You may not have noticed this from your lofty human height, but things aren’t going too well in the micro-world. Insect populations are on the decline in a big way, with over 75% of flying insect species lost over the last quarter-century in some regions.
The figures are shocking, but why should you care?
Fewer insects may seem like a good thing (especially to gardeners, campers and everyone who’s ever encountered mosquitoes). However, the loss of insect biodiversity and numbers is a looming disaster of apocalyptic proportions (and no, we’re not being overdramatic).
Why does it matter if the insects disappear?
The moment you first notice it – the clean windshield, the empty air beneath a streetlight, the lack of ants at your picnic – is disquieting. The worldwide decimation of our insect populations has largely gone unnoticed, but the sheer absence of bees, butterflies, and moths is now too conspicuous to miss.
The scariest thing, however, is what comes next. What impact could the loss of our insects have on the wider ecosystem?
Insects are responsible for much of the unseen maintenance that goes on in our world; they recycle rotting organic matter (like dead plants and animals), they pollinate our flowers and they provide a valuable food source for a vast array of other species.
In many ways, they’re the backbone of sentient life on this planet and, without them, our finely-tuned ecosystem could soon start to fall apart.
This would mean a widespread collapse of the food chain, with amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species all suffering from food scarcity.
And if you think humans would be exempt from the effects of mass starvation, think again. Around 80% of the world’s plants cannot reproduce without being pollinated, i.e. having pollen transferred to them from another plant. Insects play a vital role in this process and are, therefore, responsible for the reproduction of about 75% of the world’s crop species.
These plants make up to 90% of the human diet (depending on what country you’re from), so insects are critical for our continued survival.
Why are the insects disappearing?
There is no one single cause of the global decline in insect populations. Rather, our bugs are dying from a variety of assaults (most of them a result of human activity).
Perhaps the number one cause of widespread insect decline is the loss of their natural habitats. Deforestation, and the repurposing of rural spaces for agricultural uses, routinely destroy the homes of thousands of wildlife species across the globe.
Among them are the plants that many insect species rely on for food and shelter and, once these disappear, the bugs soon follow. This can have catastrophic implications for the ecosystem as a whole; without insects, the plants and animals that rely on them for pollination and as a food source will also begin to decline.
Overuse of insecticides
Widespread use of insecticides has been routine practice on farmland around the world for decades. These chemicals are highly toxic to insects and will often kill pest species on contact, making them the most popular form of pest control on commercial farms.
Unfortunately, many pesticides are non-species specific, meaning they don’t just wipe out pest species but every bug that comes into contact with them. Neonicotinoids, in particular, are suspected to play a role in the global decline of bee populations, as these chemicals are thought to have long-term effects on bee health. Neonicotinoids have also been implicated in the decline of butterfly species in Northern California and could well play a role in the global loss of insect biodiversity as a whole.
Climate change is disrupting the global environment in a thousand different ways, and the effects of this are becoming more apparent than ever before. Global temperatures are now rising at an alarming rate, and insects are thought to be among the first casualties.
As one study reports, temperatures in tropical forests have risen 2.0 C in the last 30 years, a significant rise that is only expected to get higher. This has been linked to a drastic decline in insect populations in these same regions, with insectivorous birds, mammals, and reptiles also suffering as a result.
Climate change is irreversibly altering wildlife habitats around the globe, from the glaciers of the arctic to the rainforests of the Amazon. This is happening at a pace that natural selection cannot possibly keep up with, and insects are struggling to thrive as a result.
What can you do to encourage insect biodiversity around your home?
The widespread disappearance of our insects is largely down to habitat loss, as global deforestation has wiped out a huge percentage of the plants insects rely on to thrive. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to encourage insect biodiversity around your home, with huge benefits for the ecosystem at large.
To encourage insects into your garden:
- Plant a wide variety of native plant species
- Create a pond
- Reduce mowing and let your lawn grow
- Avoid using insecticides and other harsh chemicals in your garden
- Use compost instead of chemical fertilizers
Disappearing insects is our first indication that all is not well in the delicate balance of an ecosystem finely tuned over millennia of natural selection. As the number of bugs around the world steadily declines, so too do the thousands of other species that rely on them for sustenance and pollination.
Unless drastic action is taken to reforest our planet and reverse the effects of climate change, we could be facing the beginning of our own extinction. Our global ecosystem is on the verge of total collapse – the insects are just the first domino to fall.