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Green and Growing: To save the pollinators and other wildlife, turn down the lights

Pollinators get a lot of attention lately, but you don’t have to go on a quest for native plants, or pick up a shovel or a rake. Anyone can help when they adopt some of the ideas put forward by the International Dark-Sky Association during Discover the Night week, April 5-12.

Better yet, we can all petition our cities and towns to do the same. You’ll be helping all wildlife, not just bees and butterflies.

I first learned about the IDA organization when I researched the decline of fireflies. Artificial light at night interrupts their mating patterns, and research shows that night lighting is strongly related to dwindling numbers of fireflies.

As for other wildlife, birds, and pollinators, the impacts are many, particularly for nocturnal species. How many such species are there? According to IDA data, 100% of bats are nocturnal, 95% of amphibians, 65% of mammals, and 65% percent of invertebrates.

Invertebrates include all insects, including pollinators. The category also includes spiders, worms, jellyfishes, mollusks, and more. Also, many birds hunt at night or migrate seasonally at night.

Naturalist Jim Sirch, the education coordinator at Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven, cites studies on the adverse effects of bright nights.

“One study, for instance, shows how moths and other night-fliers become ‘trapped’ in orbit around night lights, where they often die of exhaustion or are eaten by a predator before morning,” he said. Moths are important pollinators.

“Another study points out the additional stress place on amphibians,” he said.

The solution? “Replace your security light bulbs with yellow or amber LED lamps, which insects aren’t attracted to,” said Sirch. “Also, replace your fixtures with motion sensors so they won’t stay on all night.”

If the idea of turning down the outdoor lights raises concerns for personal safety, you might be surprised to learn that more light is not always better. The more thoughtful approach is to optimize, not maximize, outdoor lights.

IDA provides numerous examples of nighttime glare, which is unsafe for both drivers and pedestrians. According to the organization’s research, motion sensors, not light sensors, are far better safety enhancements. If there is no motion in the area, darkness prevails.

IDA provides approval for compliant lighting products, as well as guides to retailers and best practices.

Light trespass

Suffield resident Leo Smith first learned about the value of dark skies in 1999, when a 50-acre farm behind his long-time home was about to be developed. He and his family feared the beginning of “light trespass,” unwanted light from another property.

“I didn’t want glare disrupting the nighttime visual tranquility we’d always had,” he said. He contacted the town and the developer. “Luckily, the Town of Suffield was helpful. They ordered fully shielded streetlights. Then the developer ordered fully shielded lights for the garages next to us and behind us.”

Note: If you are subject to unwanted night light, the IDA website offers a “Dear Neighbor” template to help you navigate this conversation.

Smith’s advocacy was a success and he got more involved with dark sky issues, eventually serving eight years as an IDA board member. During his tenure, he also worked with the Eversource manager of policy to advocate for dark-sky compliant practices.

“In 2016 Eversource made fully shielded lamps their default for all new and replacement streetlights in Connecticut,” he said.

Now, Smith works with municipalities around the country on this topic. He assisted Sustainable CT as they developed a dark skies component of their point system. The recommendations debuted in January 2021.

According to Lynn Stoddard, executive director, “We don’t have dark skies implementation stories yet. But several communities are working on dark skies programs, and we expect to have examples by the end of this year.”

Sustainable CT is a voluntary certification program for municipalities that provides a wideranging menu of best practices. Cities and towns choose actions, implement them, and earn points toward certification. Sustainable CT also provides grant funding opportunities.

Bottom line: Light pollution disrupts long-distance migrations, night hunting, mating patterns, nesting safety, and can create light traps. Night lights affect human health as well.

Pollinator season is in full swing, but you don’t have to turn earth or buy plants to give them an assist. Turn down the lights.

Thanks to Leo Smith for his assistance with this article.

Kathy Connolly writes and speaks on landscape ecology, horticulture, and land care. Her website is speakingoflandscapes.com.

Resources

Resources:

International Dark Skies Association (IDA)

Dark Sky outreach materials on personal safety, talking to your neighbors, and more

Dark Sky-approved products and practices

Sustainable CT recommended actions for dark skies

Where Did All the Fireflies Go?” July 15, 2020, "Green and Growing" column in The Times

"The Ecological Consequences of Artificial Night Lighting" by Travis Longcore

"The End of Night" by Paul Bogard

"Why We Sleep" by Matthew Walker

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