Bugs and the virus: How Britains insects have both prospered and dwindled during the Covid-19 pandemic – iNews

As part of a lockdown routine which includesdailyflushingofalltoiletsto prevent floodingintheir400-year-oldworkplace, staff atBlickling Hallin Norfolkhavespentthepandemicengaged in anotherconstant battle against damagethecontrol ofTineolabisselliella, thefabric-munchingbeastieotherwise known as the clothes moth.

With irreplaceable treasures such asan 18thcentury tapestry gifted by Catherine the Great of Russia to look after, conservation workers at the handsome National Trust mansionon the sitewhere AnneBoleyn was bornhavelong had to maintain constant vigilance against the moths. To date,mothdamage has been limited to a small section ofcarpetbut the Covid-19 outbreak and the consequent disappearance of visitors has caused staffat theJacobean houseand otherpropertiesin thetrustscare a fresh headache.

A recent census recorded an 11 per cent increasein insect pestsacross the National Trust estatein 2020as the absence of heritage-hungrydaytripperscreated the perfect environment for some bugs and in some casesmouldto thrive.Conservationists reported increases inunwanted visitorsightingsand infestationsincluding cluster flies,the Australian spider beetle(another fan of fabrics)and the common book louse, as well aslocalisedoutbreaks of paper-eating critters such as silver fish.

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The National Trust is far from being aloneas a heritage body facing a lockdown invasion.

English Heritagetoldiweekenditis investigating a noted general increase in insect pests while museums and otherhistoric sites, including the British Museum in London,have all said they are closely monitoring their collections. In Edinburgh, the National Museum of Scotlandthis monthrevealedthat it hadhadto subjecta stuffed mountain hare to athree-day quarantine in a -30Cdeep freeze toeradicateclothes mothseating the exhibits tail.

The ability of indoorinsectsto thrivein the silence of environments once bustling with human activity is just one manifestation oftheeffectsoflockdown and the pandemic onBritains bugpopulation.Experts say a range of factors fromthe benefits of a drop in air pollutionand increased interest in gardens,to the dangers posed by factors fromhabitat losstoa potential threat posed bydumped milk will havehad an effect oninsect life during the pandemic, althoughthe fullrepercussions may not be knownfor some time, if ever.

In the case of the Blickling moths, theNationalTrust has in recent days begun trials of an innovativeeradication method in the shape of a twin-prongedassault using pheromone tabsto disrupt mating byexudingchemicals which confuse male moths and the release of thousands of tiny parasitic wasps whichlay their eggs in those of the moths and kill off theirlarvae.

Hilary Jarvis, the trusts assistant national conservator, toldiweekend: Our staff and our volunteers have been incredibly diligent in carrying out cleaning and checks butthe reduction in visitors over lockdown hashadan effect. There is a drop in air flow, it is nice and quiet with little risk of being disturbed andthose areidealconditionsfor insects.

What we are doing at Blickling is really a matter of last recourse.But we cannot sit by and let a moth problem take hold given the damage that can be caused. We are throwing the preventive conservation kitchen sink at this.

Beyond the realm of historic soft furnishings and museum display cabinets, insect life has had to deal with changes in humanbehaviourboth positive and negative ranging from the drop in environmental disturbance and pollution caused by millions of Britons working from hometo apausein routine monitoring and thecontinuation of habitat loss and practices which have already had a devastating effect on pollinators from bees to moths.

Craig Macadam, conservation director atinsect protection groupBuglife,said factors such as improved airand waterquality are likely to have had asignificantbeneficialeffect.

He said: Fumes from vehicles, particularly diesel engines,have been shown to mask the scent from flowers making them undetectable by pollinators. A reduction in traffic will have meant that flowers will have been more attractive to pollinators, boosting not only wildflower populations, but also those of their pollinators.

Coupled with this, the lockdown resulted in non-essential activities such as grass-cutting being stopped giving a further boost to invertebrates by creating more habitat, shelter and food.

At the same time,experts saythe changing human response to Covid will have hadunintendedbutpotentially serious consequences. As lockdown was lifted last summer, eggs laid by insects innew habitatswould have been destroyed by the resumption ofgrass-cutting. Concerns have also been raisedthat thepouring away unwanted produce such as milk into drains in the early stages of the pandemic may have had a knock-on effect for water courses inhabited by insect life.

The pandemic is thought to have had a dramatic effect on one particularly unwelcomeinsect highly reliant on the pre-March 2020normality of frequent international travel. Pest control companies across the westernworld, including the UK, reported a dramatic dropduring the pandemicin calls to deal with bed bug infestationsas hotel and flight bookingsplummeted.

It isprobably, however, that it is only a brief respite. Bed bugs are expert survivors and can easily go for a year without feeding, meaning that whentravellerseventually return, someveryhungry insectsare likely tobe waiting for them.

Sadly,the interaction of human and insect life, which entomologistsor insect expertsemphasisetime and againrendershumanityheavilyreliant onthecontinuedhealth of bugs,has shownlittle sign during the pandemic of having changed the long-term trend ofa disturbingdeclinein insect numbers.

A major study this monthby the charity Butterfly Conservationshowed thatthe numbers of large moths in Britain havefallen by a third in the last 50 years due to factors including habitat loss, light pollution and climate change. Some species have declined by as much as 80 per cent, promptingthe charity to warn that the diminution posesa wider risk to British wildlife with mothsacting as important pollinators,in particularforspecies such as orchids, as well asa food source.

Experts insist, however, that there are bright spots forthe nationsbugs. The Royal Horticultural Society said the number of people accessing its pages offering advice on how to garden inaway that encourages wildlife doubled during thepandemic.

Andrew Salisbury, theorganisationsprincipleentomologist, said: With many more people taking up gardening and adopting new wildlife-friendly practices growing pollinator-friendly blooms, installing ponds and building bug hotels this is likely to have had a positive impact on insect populations.

When scientists atLondonsNatural History Museum conducted a search last summer for the arrival a new pest species in Britain the brown marmorated stink bug theydid nothave tolookmuch beyond their own backyard.

A single stink bug, namedafterthe pungent almond-likeodourit emits as adefencemechanism, was foundin the museumswildlifegarden in Kensingtonlast Augustas part of a study to discover whether the insect, long predicted to arrive in Britain, had finally established itself.

The discoveryduring the pandemicof the bug, which can affect the quality of fruit crops and spoil wine made from grapeswhere it is prevalent, is a further example of the ability of invasive species to spread rapidly from just a small number of individuals.

Entomologists believe thestinkbugs, which probably arrived onpackaging crates and have since also beenfound in a house in Surrey, are highly likely tospread rapidly in London and the South East, and in so doingfollow the trajectory of other successful invaders such astheharlequin ladybirdfrom China.

Max Barclay, a senior curator at the museum, who predicted the arrival of the stink bug in 2014and announced their discovery earlier this month, said: Theyll establish pretty quickly, weve seen this in a lot of invasive species before. You find one or two and then they are everywhere. The harlequin ladybird from China arrived in 2006, and now they are enormously abundant.

The Royal Horticultural Society this week added its voice to concerns about the stink bug, warning it should be considered among future threats to gardens.

The better news is that after an initial period of fast growth, new invasive species tend to suffer a decline or at least a slowing of their spread as predatorschange their feeding habits and catch up.

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Bugs and the virus: How Britains insects have both prospered and dwindled during the Covid-19 pandemic - iNews

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