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UHLC Prof Simpson explains declining insect numbers; impact of Australian fires

Clinical Associate Professor Lauren Simpson delivered a talk to faculty colleagues in the Hendricks Heritage Room last semester. It was one of more than 35 similar presentations she has led.

Clinical Associate Professor Lauren Simpson '94 dedicated the front yard of her home to St. Julian's Crossing, a wildlife habitat that demonstrates how humans can assist pollinators.

Feb. 3, 2020 — University of Houston Law Center Clinical Associate Professor Lauren Simpson, a self-professed “bug nerd,” recently shared her thoughts on the tremendous damage being done to insects and the environment by the fires ravaging Australia.

“It’s heartbreaking to think that there is mass devastation of multiple ecosystems,” Simpson said. In addition to human suffering, “they’re losing all kinds of animals, including insects.”

Researchers are still exploring the complex causes of these extreme fires, with climate change being one area of exploration. “Climate disruption is also one of the key drivers of insect loss,” for multiple reasons, said Simpson.

Rather than feeling set back, Simpson is propelling herself into work in an attempt to better understand the complex correlation between the loss in insect biomass and various stressors—including, for example, climate change; habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation; competition by non-native insect and plant species; light and other pollution; pesticide and herbicide use; and parasites and disease.

“It motivates me even more, exploring the research being done on loss of insect biomass and how it’s affected by these stressors,” she said. “It’s depressing, but for some reason this depression is not freezing me; it’s motivating me. I am highly motivated to reach more people.

She implores people to consider the role insects play in the ecosystem and what actions they can take to restore normalcy to the environment, which can subsequently benefit wildlife.

“We must rethink what we consider to be normal on many levels,” Simpson said. “We are part of this web of life; we are not in control of it. We have an important role in ensuring its survival. We need to become engaged.”

“We need change at every single level: international, national, state, local, and individual.” Most individuals can’t directly affect things at the international level, for example, although they can advocate for it. But at the individual level, we can directly affect critical change. We can do something.”

CClinical Associate Professor Lauren Simpson delivered a talk to her faculty colleagues in the Hendricks Heritage Room last semester. It is one of more than 35 similar presentations she has led.

Clinical Associate Professor Lauren Simpson delivered a talk to her faculty colleagues in the Hendricks Heritage Room last semester. It is one of more than 35 similar presentations she has led.

In conjunction with being an insect enthusiast, Simpson is passionate about wildscaping, the practice of gardening with the primary purpose of supporting wildlife.

She has delivered 38 presentations, workshops, and classes about the topic and has made 10 media appearances across various platforms, including the Houston Chronicle, Houston Public Media and KPRC Channel 2, among others.

“I have two passions,” she said. “My first passion is teaching law students to research and write and be the best lawyers they can be, but my second passion is insects—I’m a bug nerd—and also the kinds of gardens that support them.”

In September 2019, Simpson gave a talk to her UH Law Center colleagues about wildscaping and insect conservation.  Her current interest is at the juncture of these two topics: local laws affecting individuals’ ability to wildscape to support insects and other creatures.

Simpson described the struggles insects face in urban areas and how creating landscapes composed of native plants—landscapes that still “read” like gardens—can help bugs and simultaneously potentially encounter less resistance from HOA rules, deed restrictions, and adverse nuisance ordinances. 

“Wildscaping is not ecological restoration, but in fractured habitats like urban and suburban areas, it can help create ‘stepping stones’ or pathways for insects to travel,” Simpson said.

According to a study cited by entomologist and Professor Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware in his book Bringing Nature Home, approximately 90 percent of all plant-eating insects are specialists at some point in their development, meaning they have evolved to eat plants of only a particular family, genus, or species at that stage.

“I like Dr. Tallamy’s explanation that what makes a plant ‘native’ involves the idea of place, time (eons—not a hundred years, not 500 years) and community,” Simpson said. “If an animal has co-evolved with a plant in a particular eco-region over millennia, the animal is more likely to be able to digest the pollen or leaf chemicals in that plant and therefore survive.”

Thus, importing plants from Asia, Africa, Europe, or South America can potentially hinder wildlife, since insects may not able to consume plant matter so foreign to them. This is a reason why Simpson is devoted to creating wildscapes and educating others about them, as well as promoting Dr. Tallamy’s message that gardening should be less about aesthetics and more about saving insects.

“In our own gardens, we can help by being a critical link in the chain that will save insect biodiversity,” Simpson said. “It doesn’t have to be 60 percent of your front yard; it just has to be.”

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