One offhand comment — the insects are dying — stuck in Katie Martin-Meurer's mind after she met Lakeshore State Park manager Tom Kroeger.
Martin-Meurer, an artist and lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Kroeger met this summer to discuss how her 3-D Concepts class at UWM could help the park on the shore of Lake Michigan. She thought bird houses would be a good project. Kroeger said the park didn't have a lot of birds — mostly swallows which were decreasing in number.
Why? The decline in the insect population, he told her.
This was news to Martin-Meurer.
"You hear about bees and butterflies and all the pretty things but not the creepy crawlies," Martin-Meurer said.
With this in mind, Martin-Meurer crafted a final assignment for the course:
Each student would build an "insect hotel" after researching insect decline and the habitats best suited to different types of bees, butterflies and beetles. While insect hotels are typically straight boxes made from natural materials to provide shelter for bugs, the art students needed to add artistry through using the concepts learned in class — repetition, movement, texture. Each student would receive 10 board feet of material and could only decorate it with natural materials — no paint or varnishes.
Stuffed with sticks, pine cones and cardboard tubes, the final projects are made from discarded elm trees cut down in Milwaukee. Students found ways to differentiate their work within the constraints. Some used beet juice to stain the wood for a pop of color. One made a three-story home filled with furniture and moss for carpet. Others used clay pots as organizers.
By the end of the school year, 180 students will have made the hotels. All first-year students in the Peck School of the Arts at UWM are required to take the course, though it is open to anyone in the university.
The insect hotels will be first shown at Lakeshore State Park and then installed permanently in state parks across Wisconsin in May. Martin-Meurer received $1,000 from the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin’s C.D. Besadny Conservation Grant Program to bring the project to fruition.
While Martin-Meurer and her students would love to see bugs living in them, the hotels will primarily serve as a means of educating passers-by. A QR code on the finished hotels will direct the curious to a website about the insect decline problem.
"I know people don’t like insects for the most part, but we really wouldn't survive without them," Kroeger said.
For every pound of human on the planet, there are 300 pounds of bugs. Insects provide meals for other creatures; a dropping insect population means many of those animal populations are also declining, like the swallows in Lakeshore State Park. In January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put the rusty patched bumble bee under federal protection, adding it to the endangered species list.
Dan Young, director of insect research collection at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, sends his classes out in Madison each semester to collect bugs. He's taken his classes to some of the same fields for 30 years, and it's not as easy to find a large number and variety of insects.
"Now you can go to three flowers and only find three (bugs)," Young said.
While scientists note a decrease in population and diversity, Young said it's tough to estimate insect populations and put a figure on the decline.
Some studies estimate a 45% decline in insect population worldwide in the last few decades. The studies on the decline tracked just a couple hundred — a small percentage — of all insect species so it's hard to extrapolate those findings across the globe, he said. There are millions of insect species, many of which only live in one geographic area.
"It’s like Jenga," Young said. "Make that Jenga game a pyramid and then start taking pieces out of the bottom. How many pieces come out of the bottom before the whole thing collapses? We don’t know."