Where Have All the Insects Gone?

Insect populations are crashing, and the decline has the potential to cause ecological catastrophe.

This stark warning comes after scientists reviewed insect life across over 60 of Germany’s national nature reserves. The research, led by Radboud University in the Netherlands, builds on other studies that have shown rapid decline in butterflies, bees and other vital flying insect species over the past few decades.

In their study — published in the scientific journal “PLOS One” this month — the researchers detail how a group of amateur entomologists adopted a strict model for collecting insects in 1989. This method, which involves using malaise traps to sample insect diversity, meant that the data gathered over proceeding years was reliable enough that scientists could analyze the data for trends and other patterns.

Researchers found that insect life appears to have fallen dramatically, with a 75 percent reduction in flying insects over a 27-year period. This drop in biodiversity held true despite a number of controls, including weather patterns and geographic differences among nature reserves.

The scientists explain that while they accept that nature reserves are not typical of the wider environment, this fact only serves to underscore their fears. Essentially, if flying insects are not thriving in nature reserves that are specifically meant to protect biodiversity, we should have serious concerns about other, more developed habitats.

“Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on Earth [but] there has been some kind of horrific decline,” Professor Dave Goulson of Sussex University explained. “We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects then everything is going to collapse.”

Why insects are so crucial

Not everyone likes insects. Except for butterflies and bees, they’re often viewed as pests in need of extermination.

Yet, insects are one of the most important classes of life on the planet. We’re all likely familiar with their role as pollinators, but insects do much more than that.

Insects can aerate soil, clear away detritus — dead animals and plant life — and return nutrients to the soil. Insects that dig, whether as adults or while in their larval stages, can also create water tunnels that are vital for good drainage. What’s more, insects actually keep pest numbers down. For example, ladybirds control aphid populations that could otherwise destroy crops.

Why are insect populations dwindling?

Scientists don’t know for sure, but humans are the likely culprit.

Man-made climate change has altered ecosystems and impacted a variety of plant and animal species. But the dramatic fall in insect numbers means that this isn’t just about insects shifting to different climates — they’re disappearing altogether.

It’s likely then that habitat loss and widespread use of aggressive insecticides also play a role.

Encouragingly, this study shows that scientists can track insect life over decades and spot these patterns — and it needn’t be costly. Now researchers aim to study insect life in other areas of the world to get a truer sense of the decline over different geographic regions.

We must act fast to save insects from further decline — because without them, life as we know it is in serious jeopardy.

Photo Credit: Vincent van Zalinge/Unsplash

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