So far to go…

If you’ve followed this blog any length of time, you know that one of my objectives is to show people the wonderful, fascinating aspects of nature, including the insects and other small creatures that can be found right in their backyards. By sharing the amazing natural history stories of those tiny animals, I hope to build empathy and admiration for ‘bugs’. I do this knowing that many (most?) people see invertebrates as bothersome, icky, or even scary – and that those attitudes are not likely to lead to conservation support.

Dat and I were collecting soil samples last week and came across this lovely wolf spider carrying her egg sac with her (what a great mom!). We stopped and admired it for a bit before releasing her back into the prairie to play her role in that complex system. You know that’s not the response most people would have had…

I’ve made small gains through my writing/photography, as well as by engaging directly with kids and adults. Give me 2 minutes with just about anyone and I can have them holding a spider and exclaiming that they can’t believe they’re doing it. I love hearing from people how much my stories about insects have enriched their understanding and even their comfort level with them.

But then I read stories like this one and I want to just crawl into a hole and cry. I hate to even provide the link because I don’t want to drive more traffic to it, but it’s just so bad…

The author of the NBC online article shares her traumatic experiences related to moving out of the city and into the suburbs. Primarily her trauma came from the fact that there were insects (INSECTS!) all over the place. Oh the horror! She details how she fought back against the awful creatures that had the audacity to live where she did.

See, I’m already falling into the trap… I’m not really mad at Pat Olsen for her perspective on insects. (However, I am a little mad that she wrote the article the way she did, and even angrier that NBC published it – especially with such a stupid headline.) Mostly, it’s a sobering reminder of how far we have to go if we’re going to make nature relevant to the majority of humans. Since most humans live in cities now, our job is even harder – we have to help them understand and care about something they don’t have easy access to.

Writing and photography is one way to reach people in cities, but it’s not enough. We have to bring nature to cities – and interpret it for people living there. Pat says she contacted several university extension staff (and read articles) to learn how to get rid of the pests in her yard. I don’t know what those extension folks told her directly, but I read the same articles she did and certainly didn’t reach the same conclusions she did about the ‘infestations’ she was dealing with. That’s not completely her fault, it’s also a failing on the part of the writers of those articles.

The worst misinterpretation came from Pat’s research on cicada killer wasps. The extension article said multiple times that the wasps are no threat to humans, but also provided ways to deal with those harmless creatures if people were made uncomfortable by them. That, unfortunately, included swatting them with a tennis racket, which then found its way into the click bait headline.

I photographed this praying mantis this weekend. Backlit by the sun and sitting on a flower, this photo puts the mantis in literally the best light.
This is the same mantis, photographed at a slightly different angle so that it is silhouetted against the sun, giving it a more menacing look. While I like both photos, they also serve as a reminder of how slight tweaks can really change interpretation of the same creatures/scenes. Our job as conservation advocates is to be thoughtful about how people will interpret our messages – and portray invertebrates in a way that helps people understand their role in the world, and not just see them as scary or icky.

I’m guessing Pat is a person who thinks pandas and eagles are pretty nice. I’ll bet she has at least passive support for conservation efforts that keep those species around. What’s frustrating is that she isn’t drawing a link between the tiny invertebrates she abhors and the species she admires.

We in the conservation world need to clearly draw that link for her, and others like her, and help her see that we can only have pandas and eagles (and clean air and water, for that matter) if we also have the complex and interconnected ecosystems that support them. And yes, those ecosystems include bugs…

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

18 thoughts on “So far to go…

  1. You’ve expressed exactly the same frustrations I feel every time someone says, “Ick!” or “Squish it!” on one of my insect photos. Like you, I’m trying to use my blog to help build those important connections so people will understand the importance of insects and be more open to living with them. I’m also writing a series about my native gardening efforts, and how native plants attract more insects for birds to feed to their young, etc. But people still resist native plants because they’re not as “neat” as a pesticide-soaked garden full of cultivars. So yes, we have a long way to go, but glad to have people like you in this with me!

  2. Hi Chris,
    I did not follow the link because it would just would be too depressing. I love bugs and really love your photos of them. It is astonishing how clueless a lot of people are!!

    I just received your Hidden Prairie from U of I and enjoy the photos so much!
    Best,
    Jennifer

    Jennifer Pospichal
    Elkhorn, NE

  3. There is a good reason why the symbol of the World Wildlife Fund is a panda and not a cricket, spider, or snake. I find this attitude frustrating, but continue to work on changing people’s minds, one person at a time.

  4. I noted this at the end of her essay, which I only skimmed, “Pat Olsen is a freelance business and health writer.” There is an aspect of her health that she could get some help with, inordinate fear of small animals that will never hurt her. The story didn’t have a place to comment, but I hope it was okay to get it off my chest here.

  5. Chris – you are spot on. I wish there was a way to contact the media folk for purposes of engaging in education and/or enlightenment and support of their good work. They are insulated better than a polar bear mid-winter from human contact. When I see something that interests me in the natural world while with another person, if at all possible I stop, pick it up or point it out and spend maybe 10 seconds audibly admiring it or what it may be doing. Hope is that each one teach one truly does work – sometimes it does. Teachers however rarely know their specific impacts – get used to it folks… just communicate and demonstrate (when safe) about the Finds. Most recently I gave teh cicada exoskeleton to the lady and she was thrilled and could not wait to use her reading magnifying glass on it! ccd

  6. A good thing is that protecting the environment of so-called likable species such as butterflies and bees will protect all the other species living there as well.

  7. As I was reading the article “Fleeing the City …” a spider much like the one in your first photo crawled up my leg. It was probably about half the size with white on the back where the darker brown stripes are located in the spider in your picture. My wife does not like spiders. I called her and asked her to bring the “spider catching glass.” I trapped it in the glass, slide something firm under the glass, let my kids take a look, and then released the spider outside.

    I am not mad at Pat Olsen for her article. Her view point is so common as to be cliché.

    As I mentioned previously on this blog, when I first moved to my house, I tried to remove all the paper wasp nests from my gutters. That set off a cascade of environmental changes that resulted in an explosion in the box elder bugs. After the box elder bug invasion, I left the paper wasps alone so they would keep the box elder bugs in check. The only time this became a problem is when I had a roof put on my house. If the roofers had told me the day they were coming and asked that the wasps be removed, then I would have gotten rid of the wasps before the roofers arrived. I probably should have anticipated this would be a problem, but since I am not a roofer, I did not recognize that it would cause such an issue.

    I think killing ‘bugs’ is just a stage that most homeowners go through. Probably the most impactful way of explaining the futility of this type of effort is using the Chinese’s “Four Pest Campaign” as an example. The move to eliminate the Eurasian tree sparrow was so successful that crop pests boomed causing wide spread famine. I probably first heard about this story on this blog. I can’t remember. The “Four Pests Campaign” example exemplifies the unpredictable consequence that occur when people try to change natural systems.

    • Thanks for sharing about the Four Pests Campaign. It was new to me – and I’ve found it interesting to read about!

  8. I did not like insects as a child, especially bees (of any variety). Entomology was a required course when I was in college (Forestry School). But, in the last 15 or so years I find myself more and more taken by insects, especially bees. I photograph them, I seek them out, I look ’em up online. I go out of my way to introduce children to them…even gave my sister’s kids insect-themed quilts. Kids and insects should go hand-in-hand: they are easily accessible wildlife. But even so, you are quite right: we have a long way to go. However, I figure that if I can change and go from “the only good bee is a dead bee” to a 100% bee advocate, then anyone can change. Keep up the good work!

  9. Chris u will luv this if u havent already seen it. Love your posts + pictures!! Meg

    In what’s believed to be the first footage of its kind, a stunningly slow-motion video by Dr. Adrian Smith captures a rare group of insects just as they lift off the ground. Incase the video doesnt open up look this scientist up!!! (;

  10. Just completed Tallamy’s “Nature’s Best Hope.” The concept of Homegrown National Parks, with landowners as the caretakers, comes to mind. The need to create accessible local areas – from our own landscapes to local parks and walkways, other potential venues that connect people with landscape – is critical. I encourage everyone to find organizations, public and private, schools, city councils … the means to inspire and support the creation of a mosaic of Homegrown National Parks in your community. If we build it, the insects will come!

  11. Insects and snakes—oh boy, do we need a better education campaign starting in childhood. Even with my own parents the inroads I’ve made still aren’t enough and snakes still get killed–harmless ones, too. I used to fear spiders–still not overly fond of any crawling anywhere close to me—but we live happily with many house spiders these days.

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