By Steve Nicholls
Generally unloved and disregarded, insects are in fact the most successful group of animals on Earth and have been for more than 400 million years. With a million described species (and a lot more still out there to find) and numbers measured in the quintillions, insects underpin almost all terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems. But in the last few decades, populations all over the world have collapsed with terrifying speed. The declines are so severe that we stand on the brink of total ecosystem collapse. After all, as Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson pointed out; ‘these are the little animals that run the world’.
Every spring an extraordinary event takes place in California, when 1600 beekeepers arrive at the Central Valley’s almond orchards—along with 1.5 million hives. It’s the biggest pollination event on the planet as the orchards turn white with blossom. But the Central Valley is such a toxic soup of pesticides, the beekeepers lose about 1/3 of their bees during each pollination season. Maintaining the minimum number of bees to do the job is now becoming very difficult. Given the problems that honeybees face year-round everywhere else, we might soon lose their invaluable help altogether.
What’s the alternative? China has already lost a huge number of pollinators, and farmers there now must pay people to hand pollinate their almond trees. It’s time-consuming, inefficient and enormously expensive—and raises the price of food. If this is repeated with other crops, there simply won’t be enough people to do the job. So, there is no real alternative. Currently it’s estimated that insect pollination services across the globe are worth between $235 and $577 billion every year and yet we’re about to pull the plug on that phenomenal contribution to the global economy. What’s more, we don’t have much time to find solutions since the scale of the problem has only recently been recognised—and it turns out that we’re already a long way down a path of no return.
The small German town of Krefeld near Düsseldorf is the headquarters of the local entomological society, and it’s packed with alcohol-filled specimen jars stuffed with insects collected locally since the society’s formation in 1905. In the past they needed so much alcohol to preserve their specimens that the local narcotics bureau took a serious interest. But society member Martin Sorg noticed that recently their alcohol bill had dropped dramatically. The data held by the society are so complete that it allowed Sorg to look at how the abundance of insects on local nature reserves had changed over the last hundred years or so. The results, published in 2017, shocked not only members of this august society, but also scientists and naturalists around the world. On one reserve, insect abundance today was 80% lower than in 1989. That pattern repeated across all the other reserves they looked at. Overall, in the last few decades, insect abundance in this corner of Germany had fallen by three quarters. The speed and scale of the drop was so startling that the paper rapidly became one of the most widely discussed that year among scientists and naturalists across the world. It received a lot of global press coverage too, though, as is often the case, it was soon replaced by other news.
At the same time, a Danish naturalist had noticed that on a drive through the countryside, his windscreen remained free of bugs. The same journey in his youth resulted in a windscreen so spattered in dead bugs that he had to stop frequently to clean it. So, with the support of colleagues, he began to gather quantitative data—by equipping cars with large nets on their rooves. These certainly drew attention from passing motorists, but also from scientists around the world. As in Germany, insect populations had crashed in just a few decades. In my mind, this feels very personal. I’ve been working with insects since the 1970s, so this crisis has happened over my working life. When I began as an entomologist, insects were, in some places, five times more abundant than they are today—and that’s all too obvious when I visit some of my favourite bug-watching places. It’s now clear that this a global phenomenon. Drastic population crashes have also been recorded in Puerto Rico and across North America, where the Xerxes Society, a group dedicated to insect conservation, are reporting declines in many groups of insects. A similar pattern is emerging across Asia and Australia.
The causes are many and varied but it’s not rocket science. We’ve overused insecticides (which kill insects directly) and herbicides (which kill their food plants). We’ve destroyed their habitats on a vast scale. Fully half the land on the planet is now used for farming—and in England, one of the most nature-poor countries on Earth, nearly three quarters of the land is farmed. Light pollution from streetlights and buildings lit up at night reduces populations of nocturnal insects, while introduced invasive species undermine complex ecological webs. And, of course, climate change will have major, if unpredictable, effects on insect distribution. In 2019, the Entomological Society of America held a symposium in St Louis, Missouri, to pull together data from around the world and ended by describing the decline of insects as ‘death by a thousand cuts’.
Some solutions are obvious. Ban the worst of the insect poisons and limit the use of others. Unfortunately, most of these are manufactured by just a few giant companies who, through their immense wealth, have the ear of politicians and lawmakers. We also need to de-intensify farming to create space for insects along with other animals and plants. This could be achieved through reshaping farming subsidies, but this too is painfully slow to filter into the minds of political leaders.
Back among the almond groves of California, one farm stands out. It belongs to Glenn and Leslie Anderson and it’s one of the few organic farms in the San Joaquin Valley. Anderson Almonds is a tiny farm of just 20 acres, dwarfed by the intensive agriculture around, but they have wild pollinators everywhere and no need to pay beekeepers. In fact, beekeepers bring their hives to his land to rehabilitate them, to keep the hives alive after time spent pollinating almond trees elsewhere in the valley, in what must seem like some dystopian post-apocalyptic landscape to a bee.
Our response to climate change has been largely too little too late—even though most people are now well aware of this crisis. Many fewer people realise the implications of the problems we face with insect declines. That’s why it’s more urgent than ever to publicise the scale of this crisis and what it will mean for every human being on the planet. That can be done by making people care more about insects. At the 1968 meeting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a Senegalese forester called Baba Dioum said ‘we will only conserve what we love, we will love only what we understand’. He was absolutely right. In Alien Worlds, by telling the story of how insects became so successful and so important, I hope to bring at least some understanding and—who knows—maybe a little bit of love.
Steve Nicholls is an Emmy Award–winning producer and director of acclaimed wildlife documentaries such as Appalachia: The Endless Forest. A Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, he is the author of Flowers of the Field: A Secret History of Meadow, Moor and Wood and Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery.
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