There’s been anecdotal evidence creeping up on us for several years now. Drives out in the country or long freeway trips no longer covered the car with smashed insect guts. No more moths in the headlight beams. Of course, you have to be “of a certain age” to remember a time before the New Normal. Otherwise, the insect collapse would be invisible. If you never knew the experience of having to wash your windshield to get the bugs off every time you stopped for gas, you could be excused for not missing them. Even the gas stations, more often than not, seem to have empty reservoirs and missing squeegees these days.
As the bugs have disappeared, they have been replaced, ever so slightly, with calls of alarm. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, published in 1962, inspired the modern environmental movement and eventually resulted in a phase-out the use of DDT as a mosquito insecticide. It wasn’t quite enough. Some folks remember the bugs declining as far back as the 1970s, but it really ramped up in the last couple decades. Timelines vary around the world. Insect traps set up in southern England didn’t register a serious insect collapse until about 2002, but in southern Scotland, insect counts declined by two-thirds in the thirty years before those in England.
In the early 1900s, Iowa’s prairies were home to three hundred of species of plants, another 300 species of birds, tens of species of mammals, and uncounted hundreds upon hundreds of insect species. Fast forward to late summer 2012, when the air should have been buzzing with bugs, and you’d find rather few. One survey of an Iowan cornfield turned up exactly six creatures we might call bugs. (Not simply six species – six individual bugs.) Two grasshoppers, an ant, a red mite, and a cobweb spider eating a crane fly. Otherwise, silence.
Finally, however, the insect collapse is garnering some media attention. A well-documented German study, recently released in the journal PLOS One, revealed something more valuable than anecdotal evidence or informal surveys: actual numbers over time. In the last 27 years, the flying insect biomass measured in protected German nature reserves declined an average of 76%, with an 82% drop during the midsummer season, when insect populations should be thriving. Another study found that Germany experienced a 15% drop in its bird population over the last decade. Clearly, an insect collapse also affects the birds who feed on them.
The importance of flower pollination. Video by http://mdc.mo.gov.
Other studies around the world have produced similar findings. Scientists from Munich and Frankfurt found that some moth and butterfly species fell from 117 in 1840 to 71 in 2013. A 2014 study found that invertebrate populations were in decline worldwide. Most folks are aware of the trouble faced by bee colonies; bees and butterflies are charismatic and beloved enough to garner public awareness.
However, does any of this matter? Can’t we just get by with a handful of major edible species (cows, chickens, pigs, corn, wheat, potatoes, and some tomatoes for ketchup)? Do we even need bugs anyway?
Actually, we do. Not only do insects form the base of the food chain for larger, cuter wildlife, they also pollinate plants that feed us, help digest waste matter and turn it back into soil, and perform numerous other ecosystem services. Plunging populations of insect predators mean that isolated outbreaks of destructive insects will be harder to control. An insect collapse is also the canary in our coal mine – an indicator that sooner or later, we’re in for trouble of our own. Further, and this may be the hardest to accept, not everything in nature is about us.
So what can we do about this? One action people can take on their own is to create more insect habitat in their own backyards. The National Wildlife Federation developed a program to help people support insects and wildlife by planting more nectar-bearing flowers, creating shelter, and providing water.
Another option is to buy pastured beef instead of meat from CAFOs. Pollinating insects, including bees, can thrive in pastures grazed by cattle. These rangelands provide hollow-stemmed grasses for insects to nest in, successively blooming flowers for them to sip from, and undisturbed places to hang out, while helping build soil, sequester carbon, and creating habitat for birds. Taking the cattle out of the pasture and turning it into a cornfield doesn’t help.
Most of all, though, this is a giant problem and likely requires systemic solutions. Climate change and industrial agriculture doubtlessly play a part, but the reasons for the insect collapse aren’t entirely known. However, if modern life and industrial culture are the reasons for the decline, it would take a massive overhaul of life as we know it to bring the bugs back. And if we’re not willing to do that to save ourselves, we’re not going to do it for the beetles, mosquitoes, moths, or anything that feeds on them. Not even for the bees.
Related: Humans Can Help the Environment