in Illinois 1965 to 1998, and return from time to time. I have been appalled at the horrible farming practices I see. Corn rows run straight downhill, with resulting erosion. I have a photo of a nice farmhouse and barn which will be separated by the gully with the next good rain. Corn rows going uphill next to the gully, and a foot of mud in the bottom of the creek. I saw this on other farms last year. Here in Texas we have been doing contour plowing and planting as long as I can remember.

  9. Adrian Schnell

    As arable land becomes more precious farming practices will need to change []. Sprawling fields are far as the eye can see will be a thing of the past. Blanket pesticide and herbicide spaying will become nonviable. Better we start to practicing sustainable farming that is environmentally sound and non-carcinogenic. Crop diversity and soil management will bring back the picture perfect landscape and replace the endless single crop carpeting.

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