The Great Insect Dying: Vanishing act in Europe and North America

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In recent months a debate over whether a global insect apocalypse is underway has raged in the mainstream media and among researchers.

To assess the range of scientific opinion, Mongabay interviewed 24 entomologists and other scientists working on six continents, in more than a dozen countries, to better determine what we know, what we don’t, and, most importantly, what we should do about it.

Image of a pair of marsh tiger hoverflies (Helophilus hybridus) in Sweden by Axel Ssymank.

This is part two of a four-part exclusive series by Mongabay senior contributor Jeremy Hance. Read Part I, “A global look at a deepening crisis” here.

Tyson Wepprich, a postdoctoral research associate at Oregon State University, was only supposed to be looking at the presence or absence of butterfly species in Ohio.

But news of insect decline, in blockbuster studies from Germany and Puerto Rico, changed his plans. His team is now also looking hard at overall abundance — and the early results aren’t good.

“The trends are similar to those in long-term European butterfly monitoring where abundance, summed across all species, is declining at around 2 percent per year,” he says of the team’s unpublished work, and “about twice as many species are declining rather than increasing.”

Wepprich’s ongoing research is just another sign that something may be seriously amiss with the world’s insects — something some entomologists have privately suspected, but which they are only now beginning to prove and publish about.

“I used to think of conservation as policies to save rare species from extinction,” Wepprich says, but adds he now believes conserving abundance must also be a part of any successful environmental strategy.

A “typical malaise [trap] catch in the good old days” before insect decline swept Western Europe, as described by researcher Hans de Kroon. Malaise traps are the typical traps used to capture insects over time. Image by the Entomological Society Krefeld.

Insects: A conservation black hole

Despite the fact that arthropods make up most of the species on Earth, and much of the planet’s biomass, they are significantly understudied compared to mammals, plants, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish and much else.

The IUCN Red List, for example, has assessed just 8,131 insect species regarding their extinction risk, a mere 0.8 percent of known insect species (the Red List estimates around a million insect species have been described). By contrast, the list has assessed 100 percent of all known mammals and birds. Moreover, today, nearly 300 years after Carl Linnaeus devised the system of taxonomy, we’ve only identified a small fraction of all the insect species inhabiting our world.

Conservation of insects, even of well-known species, has also lagged well behind conservation of other taxonomic groups. This is likely due to a philanthropic reality: it has proven far easier to raise funds for tigers, panda bears and whales than for glacier fleas, oleander hawk moths, or exploding ants. There are, of course, some conservation groups that focus solely on insects, like the Xerxes Society in the U.S., or Buglife in the U.K. But they’re far smaller and less well funded than those focused on big charismatic mammals or birds popular with the public. Millions of people call themselves “birders”; far fewer claim to be “insecters.”

In truth, for most of modern conservation history, environmentalists haven’t really worried much about insect conservation; the assumption has long been that if you protect umbrella species (also known as keystone or flagship species) in a landscape, you’ll be conserving all else as well. But new research by entomologists is clearly showing that’s no longer the case.

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Robert Piller
Robert Piller