The Insect Apocalypse: What does it really mean?

Philip Donkersley of Lancaster University writes about the insect apocalypse in this week’s food column.

moth

Rosy maple moth (Dryocampa rubicunda L.). Images sourced under Creative Commons license.

We are in the midst of a global insect apocalypse.

A recent study suggests that around 40% of our insect species are in decline, (twice as many species as vertebrates), and about a third of all insect species are threatened with extinction. Every year we have to add another 100,000 species to this list.

We also understand the factors that are causing these declines: climate change, pollution, invasive species and most importantly habitat destruction.

These big headlines have been interpreted in a number of ways. On the one hand we stand to lose life from the most diverse group of animals on the planet, the insects. Standing by and letting these declines continue would undoubtedly be an enormous tragedy for humanity and the state of our planet.

The worst part of this tragedy is that the declines are heavily biased towards our rare, beautiful and specialist species. These can include anything from our native bumble bee species and the truly lovely rosy maple moth, to environmentally sensitive freshwater insects such as stoneflies and caddisflies.

Specialist species- such as those mentioned above- contribute so much to systems we humans rely on, providing integral natural services such as pollination, predation, soil recycling and improving water quality. Put simply, they help the world go around. All of these ‘services’ are provided free of charge so long as we are mindful to provide insects with a healthy home.

On the other flip side, we have generalist species, which include a number of globally important pest species, such as mosquitos, longhorn beetles, and any number of crop caterpillar pests. Research suggests that the insect apocalypse will actually benefit some of these organisms, as they are more versatile and adapt easily to environmental change. They take advantage of the habitats left free by extinct or rare insects.

Agricultural pests, especially, are set do increasingly well in future years. This means that we will need to work harder to control them – such as through the use of greater amounts of increasingly toxic pesticides.

This continuing reliance on pesticides exacerbates the problem we have already made for ourselves. Pesticide exposure and land use change have already lead to this crisis point for insects. The alternative – to provide greater support for insects through more holistic land management practices– will be difficult to implement, but crucial to provide potential ecological benefits that are far longer lasting and efficient.

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