Why are insects in danger and how can we help?

March 21, 2019

If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos. 
- E.O. Wilson 

It has been hard to read the news lately without hearing about impending catastrophe facing the planet as a result of declining insect numbers the world over. Habitat fragmentation, overuse of pesticides, pollution, global warming, and other pressures could apparently lead to the disappearance of insects within the next 100 years, and along with them would go the vital services which they provide humanity, our 'life support systems'

So how alarmed should we be, and what can we do about it? Read on to find out the facts behind the headlines and what you can do in your lives to help out our struggling insects. 

Why are insects so important?

Insects are an incredibly diverse group, with an estimated 2 to 30 million species on the planet, far more than have ever been named. Their numbers are also mind blowing, with an estimated 200 million insects for every human being! Insects are the lifeblood of civilizations around the world, providing a wide range of ecosystem services such as crop pollination, nutrient recycling through decomposition and bio-degradation, and pest control. They are also deeply connected to the natural systems of the planet which maintain other wildlife, and so any threat to them ultimately affects all life on earth.

What do the latest reports show?

Reports of mass insect declines have been coming out for a while now, but really hit the news in 2017 with the release of a report from Germany which showed that insect numbers had declined by 75% over the past 27 years in protected areas around the country. This was thought to be a result of habitat loss, intensive farming and over use of pesticides. Late last year, another study majorly made the headlines from Puerto Rico, where an international team of scientists found that the biomass of insects in the Luquillo rainforest had decreased by 98% on the ground and 80% in the canopy over 35 years.

report released earlier this year by Franciso Sanchez-Bayo and Kris Wyckhuys, which reviewed 73 of the best studies carried out so far, has generated a lot of panic in the first few months of this year. The report suggests that 40% of insect species are in decline, and over a third are endangered. This is the first indication that insect declines are a global issue, and not just localised to specific areas. They listed the conversion of habitat to intensive farmland as the number one cause of the declines, with pesticides and pollution from agriculture, climate change and invasive species as further causes.

That there are an alarming number of studies showing that insects are declining is worrying, but the sensationalist headlines about insects completely disappearing in the next 100 years might be a little exaggerated. So thinks Ed Yong, science writer for The Atlantic, who interviewed a number of entomologists in a recent article to see what they thought about the headlines. They said that the data is patchy for insect numbers in many areas, so there is no way of knowing how many there should be in the first place. They also said that the recent review mostly looked at Europe and North America, and so it is hard to extrapolate these patterns to the tropics where most insects live. Whilst they dismissed the idea the insects could disappear altogether, they did agree that we should be worried about these reports and start to act right away before it really is too late for many species, as it is more than likely that factors such as habitat loss and climate change will affect insects the world over. 

What can we do about it then?

Shop organic 

One of the major conclusions of the aforementioned studies is that intensive agriculture is the main culprit in causing insect declines. Blanket use of pesticides, habitat destruction and fragmentation as a result of land clearance for farming, and the pollution of land and water from agricultural run-off, are all creating the perfect storm for the collapse of insect populations. One of the best things that you can do to make sure that you aren't contributing to the problem is by eating organic food wherever possible. By eating organic you guarantee that no pesticides or chemicals have been used to grow the food, one of the main issues with intensive farming. Studies have show marked increases in insect abundance on organic farms, which in turn helps other species which feed on them such as birds and bats. Find out more about the many benefits of organic farming here!

The UN has estimated that over a third of food, that's 1.3 billion tonnes, is lost in production or simply wasted every year! So if you feel like you are throwing away food every week why not spend that money on organic food instead and try to throw away less? However, organic food can be much more expensive than intensively farmed food, so is often out of the question for those who are already on a tight food budget. 

You could even grow some your own food at home or in an allotment, therefore guaranteeing that your food is organic as you've grown it yourself.

Make insects welcome in your gardens and allotments 

There are many ways you can make your garden or allotment a home for insect species, especially pollinators, with research showing these spaces can be extremely important for them, even more so than nature reserves. First of all, plant a wide variety of flowers, especially native species. These can be plants that are sometimes considered weeds, such as dandelions and thistles, but are often the most important for them. You could also leave wild spaces and borders where wildflowers are allowed to grow free and grass is left uncut, and stop clearing up leaves when they fall but pile them up along with any other garden waste. Making our gardens a little messier can create important and complex habitats for all manner of species. There are also many natural alternatives to chemical pesticides which you can use in your garden. For more information and ideas check out the RSPB's tips on how to create a wildlife friendly garden. To get the ball rolling, you could get yourself some Seedballs. They contain seeds from many different wildflowers as well as all the nutrition and protection they need to get a good start in life. All you need to do is throw them onto soil or compost in your garden. They were even voted Gift of the Year in 2017, so why not buy them as a present for someone?

Get recording insects

The more information we have about how our insects are faring the better, and there is no greater resource than the general public. Data on insects is patchy at best in many places, and the reason we are only just noticing their disappearances is because long-term studies to provide hard evidence take a lot of time and funding. Biological Recording is a great way to help out as it provides scientists with up to date information on where certain species have been spotted and how various forms of land management are influencing them. We recently published a feature on Biological Recording which you can find here, explaining what it is about and how you can get started today!

Call for our policy makers to act!

Now that the evidence is piling up and alarm bells are ringing, it is time to get the government to take the issue seriously. In the UK, the conversation has already been started by MP Alex Sobel initiating a debate in parliament this week. You can contact your MP and encourage them to get involved, asking them to call for much more regulation on pesticide use and make agri-environmental schemes and organic farming more widespread in the UK. There is also a petition by Friends of the Earth calling on the government to ensure there is a clear plan to reduce pesticide use, which you can sign here.

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