There was a time when mankind looked differently at the natural world, saw it as unruly, a chaotic place that needed to be tamed. People held beliefs that seem strange these days. It was a time when diseases rose from unsanitary practices or insects like fleas or mosquitos, and yet people attributed them not to actual germs, but rather to evil curses or swamp mists or “ill humors.”

But once we learned illnesses like the plague or malaria were spread by fleas or mosquitos, there has been an on-going war on insects in general. While it is true that mosquitos are blamed for the deaths of more than a million humans each year around the globe, there are a lot of birds, fish and other animals that depend on mosquitos — and other insects — to survive and feed their young.

There is the conundrum where we find ourselves today. Fact is, 97% of all insect varieties are either beneficial or benign. That 3% of the “bad actors” made it nearly impossible for the rest of the clan to survive and do its work.

It is estimated that 9% of insects declined in just the past decade, and in the past 75 years, we lost nearly 50% of them, according to a new analysis published in “Science.” Along with that, we’ve seen dramatic declines in bird populations as well.

Not surprising, since many birds need insects to survive, and all birds feed insects to their young, even the seed-eaters.

All this is pretty sobering, and as gardeners, we have become aware that we can no longer just spray away or dust away insects we don’t like. The decline in honey bee populations was another canary in the coal mine to signal alarm that too many pesticides were being used.

Like those DDT warnings decades ago that exposed a staggering number of fatalities and failures in predatory birds to successfully reproduce and prompted a major campaign to outlaw that pesticide, it was found that systemic pesticides, Neonicotinoids, were in part responsible for the collapse of hive after hive of honeybees.

Given that the majority of this nation’s food supply (consisting for the most part on non-native plants) depends upon pollination by honeybees, it was yet another sobering realization we should not be fooling around with Mother Nature. Honey bees, too, are not native to this continent, but were brought here by early settlers to pollinate the foreign crops they also brought with them to grow, and of course, to provide a sweetener in the honey they produce.

Now, we find that in North America alone some 500 million birds were lost in this habitat since 1970 — a more than 30% decline.

According to Audubon, the number is one in four birds lost over the past 50 years. None of these statistics are pretty, yet considering the loss in insect populations it should surprise no one. So, that brings us to our native pollinators, a wide variety of bees, moths, butterflies, flies, birds and wasps.

So how do feel about wasps, for instance? According to the National Garden Bureau, wasp pollination and predatory efforts are signs of a healthy ecosystem.

Have you heard of beneficial wasps? What do you think they do? For many, the concept of a “beneficial wasp” is entirely foreign and difficult to believe. There are actually thousands of species of wasps in the U.S. alone, with the vast majority being solitary, non-aggressive wasps.

Wasp species have a complex evolutionary history and are generally divided into two super-families, the Apoidea (which also includes bees), and Vespidae. Beneficial wasps include Philanthus species called bee wolves or digger wasps. Among those groups are a multitude of different wasps, most of them beneficial.

Spend some time and quietly watch wasps in the garden, and see that these wasps aren’t enemies, but valuable friends.

Along with beneficial wasps are flies, some that prove to be parasitic, helping us in our gardens to eliminate pest insects. Where Japanese beetles are present, a little variety of tachnid fly has been shown to reduce beetle populations. Japanese beetles are not only destructive to roses, but also decimate crops like beans, raspberries and apple trees. The tachnid flies lay their eggs on the shoulders of the invasive and destructive beetles. The eggs hatch out in larvae, which enter the beetles’ bodies and feed on them.

It is just another example of why broad spectrum insecticides are so harmful, because they not only kill that tiny percentage of pest insects, they also kill others like the tachnid flies, as well as beneficial pollinators such as bees and butterflies, which also can visit crops or plants that have been treated with insecticides.

It is estimated that “homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops, and they spend more per acre, on average, to maintain their lawns than farmers spend per agricultural acre.”

Thankfully, gardeners continue to learn about the risks of using broad-spectrum and systemic insecticides and many are eliminating or dramatically scaling back their use of these dangerous chemicals. Even so-called “organic” pesticides achieve similar unforeseen results, and we now know we have a great responsibility to our environment.

We have come to understand the symbiotic relationship between many plants and insects such as pollinators as well. We learned that healthy plants fed organically with soils enriched with compost, rather than pumped up with chemicals, are better adapted to withstand invasions by those few pest insects. We learned to protect and actually use those insect relationships to our benefit, and we know the value of frequent inspections of our plants to ward off full-scale insect invasions or disease catastrophies.

In short, we learned a lot and continue to learn more as we garden.

Lynette L. Walther is the GardenComm Gold medal winner for writing and a five-time recipient of the GardenComm Silver Medal of Achievement, the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award. She is a member of GardenComm and the National Garden Bureau. Her gardens are in Camden.

The parasitic tachnid fly lays eggs on the shoulders of Japanese beetles. Rather than destroying this beetle, if we let it go the eggs can hatch, and the larvae will consume the beetle from within. They will consume more of the nuisance beetles.