The Insect Apocalypse is in full swing and we’ve barely even noticed. Why? I guess it’s something to do with the fact that most of us find insects annoying; they scuttle and scurry, sting and bite and fly around, carry diseases and get into places we wish they wouldn’t.
Most of the time when we think about insects is about them as a pest, a little creature that is capable of carrying devastating diseases like malaria, which is probably up there as one the all time greatest killers of human beings that ever existed.
So why should we panic about the decline of insects?
Maybe the existential threat to our own existence that will inevitably come about as a result of the decline of insects might be a good reason to get worried. Yep, they might be capable of spreading devastating diseases and stinging you and getting in your mouth on a bike ride (notice how that doesn’t happen so much these days?) but ultimately when it comes down to it, it’s quite unlikely that any of us would even be here without the awesome power of countless, endless, little creatures that we really know and love… insects!
That’s because they provide untold natural services to our planet, the ecosystems, the land and water in the interconnected web of life that just wouldn’t exist without insects.
And this is why we should all be very worried about the insect apocalypse.
A review of of 73 extensive studies, from the Journal of Biological Conservation, conducted over the past 13 years coalesces the existing research available on the decline of insects across all regions of the world. Researchers predict that the currently decline of all insects across all regions of the world will lead to the extinction of 40% of insects within the next few decades; that is 8 times faster than mammals, birds and reptiles.
According to this scientific review the world’s insect populations are falling into a path towards extinction, driven there by human activities. This could lead to a ‘catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems’ with the best data available suggesting that insects could vanish within a century.
Whilst some academics debate the scientific absolute truths within these findings; insect populations continue to be irrevocably changed around the world. The right in-depth studies should rightly be conducted in order to gain a clear understanding of what is happening, but equally the alarm bells should also be clear and loud. There needs to a strong call to action because as research uncovers more about the benefits of certain species of insects and the damage that can be inflicted by other species we can begin to understand why it’s so important we should all sit up and take notice when insects are no longer around.
The Journal of Biological Conservation and their research found the main drivers of insect declines to be in order of importance:
- habitat loss and conversion to intensive agriculture and urbanisation;
- pollution, mainly that by synthetic pesticides and fertilisers;
- biological factors, including pathogens and introduced species;
- climate change.
Modern agricultural practices, urbanisation and deforestation are leading to huge changes, and loss of natural habitats, that traditionally sustained the flora and fauna that would have supported these insects. An increasing use of pesticides is having a direct impact on insect species health, whilst research is also showing that climate change is having a detrimental effect. A study in Puerto Rico showed that a rise of just 2 degrees decimated the country’s insect population. Brad Lister, Lead Author of the Study and a faculty member in the Department of Biological Sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute said:
“The insect populations in the Luquillo forest are crashing, and once that begins the animals that eat the insects have insufficient food, which results in decreased reproduction and survivorship and consequent declines in abundance.”Brad Lister, Lead Author
Unfortunately humans are degrading natural environments right across the globe and the expense of the very smallest creatures to the very largest. The interconnected web of life that is propped up at the very foundations by insects is quickly breaking down.
Why Are Insects So Important?
They are quite simply the foot soldiers of the natural world. They keep the whole system ticking over. Most people know about the pollinators; the honey bees and butterflies that pollinate over 75% of all of the food we eat.
The very food we need to survive only exists because of the work of armies upon armies of insects.
But it’s not just about food, its life and death also. There are insects of unimaginable shapes and sizes, millions of species yet to be discovered, all occupying a biological niche that is essential to the ecosystems in which they operate. Insects return nutrients to the soil; they keep the nutrient cycle ticking over, breaking and help to decompose dead life matter into reusable nutrients.
Insects also provide the food matter for fish, birds and mammals. They feed the animals that we eat and in whole regions of the planet humans eat insects too.
Insects also keep balance in the natural world. They can also be either predatory of parasitic which enables insects to keep other populations of insects, weeds, animals (humans?) in check. Without the various insects that predate even the humble ant our entire world would inevitably be overrun with ants.
And it’s the same for other species. Human’s have developed tools to keep diseases like malaria at bay but it’s no coincidence that mosquitoes love human settlements, stagnant water and human blood itself. They have evolved to occupy that particular biological niche, one we have unconsciously provided to them. Entomologists call them anthropophilic, which means they ‘love’ people. However the benefits that insects provide to us, such as the survival of nature itself, fair outweigh the problems they bring.
The potential for animals species who rely on insects as their primary food source to be wiped out looms large; especially those specialist species that feed on one particular type of insect that is currently at threat of extinction.
It’s not just the black and white scenario of insect decline that is facing us. Some insects will inevitably face annihilation but others will thrive. Mosquitoes for instance! This means that whilst huge numbers of insect species are facing the apocalypse there are some species that will thrive.
Tough, adaptable and resistance species, ironically all the ones we know and love, such as houseflies, mosquitoes and cockroaches will likely thrive. This shouldn’t be surprising – they depend on humans and our settlements and as we, and our domesticated animals know make up 96% of the world’s large animal biomass (and wild species just 4%) then we can expect these species to grow in number.
Of course only we view them as pests and that’s because they are a source of great irritation to us; the natural world views them as an essential part of the ecosystem in which they live. But they also tend to be fast growing. A mosquito grows from egg to adult in just seven days. Which means we can expect them to be around for the foreseeable.
It’s certainly not the end of insects in the natural world; it’s an evolutionary change, a paradigm shift; the insect populations are changing to meet the biological opportunities and niches that a human, urbanised world offers over a natural world. Unfortunately the insects who will thrive are the ones that we mostly view as pests. If we want to protect the butterflies, the honeybees, the bumble bees, moths and dragonflies that make walk in the woods such an interesting experience then we’ve got to start looking at the protection of the habitats they occupy. We’ve got to understand the truth about sustainable development and make sure we explore and implement real solutions that provide real answers to the protection of wild spaces and species, including all the small, wonderful and truly enigmatic creatures that live in this world.
Sure we can individually make our gardens more insect friendly, buy organics and avoid pesticides…. But that’s only ever going to provide small, safe havens for small numbers of insect populations. Without implementing a global review and a global solution the insect decline will only pick up its pace.
Rewilding huge portions of the planet, reducing our number and providing space for other creatures to survive and thrive will be the only truly effective way to offer all creatures great and small a chance to live. By giving them the environment they evolved to occupy; a busy, interconnected web of life that stretches from the deep earth soaring into the sky and uniting all living things together as one: first we just have to decide if we that’s the sort of world we want to live in.