“The abundance of flying insects has plunged by three-quarters over the past 25 years, according to a new study that has shocked scientists.
Insects are an integral part of life on Earth as both pollinators and prey for other wildlife and it was known that some species such as butterflies were declining. But the newly revealed scale of the losses to all insects has prompted warnings that the world is “on course for ecological Armageddon”, with profound impacts on human society.
…The cause of the huge decline is as yet unclear, although the destruction of wild areas and widespread use of pesticides are the most likely factors and climate change may play a role. The scientists were able to rule out weather and changes to landscape in the reserves as causes, but data on pesticide levels has not been collected.
“The fact that the number of flying insects is decreasing at such a high rate in such a large area is an alarming discovery,” said Hans de Kroon, at Radboud University in the Netherlands and who led the new research.
“Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on Earth [but] there has been some kind of horrific decline,” said Prof Dave Goulson of Sussex University, UK, and part of the team behind the new study. “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.”
…“Flying insects have really important ecological functions, for which their numbers matter a lot. They pollinate flowers: flies, moths and butterflies are as important as bees for many flowering plants, including some crops. They provide food for many animals -- birds, bats, some mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians. Flies, beetles and wasps are also predators and decomposers, controlling pests and cleaning up the place generally.”
-- Damian Carrington, “Warning of 'ecological Armageddon' after dramatic plunge in insect numbers,” The Guardian (UK), October 18, 2017
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"Not long ago, a lengthy drive on a hot day wouldn't be complete without scraping bug guts off a windshield. But splattered insects have gone the way of the Chevy Nova -- you just don't see them on the road like you used to.
Biologists call this the windshield phenomenon. It's a symptom, they say, of a vanishing population.
“For those of us who look, I think all of us are disturbed and all of us are seeing fewer insects,” said Scott Black, executive director of the Portland, Ore.-based Xerces Society, a nonprofit environmental group that promotes insect conservation. “On warm summer nights you used to see them around streetlights.”
The windshield phenomenon is not just a trick of Trans Am nostalgia. A small but growing number of scientific studies suggest that insects are on the wane.
“The windscreen phenomenon is probably one of the best illustrative ways to realize we are dealing with a decline in flying insects,” said Caspar Hallmann, an ecologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands. Hallmann is part of a research team that recently waded through 27 years' worth of insects collected in German nature preserves.
Between 1989 and 2016, according to a report published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, the biomass of flying insects captured in these regions decreased by a seasonal average of 76 percent.
John Losey, an entomologist at Cornell University in New York who was not involved with this study, said he was impressed by the scope of the new research across time, space and habitat range. Insects were collected at 63 locations in Germany, including grasslands, swamps, sand dunes, wastelands, shrub land and along the margins of human settlement.
All of the locations were protected areas. “This decline happened in nature reserves, which are meant to preserve biodiversity and ecosystem functioning,” Hallmann said. “This is very alarming!”
Though some missing insects may be pests -- bloodsuckers or crop-eaters -- plenty of insects are productive members of a healthy ecosystem. (Even mosquitoes play a vital role as food sources for fish and other animals.) In 2006, Losey and fellow Cornell entomologist Mace Vaughan estimated that wild insects provide $57 billion worth of custodial services in the United States each year. They bury animal dung, prey on pests and pollinate plants.
“If you like to eat nutritious fruits and vegetables, you should thank an insect. If you like salmon, you can thank a tiny fly that the salmon eat when they're young,” Black said. “The whole fabric of our planet is built on plants and insects and the relationship between the two.”
…Helping these tiny helpers can take only a small effort, he said. Habitat restoration can be as simple as a garden with plants that flower throughout the year. Unlike mammals, insects don't require vast tracts of land to be satisfied -- a back yard blooming with native flowers will do.”
-- Ben Guarino, “This is very alarming!: Flying insects vanish from nature preserves,” The Washington Post, October 18, 2017
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Insects as a mixed blessing? What good is there to say about bugs? The fact that such questions are asked is a clear sign of our culture’s disconnection from nature.
Yes, it’s obvious that some insects can be a nuisance (although the vast majority go about their business without bothering us, or even making us aware of them).
And yes, some insects (a small percentage) do carry diseases, which puts those species in the spotlight, since we obviously need to protect ourselves against them.
It’s so easy to forget that insects are an essential part of our ecosystem, helping to pollinate flowers, furnishing food for birds, fish, and countless other species, and doing the vital work of breaking down dead matter so that new plants can sprout from the soil, etc. Without insects it’s clear that life as we know it could not exist.
Which doesn’t mean we need to constantly sing their praises. But it’s helpful to acknowledge the importance of ALL living things on this planet, as the native people who inhabited this continent before us regularly did in ceremonial prayers.
If we were actually able to kill all the insects (as some people might wish for), we would be signing a death warrant for the human species and most other life forms.
Spring is the season, of course, when we become especially aware of bugs again, since they’re only able to fly and move around when temps are reasonably mild.
Warm weather appeals to many of us, and we must accept that with warm weather comes lots of activity among inhabitants of the natural world, including insects!
For probably the majority of us who spend ample time in nature throughout the year, bugs are no big deal. Peaceful coexistence with them is indeed very possible. Obsessing about them is unquestionably a major waste of time and energy.
We simply need to protect ourselves against those few species that seek to bite us (because they want a bit of our blood). I’ll have more to say on this subject soon, as I do every spring or summer, including about which insect repellents are safest.
-- Charlie Cook