In the midst of the grief, confusion and anger of the past few months, many Americans have developed a new obsession with creepy little things in life, by which I mean bugs.
I’ve never heard so many people talking about bugs as I have through this spring and summer, never seen so many social media posts dedicated to tiny critters that buzz and crawl and sting.
A friend routinely posts about the spider who entertains her through the window of her home office. Another recently posted about a cicada that landed on her computer keyboard while she worked on her deck.
In the infested world of Facebook, I’ve seen dragonflies, butterflies, praying mantises, roly-polies, caterpillars, bulbous beetles and nameless bugs so weird their photos stir comments like “Ewww” and “What is THIS???!”
In this same period, I’ve noticed a similar, if less creepy, phenomenon with birds, most notably hummingbirds. During the pandemic, one of every three Americans, by my totally unscientific count, has developed a hummingbird fetish.
But are there really more birds and bugs than usual? Or are we just noticing them more because we’re cooped up? Or maybe this whole birds-and-bugs phenomenon is the invention of my pandemic-addled imagination. I decided to take my questions to the experts.
“We might have a metric to help you,” said May Berenbaum, who heads the department of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Berenbaum — who, incidentally, inspired an “X-Files” character named Dr. Bambi Berenbaum — runs BeeSpotters, a website that encourages “citizen-scientists” to take and submit photos of bees. The goal is to document the population of these important and threatened pollinators.
So when I put my bugs question to Berenbaum, she checked with the BeeSpotters webmaster. His report? While photos of bees were up only slightly for this year, the number of individuals submitting bee photos was up 13%. Her deduction from that fact?
“To me,” she said, “that looks like people had more time and interest in looking for, or at, bees and participating in citizen science.”
In other words, “It’s not that bumblebees are more abundant, it’s that more people are noticing them.”
I asked Berenbaum if she had any sense of how the pandemic may have changed the bug world.
“We’re not through the lockdown,” she said. “2020 is, sad to say, still with us, with all its dreadful manifestations, so it’s not clear what the reduced level of human activity might have on insect populations.”
Not only have I sensed more people posting about birds on social media, I’ve heard more people talking about them. Are there more birds than usual? Are they louder? They seem louder.
“I think it’s mostly that more people have the opportunity to look,” said Doug Stotz, a senior conservation ecologist at the Field Museum. “Even birdwatchers are spending more time looking.”
Before the pandemic, he said, many people spent their days in offices. Now they’re home and likelier to notice what’s happening outside. For years, Stotz has made lists of birds he spots in his yard in Chicago’s western suburbs. Now that he’s home, his lists are longer and he’s seen more species than ever. He’s spotted more hawks soaring over his house _ not, he says, because there are more hawks, but because they fly at hours he’d usually be somewhere else.
And what about the hummingbird obsession?
“I suspect because people are stuck in their houses, one of the things they’ve thought is ‘Hey, I saw a hummingbird, so let me put up a feeder to create the opportunity for them,’” he said.
The feeders feed the obsession.
As for all that bird song? The birds are easier to hear because the world has been quieter, Stotz said, but there’s more to it.
“There’s evidence that birds adjust their singing in response to the noise of the city,” he said. “With less noise, their song bouts tend to be longer, and there’s some evidence they have higher pitches.”
We’ve lost so much during this pandemic that it can be hard to take account of what we’ve gained. One of those gains is the chance to notice the bugs and birds we live with.
As Berenbaum puts it: “Entomologists know there is an inexhaustible world of entertainment out there. If you’re locked down almost anywhere within the continental United States, you can find insects just outside the front door, and they will be interesting.”