November 3, 2021

Where Have All The Insects Gone?

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

I hate bugs. At the risk of losing favor with all entomologists and every insectophiliac, I have to say that I find almost all insects to be repellent, repulsive and hideous. When, for example, I spot a spider scuttling across my bathroom floor, when I am in my bare feet, my first impulse after my frisson of fright is to look for something to smash the beast before it disappears. If I should find one crawling around my bathtub, it will soon be dead meat. If there is one slithering around my bathroom sink, I have no compunction about drowning it. I am a ruthless and unrepentant slayer of arthropods. [Note: strictly speaking, spiders are not insects, but as far as I’m concerned, I can’t see that it makes any difference – they still cause immediate and intense feelings of revulsion in me.]

Oh, I admit that if I should see one climbing the wall of my office, unless it is large and menacing, I tend to leave it be, but I continue to cast my cold glaucomic eyes warily upon it until it disappears from my sight. I am not altogether without mercy, but if I were Lord of the Universe (and not just Lord of the Rings, as I used to be called when my children were living with me), I would unhesitatingly use my omnipotence to extirpate all these loathsome creatures from the face of the earth.

I know that, while there are those who share my hatred and fear of these small black pests, there are many people who feel quite the opposite. Take my girlfriend Lauren for example. She would sooner immolate herself than step on a worm; instead, if she espies one while walking on a nearby bike path, she will lovingly remove it to a grassy area. Likewise with spiders. If she happens to see me about to murder one, she will find a way to capture it and then take it outside and release it. Honestly, the woman was probably a Jain in past life. She not only would literally “not hurt a fly,” but seems to love all creatures, great and small. At her home she regularly cares for and feeds the neighborhood birds, raccoons and even skunks. If she sees a dead animal on the road, she stops her car, heedless of her own danger from other vehicles, and, with her gloves, will pick up the animal and find a way to bury it. She is an exemplary human being totally in tune with nature whereas I like to quote Woody Allen’s quip, “nature and I are two.”

Of course, I am not altogether a cur when it comes to animals. If you’ve read any of my past blogs, you know how fond I am of cats, for example, and how fascinated I have been to learn about the ways of many animals and how marvelous they are. In my own peculiar way, I would even go so far as to claim I am “an animal lover.” I am completely in support of the animal rights movement and hate to read about how badly they are often treated or exploited and killed by us human beings. All that makes me heartsick.

But I draw the line at insects. To me, they are still the vile vermin from hell on earth.

And yet.

And yet, I am well aware of how vital insects are to life on earth. Without them, we human beings would perish. As the famous founder of sociobiology, E. O. Wilson, who spent most of his career studying ants, has remarked, “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.”

And that’s just it. They are beginning to vanish. Many studies are now available that show declines, often precipitous declines, in many species of arthropods. (There are about a million of them that have been identified, but it is believed that the number of insect species is likely to be four times that number.) According to the New Yorker writer, Elizabeth Kolbert, who specializes in environmental studies, we are in the midst of a sixth extinction, and if the insects go the way more than 99% of all once extant species have, to full extinction, we are likely to be doomed to a similar fate. Without a thriving insect world, you could kiss this sweet earth goodbye.

Dave Goulson is a distinguished Oxford-educated entomologist, currently a professor of biology at the University of Sussex, and the author of the recent book, Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse. As you can tell from his book’s sub-title, Goulson is one very concerned entomologist. We are all familiar with the various threats to life on this planet, especially now when we are in the beginning throes of the disaster of climate change, but how many of us have given any thought that the fate of the earth also depends on the health of “these little beasts” that people like me scorn and fear?

His book, I note with a slight shiver of dismay, seems to be written for people like me. He wants us insect haters to realize that these critters are not only actually beautiful and smart, but are vital to the earth’s welfare. Here’s what he has written with people like me in mind:

I fear the majority of people don’t much like insects. In fact, I would go further: I think many people loathe insects, or are terrified of them, or both. They are often referred to as “creepy-crawlers,” or “bugs,” the latter a term we also use for disease-causing organisms. For many of us, these terms are associated with unpleasant, scuttling, dirty creatures, living in filth and spreading disease. Increasingly, most of us live in cities, and grow up seeing few insects other than house flies, mosquitoes and cockroaches, so perhaps we should not be surprised that insects often inspire fear….

Few therefore appreciate how vitally important insects are to our own survival, and fewer still how beautiful, clever, fascinating, mysterious and wonderful insects are. My mission is to persuade people to love insects, or at least to respect them for all they do….[and] why they matter.

Goulson seems to be the ant-i-Ring (a bad pun, I know; you don’t have to tell me).

As a child, Goulson was fascinated by butterflies and especially by bumblebees, which he calls “the intellectual giants of the insect world.” They are, he writes, “able to navigate and memorize the locations of landmarks and flower patches, efficiently extract rewards hidden in elaborate flowers, and live in complex social colonies where plots are hatched and regicide is common.”

But fifty years after Goulson began studying caterpillars as a kid, he is worried because:

Every year that has passed since there have been slightly fewer butterflies, fewer bumblebees – fewer of almost all the myriad little beasts that make the world go round. These fascinating and beautiful creatures are disappearing, ant by ant, bee by bee, day by day. Estimates vary and are imprecise, but it seems likely that insects have declined in abundance by 75 per cent of more [! – KR] since I was five years old.

The decline of insects is terribly sad for those of us who love these little creatures and value them for themselves, but it also threatens human well-being, for we need insects to pollinate our crops, recycle dung, leaves and corpses, keep the soil healthy, control pests, and much, much more. Many larger animals such as birds, fish and frogs rely on insects for food. Wildflowers rely on them for pollination. As insects become more scarce, our world will slowly grind to a halt, for it cannot function without them.

Kolbert, who cites some of the same research mentioned by Goulson, is also worried. And she fears that the rate of decline in insect populations may be even worse than Goulson has indicated.

In 2019, a second group of researchers published a more rigorous and extensive study, and its findings were even more dire. In the course of just the previous decade, grasslands in Germany had, on average, lost a third of their arthropod species and two-thirds of their arthropod biomass. (Terrestrial arthropods include spiders and centipedes in addition to insects.) In woodlands, the number of arthropod species had dropped by more than a third, and biomass by forty per cent. “This is frightening” is how one of the paper’s authors, Wolfgang Weisser, a biologist at the Technical University of Munich, put it.

And there is more bad news from still other research as Kolbert notes:

In the years since, many more papers have appeared with comparable findings. Significant drops have been found in mayfly populations in the American Midwest, butterfly numbers in the Sierra Nevadas, and caterpillar diversity in northern Costa Rica…. A recent special issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences devoted to the state of the insect world [expressed] “ample cause for concern.”

What has caused this precipitous worldwide drop in insect populations?

There are several factors at play here.

One of them is simply habitat loss. For example, hedgerows and weedy patches, which have been critical to insect life, are disappearing because of modern agricultural practices. The over-use of fertilizers also contributes to habitat destruction. Fertilizers often destroy the very plants that many insects depend on.

And then there is climate change itself, of course. Climate change has already devastated many animal species, and insects have not been spared. Kolbert spends some time documenting the effects of climate change on honeybees, for example, which has caused the collapse of many of their colonies. The story is similar for other insect populations. Living in California where almonds and blueberries (long a valued accessory to my breakfast cereals) have been abundant, I have had to wonder how long I can expect to enjoy these foods if they lack the pollinators to keep them flourishing in our orchards.

But worst of all is the havoc that pesticides and other poisons are now causing in our ecosystems. Here, however, we must pause for a little historical perspective. In 1963, Rachel Carson published her famous book, Silent Spring, warning us of the damage we were already doing to the earth by poisoning it. Goulson comments ruefully that she would weep to know how much worse it has become in the years since her book was published. 

I know I’ve been quoting a lot, but I can’t resist one more indictment from Goulson:

Insect-rich wildlife habitats such as hay meadows, marshes, healthland and tropical rainforests have been bulldozed, burnt or ploughed to destruction on a vast scale. The problems with pesticides and fertilizers [Carson] highlighted have become far more acute, with an estimated three million tons of pesticides now going into the global environment every year. Some of these new pesticides are thousands of times more toxic to insects than any that existed in Carson’s day. Soils have been degraded, rivers choked with silt and polluted with chemicals.  


You get the picture. The world of insects – and our world which can’t survive without them – is under extreme threat and the consequences of a deepening of this ecological crisis are dire.

What are we humans doing?

If, for a moment, we expand our focus from insects to all of life, we can easily see that life on this beautiful planet of ours is imperiled. Of course, this is not news. But we must face the fact that we humans are slowly committing ecocide. All around us, we see signs that nature itself is dying. Examples are not hard to find. For instance, bird populations in America have declined by about 30% since 1970. We have already killed off almost all of our megafauna that were still roaming the earth when the last ice age ended about 11,000 years ago, permitting civilized life to emerge and finally dominate our planet. And by the end of this century, it is likely that we will see the elephants disappear from the earth, and the rhinos, too. The last mammal standing will be Homo sapiens sapiens, the planet’s unstoppable ultra predator, which we should perhaps now start calling Homo stupidous, given what a good job we have done, especially in recent years, of fouling our waters, polluting the air and poisoning our land. 

For all the greatness of human civilization and its colossal achievements and despite our unique capacity to create stupendous monuments to our own glory, it is also true that we are a lethal species of unparalleled danger to the very earth on which we depend. We are clearly on a headlong course of turning the earth into its own Easter Island where only the monuments will survive.

The aliens won’t save us and there is no geo-engineered deus ex machina waiting in the wings to deliver us from our collective folly of having turned the earth and its waters into a garbage dump of life-killing pestilence. And climate change will continue to grow worse. As of today, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was 413.88 ppm, and it ain’t gonna go down. (Remember when we wanted to keep it at 350? Another pipe dream up, literally, in smoke.)

I hate to end this blog on such a downer! You know I am not a morbid cuss. I am merely old and sad about the way the human story is apparently turning out. But I won’t be here much longer. Most of you will. I just hope for your sake and that of your children you and they will somehow be able to make it through the dark times I foresee.

But getting back to our insects, we can live – and will need to do so – in a world without elephants or rhinos but we cannot live without our insects. Goulson wants to educate us about how important they are and what we must do to preserve them and keep them healthy.

As for me, after finishing this blog, I plan to delve further into Goulson’s book and learn how to love insects now that I know my very life, and yours, absolutely depends on them.

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