Bees, butterflies and earthworms

By Deacon Tom Cervone, Ph.D., Sister Maureen Houlihan, D.C., and Nicole Cervone-Gish, Ed. M.S.

Our Mother Earth

Editor’s note: This series takes a deeper look at Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical On the Care for Our Common Home, “Laudato Si’”.

In 1963, Peter, Paul and Mary (an American folk group) released their version of the Bob Dylan song “Blowin’ in the Wind.” In it, they sing, “Where have all the flowers gone?” Today, these lyrics could easily become, “Where have all the bees, butterflies and earthworms gone?” These animals may be considered sentinel species used to detect risks to humans, very much like a canary sent into a coal mine.  If it died, that was an early warning.

Bees are well-known pollinators. Few of us know that one out of every three mouthfuls of food in America is a product of honeybee pollination. The Natural Resources Defense Council said “42% of the bee colonies collapsed in the United States alone in 2015, causing our food supply to be at serious risk.” Bees can be affected by pesticides (especially neonicotinoids), loss of habitat, climate change and disease. The rusty-patched bumblebee was federally listed as endangered in 2017 after losing 90% of its population. It is very important that we eliminate these factors and plant more grasslands for bee conservation.

Butterflies are decreasing, too. An example of an at-risk butterfly is the monarch butterfly. “Save Our Monarchs” said, “Their numbers are down 90% from what they were in 1992. And the milkweed plant population, which is indispensable to the monarch, is also down 90%.” The best way to help the monarchs is to rebuild their habitat and provide the food they need to survive –in a pollinator garden at school, home or park; or in a hedge, fencerow, highway or utility right-of-way. Like bees, butterflies are pollinators, and affected by similar factors. Butterfly conservation also depends upon increasing grasslands.

In addition, earthworms are decreasing in intensely tilled agricultural fields [Briones and Schmidt, May 2, 2017, Conventional tillage decreases the abundance and biomass of earthworms and alters their community structure in a global meta-analysis, Global Change Biology, Vol. 23(1):4396-4419]. Charles Darwin called earthworms “nature’s plough” because they consume soil and excrete castings, which enhance soil fertility. He found about 54,000 earthworms inhabited each acre of land, and that each of these populations turned over tens of tons of topsoil every year (University College Dublin, Tillage farming damaging earthworm populations: Reduced tillage practices will restore productive earthworm populations and help maintain soil structure and nutrient recycling. Science Daily. May 8, 2017).

Earthworms mix, aerate and loosen the soil, which improves water retention and soil health. They also create burrows and tilth (fitness as a seedbed) that make suitable habitats for smaller soil animals and micro-organisms. Earthworms are food for many animals, and can be affected by pesticides, herbicides and metal residues (Reynolds, John, The Earthworms of Ontario, Life Sci. Misc. Pub., R. Ont. Mus., June 15, 1977). Worm farms are excellent ways to compost household food scraps, and they can increase soil fertility in yards by incorporating leaves into the soil.


What can we do?

William Cowper said in “The Task” (1784), “I would not enter on my list of friends, (Tho’grac’d with polish’d manners and fine sense, Yet wanting sensibility) the man who needlessly sets foot upon a worm.”

Bees, butterflies and earthworms are God’s special creatures. How can we help them ― help us?

Dr. Tom Cervone is a deacon at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Evansville, Indiana with 50 years of experience in ecology. He graduated from St. Bonaventure University, a Franciscan University. Sister Maureen Houlihan, D.C. is a support sister on the Seton Harvest Farm started by the Daughters of Charity in response to the Communities - Care of Mother Earth. This CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Farm grows all natural produce for shareholders and the poor. Nicole Cervone-Gish, Ed. MS. is an award winning ELL (English Language Learner) teacher, who lives in Evansville, Indiana with her family.