For the past few weeks I have been building an “insect hotel” at the project where I work as a volunteer on Saturday mornings, Worcester Old North Stables Community Teaching and Display Gardens. The intention is that the “hotel” will provide a haven for hibernating insects, including solitary bees and solitary wasps, butterflies, ladybirds and beetles. If the end result of my endeavours is half decent I may publish a photograph of it in a future post.
I appreciate that many people have little love for insects – apart, perhaps, for butterflies and bees. Yet, whether we love them or hate them, the broad community of insects is vital to our future.
Much of our food depends on insect pollination, not just by bees but also by flies, wasps, ants, moths, butterflies, midges, and beetles.
Insects also lie at the base of most food chains.
This is why a recent finding by a team of German entomologists is so alarming. The team discovered an estimated drop of 76% in the population of flying insects over a 25 year period. This figure relates only to insects studied in designated conservation areas, so there is every chance that overall the figures are even worse.
How has this happened, and why has it happened so suddenly?
Modern farming has made vast areas of land inhospitable for insects. Alongside climate change and the destruction of areas of wild land, the overuse of harmful agrochemicals is almost certainly a major contributory factor in the decline. We have known for some time about the impact of neonicotinoid pesticides on bee populations, and it stands to reason that other insect species will be similarly adversely affected by these and other toxic chemicals, many of them specifically designed to kill insect pests.
One scientist has described the German study’s findings as “ecological Armageddon”.
Is there anything we individuals can do? Yes, there is.
The first thing to do is to look at what we eat.
If we are to have a sustainable future, it will have to be organic. Decades of harmful pesticides, herbicides, artificial fertilisers and fungicides have created tracts of spent soils, desertification and huge ecological damage. When we choose to eat organic we are de facto not supporting the use of agrochemicals in the growing of the food we eat.
Similarly, if we were to stop eating meat, or at least to reduce the amount we eat, then we would reduce our personal contribution to global warming by a significant amount (according to one calculation I have seen, stopping eating meat for a year would lead to a 50% reduction in an individual’s carbon footprint).
Then there are also environmental changes we can make. Growing more flowers and plants in our gardens, allotments and balconies may seem small-scale, but collectively it makes a difference by helping to attract and support insect populations. The healthiest bee populations in the UK are found in the heart of London, precisely because of the wide diversity in a relatively small geographical area of food sources found on balconies, allotments, parks and gardens.
And then there are political statements we can make. Many of us signed the petition calling for a continued EU ban on neonicotinoid pesticides. There is currently a new petition needing support which calls for a similar ban on the toxic herbicide glyphosate. Please consider giving this your support.
Ecosystems have been shown to be generally resilient and adaptable over time, but what is happening now to our insect population appears to be developing on an unprecedented scale and very quickly.
What happens next is down to us.
On to the recipe.
The flavours in this autumnal dish are simply fabulous. Roasting the mushrooms helps lock in their robust flavour, which is beautifully matched by the creamy but vegan tarragon sauce. Vegan and gluten-free pasta is widely available.
roast mushroom tagliatelle with tarragon sauce
360 g tagliatelle (there are good vegan and gluten-free versions available)
500 g organic chestnut mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
6 sprigs fresh thyme
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
20 g fresh French tarragon
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 tbsp soy cream
250 ml mushroom or vegetable stock
a little chopped fresh French tarragon
grated Parmesan (optional)
1. Pre-heat the oven to 190°C (375°F, gas mark 5). Place the sliced mushrooms in a roasting tray and add two tablespoons of olive oil and the thyme sprigs. Toss to combine then place in the oven for 30 minutes.
2. While the mushrooms are roasting, place a pan of salted water on to boil for the pasta and make the sauce. Pour one tablespoon of olive oil in a pan over a medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the shallot and cook, stirring for 5 minutes until soft and translucent. Add the stock and the chopped tarragon. Bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes.
3. Cook the tagliatelle in boiling water, following the manufacturer’s instructions.
4. Once the mushrooms are cooked, drain off any excess oil and liquid from the roasting tray then add the mushrooms to the tarragon sauce, along with the soy cream. Stir to combine and remove from the heat. Drain the pasta and return to its pan. Add the mushroom and tarragon sauce and stir through. Serve immediately, garnished with a little reserved tarragon and – for non-vegans – some grated Parmesan.