Insects are crucial for the flourishing of life on Earth. We should be nurturing them. Instead we’re killing them off, wholesale
Here is a tale that will harrow up your soul, freeze your young blood and make each particular hair stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine. Like many stories of horror, it begins in an empty house in the middle of the country.
To this place my friend John made his return late one black night. He opened his front door – and realised that he failed to close the bedroom window. It had been open for hours: what would he find within? With fearful courage he entered that room… and found absolutely nothing.
And therein lies the horror.
There was no moth orbiting the lightbulb, no mosquito looking for a blood meal, no crane fly skating crazily along the walls. The place had been operating as a perfect insect trap for many hours – and it had caught nothing.
You can turn your car into an unlit country lane and see not the blizzard of moths that was once a familiar sight, but a black and lifeless tunnel. Readers of a certain age will remember childhood journeys in which it was necessary to stop every couple of hours to clean the windscreen of battered insects; such pauses are no longer required.
There are fewer insects around. Loads fewer. Millions and billions fewer. And for most of us, living our busy lives, that seems pretty good news: fewer wasps round our heads in the pub garden, fewer nibbles round the ankles during al fresco meals, fewer flies shitting and vomiting on the food, fewer intruders to remove bravely from summer bedrooms – and fewer insects to spread debilitating and fatal diseases to humans and domestic animals.
We have adopted the American term bug, which is an expression of distaste and rejection: they bug us, so we keep them out with bugspray and bugscreens; when our computer goes wrong it has a bug, when we are ill we have a bug. We have come to see all insects as filthy, disease-carrying, irritating, and painful things: the world would be a better place without them.
But the loss of insects is perhaps the single most horrifying thing that is happening in the world right now: one that has radical implications for the future of all life. Here’s the great scientist and writer Edward O Wilson: “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10,000 years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”
It is our vanity as humans to believe that we have gone beyond the need for ecosystems and replaced them with economies. These days we make our own environments, don’t we? We certainly do: but the question is how long they will last. So let’s talk money.
As an almost despairing step, conservationists have put a monetary value on the wild world: an attempt to quantify, in the most brutal terms, the benefits that come to us from living wild organisms – like rainforests. These are called ecosystem services: tangible benefits of nature seen through an accountant’s eyes. Four basic services supplied by wild insects to the United States alone are worth $57 billion a year.
So it makes sense to look after our insects. But rather than doing that, we are killing them off at an ever greater rate.
We humans like to divide the world into two: vertebrates and invertebrates. But that is nothing more than vertebrate chauvinism: traditional taxonomy divides the animal kingdom into about 30 different phyla. We belong to the order of mammals, which lies in the phylum of chordates or backboned animals.
The order of insects lies in the phylum of arthropods, or creatures with jointed legs. These include crabs and lobsters, spiders, scorpions, centipedes and woodlice. Insect means cut into sections. Every adult insect is divided into three: head, thorax and abdomen. They each have an external skeleton, compound eyes, and a pair of antennae.
Most hatch from eggs; many go through four life-stages. And they come in numbers more often found in astronomy than biology, in terms of species, in terms of abundance, in terms of biomass. There are about a million species already described and – estimates vary – there are millions more waiting for science to come to terms with them. Many insects fly: they are one of four groups to have evolved true flight (the others being birds, bats and the extinct pterosaurs).
And their astonishing ubiquity is the mechanism by which the planet operates. The most obvious of these is pollination. Most of the plants that exist on the planet are angiosperms or flowering plants, a massive group that co-evolved with insects. This mutual dependence is crucial to life on earth.
It follows that 90 per cent of all flowering plants depend on animal pollinators, mostly insects, and 75 per cent of all food crops. Some examples: okra, kiwi, potato, onion, cashew, celery, star fruit, Brazil nut, beets of all kinds including sugar beet, mustard, rape, broccoli, cabbage and all the other brassicas, turnips, peas, all kinds of beans, chilli, papaya, caraway, melon, oranges, lemons and all citrus fruits, coconuts, coffee, tobacco, cucumber, squash, carrots, strawberries, cotton, sunflower, flax, lychee, apple, mango, alfalfa, avocado, apricot, cherry, almond, pomegranate, pear, raspberry, aubergine, clover, blueberry, tomato and grape. That list is by no means exhaustive.
But there are other important services supplied by insects and other invertebrates. These include getting rid of detritus and cycling nutrients; these creatures are essential to the carbon and nitrogen cycles, making such vital substances available to other organisms (like domestic plants). They also eat each other; which means that some insects eat species that are harmful to human projects (ladybirds eat aphids, for example). Agriculture in its current form simply couldn’t continue without insects and other invertebrates.
In Central Valley in California they have created a monoculture of almonds. If the trees are to produce fruit, the flowers must be pollinated. But there are no insects there to do the job, so they have to bring in domestic bees: 1.4 million hives are brought in every spring in huge lorries. Most producers need two hives for every acre, at a cost of $200 per hive. The price has gone up in recent years because of the phenomenon of colony collapse disorder, which has been linked to our use of insecticides. In Sichuan in China, farmers pay human workers to pollinate fruit trees by hand; they use either a paint brush or the filter-tip of a cigarette.
Wilson said that without insects and other invertebrates, humans would not be able to survive more than a few months, and nor would any of our fellow vertebrates, and the flowering plants would soon follow. “The earth would rot, its dead vegetation piled up and dried out, narrowing and closing the channel of the nutrient cycles.” We would go back a billion years: to a time when algae, bacteria and simple multicellular plants dominated the life of the earth.
Matt Shardlow, CEO of the NGO Buglife that works for invertebrates, said: “A healthy environment is essential not just for providing nutrition and resources, but also for bestowing the environmental respite that people need for their mental health. Long before our bodies starve, declining insect populations will famish us of the colourful and noisy bounty that has entertained children, inspired artists and pleased the eye since humans first evolved.”
It follows, then, that we should look after insects as if our lives, the lives of our great-grandchildren, and the lives of everything that lives on the planet depended on them – because it does. But we have taken the opposite route. We are killing off insects, both by accident and on purpose.
This decline is hard to document and to quantify. One of the reasons for this is because, vertebrate chauvinists as we are, we are more interested in counting birds and mammals. Our conservationist energies have traditionally been directed towards saving the panda and the white-tailed eagle.
But insects – apart from butterflies and moths that are attracted to light – are notoriously difficult to census. They are tiny, they are many, they are mostly out of sight. A census was done in a series of protected areas in Germany, and a 75 per cent fall in the biomass of insects was revealed. Let us dwell on that: this massive decline is taking place in areas where nature is under protection. The implications for life outside protected areas are hideous.
In this country it’s been estimated that more than 40 per cent of our insect species are declining, a third of them are endangered, and a quarter could go nationally extinct in the next ten years.
There are three main reasons for the loss of insects. The first is the destruction of habitat: we concrete over wild places to make dwellings, roads, factories, all kinds of things for an expanding human population.
Example: there is a plan to build a theme park on Swanscombe Marshes in Kent, a place rich in all forms of wildlife where 2,000 species of invertebrates have been recorded, including the distinguished jumping spider. Such destruction leaves nature reserves as islands cut off from everything else and so without a long-term future. Important sites are being destroyed and so is the connectivity between them.
The second problem is agriculture. The intensification of agriculture helped the human population to increase, so now we need more food than ever and agriculture seeks to become even more intense; ever more lavish with fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides.
Example: the tobacco plant produces nicotine as a defence against attack from insects. This poison has been used for centuries by humans for self-destructive purposes; it has also been synthesised for use as a pesticide. Neonicotinoids are used pre-emptively: seeds are coated in the stuff so they won’t be eaten. Of this lethal poison, 80 percent, unused by the plant, goes into the ecosystem. The three main neonicotinoids were banned by the EU in 2018; this year they were allowed back into the UK for use on sugar beet.
The third main problem is climate change: a vast and troubling subject and one that we seem to be leaving for our great-grandchildren to sort out. These changes in climate disrupt the natural cycles, breaking up natural patterns that have established themselves over uncountable millennia.
Climate change is like sloshing a cup of coffee over your laptop: it’s not entirely clear what’s going to happen next, but what’s certain is that things will never be the same again. (Never? The earth recovered from a crisis of climate at the end of the Permian Era, around 300 million years ago; it took 20 million years to do so.)
There are other problems for insects. These include light pollution and the disruption to night-flying species; water pollution (in this country alone more than 4,000 species spend at least part of their lives in water); and the destruction of peat bogs.
If we were trying to destroy our life-support system on purpose, we could hardly be doing a better job. And yet we persist in doing it. Climate change is a folly that we are all aware of, but we remain hooked on to fossil fuels as junkies to the next fix. The International Monetary Fund recently calculated that our global use of fossil fuels is being subsidised by governments at a rate of $11 million every minute.
But the destruction of insects and other inverts is a folly that is taking place by stealth. We let it happen without protest because we don’t notice insects much and when we do we don’t like them unless they’re butterflies. Shardlow said: “Most children are naturally excited by small animals and insects have been worshiped by human cultures, so people can value insects very highly. However, there is a buck to be made in eliminating a tiny number of species that make a nuisance of themselves, and this struggle has become overly predominant in the modern psyche.”
Insects and other invertebrates do their best work out of sight, and they do their most irritating stuff right in our faces, stinging, biting, harassing, buzzing. We will not survive long without a radical shift in attitude: an acceptance of the value of insects in all their incomprehensible diversity.
There are many things an individual can do about this. The first is to join Buglife. Other things: retain unimproved grassland; allow your lawn a bit more freedom if you have one; prioritise native species of trees; plant and maintain hedgerows (vital for connectivity); cultivate shaggy and flower-rich roadside verges and field margins; grow native flowers in gardens (there are nearly 1,700 square miles of private gardens in the UK, which makes them – potentially – the most significant nature reserve in the country); supply or allow plenty of dead wood; and avoid synthetic and microbial pesticides.
But the first step lies in being aware of the decline of insects as an issue of major international significance. That means that we need to start liking insects and caring about what happens to them. In recent years we have made a start by seeing the point of bees, but we need to go much further. After all, they are keeping the planet alive.
Simon Barnes is a journalist and author, previously working at the Times both as its chief sports writer and as a wildlife columnist.
More by Simon Barnes:
Our watery wasteland
The butterflies have a message for us
Much as you love to mow the lawn, let the grass grow
What happens when someone adds to a million-word masterpiece
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