Year of Soils column by Frans van Alebeek, May

Soil biodiversity is ‘hot’. The vast web of soil organisms is of vital importance for healthy soils and sustainable food production. ‘Feed the soil community!’, they say. Well, sure. That’s all fine and dandy if you’re one of the ‘good’ organisms. But if you happen to be called Verticillium, Pratylenchus or Melolontha, all of a sudden those lofty paeans to diversity are not for you.

Take me, for instance, the humble grub. Not a name that gives people a warm fuzzy feeling, with its overtones of dirt and drudgery…even though it originally meant simply ‘digging insect’. At least the name for my adult state - May bug – has a more pleasant ring to it. Only fifty generations ago (one human lifetime, basically) there were millions of us buzzing around oaks and beech hedges. We were all the rage with youths, who called us ‘millers’ and kept us in matchboxes or tied pieces of string to our legs to let us fly. But brutal poisons such Lindane and Parathion have massacred my family, and in most parts of the Netherlands there’s hardly any of us left now.

Sure, some of my relatives would drive greenskeepers at golf courses to distraction, and we’re a scourge for tree nurserymen who plant their seedlings at the wrong time or in the wrong place. But how would you like a balmy May evening without my reassuring hum? And how are bats, hedgehogs and screech owls supposed to raise their young once all my lot have been made extinct?

Have you ever taken a good, long look at me and wondered how it’s possible that I spend my entire day digging in the mud and still emerge clean and shiny? Or how I end up a beautiful white larva and an even more beautiful bug being raised on nothing but rotting plants and roots? Try doing that yourself, why don’t you! And have you been introduced to my cousins the garden chafer, the June bug and the lovely pine chafer? Or my impressive uncle the rhinoceros beetle? What would the world look like without us, eh? Just think about that before you sic Heterorhabditis (my worst nightmare!) on me...


Photos of Oryctes nasicornis (European rhinoceros beetle) larva.

Keywords: year of soil columns