Insects – on a path to mass extinction
In recent weeks, the journal Biological Conservation published the results of research into insect numbers worldwide – it seems they are on a path to extinction. Environmental scientist Jennifer Mc Aree gives us the facts and explores what can be done to help the fate of our bugs.
According to this study, over 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered. While biodiversity as a whole is undergoing a huge demise, it has emerged that insect numbers are declining eight times faster than other creatures such as mammals, birds and reptiles. If insect numbers keep falling at a rate of 2.5% per year, as witnessed in the last few decades, they could completely vanish by the end of the century.
Caddisflies, found around freshwater areas, are worst affected, with a shocking decline of 68%. This is followed by butterflies and moths at 53%, beetles at 49% and bees at 46%. In Ireland specifically, we have 100 species of bee, but half of these are in decline. In less than 10 years 12% of bumblebees and 14% of butterflies have disappeared.
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
According to the journal, intensive agriculture is the main cause of the ‘Insect Armageddon’, primarily due to its reliance on large amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Climate change, rapid urbanisation and invasive species are also contributing significantly to the global demise of insects. In terms of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, they persist in the environment and ultimately sterilise soil, killing all the underlying grubs that are vital to maintaining nutrients and a healthy soil consistency. Over time, these chemicals strip away a wealth of vitamins and minerals found naturally in the earth, leaving any resulting produce potentially less nutritious and sometimes blander in taste. Moreover, intensive agriculture often involves the removal of natural barriers like trees and shrubs, which provide important habitats and corridors for a host of insects, birds and small mammals. In contrast, organic farms were found to have larger insect numbers in the study.
HOW DOES IT AFFECT US?
Most insects are not fluffy and cute. Indeed, they’re often deemed a ‘nuisance’ – but they are vital for the proper functioning of all ecosystems. They pollinate plants and crops, ensure healthy soil (through providing natural aeration), recycle nutrients through decomposition, and help to control pests. They are also a major food source for birds, bats, fish, reptiles and amphibians. In essence, insect decline has negative knock-on effects that move up through the food chain, with the potential to wipe out higher animals – and ultimately, us.
CAN ANYTHING BE DONE?
The scientists behind the research have declared that “unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades”. They advocate replacing dependence on pesticides with more sustainable, ecologically-sensitive farming, as well as reversing habitat fragmentation, preventing and mitigating climate change and cleaning up polluted waters. Several experts suggest that farmers’ financial subsidies need to be reformed in order to encourage them to reduce chemical pesticide and fertiliser use, and to adopt alternative methods of farming. The latter would include organic farming, ‘agroecology’ (which includes traditional practices like crop rotation) and ‘permaculture’ (a set of design principles based on ecosystems as a whole).
There is a glimmer of hope, with the news that MEPs have put forward proposals to allocate a third of farmers’ subsidies to applying practices that support ecosystems. Of course, national changes must be led by our Government, and to date our leaders have chiefly supported large-scale agribusiness in order to massively increase yields for international export.
MAKING SIMPLE CHANGES
It is important to note that many farmers do care about nature, but they are not exactly encouraged by the Government to support wildlife while keeping focused on producing ever more food for relatively small profits. However, based on this report, we all must start protecting insects somehow.
Everyone, farmers or otherwise, can check out pollinators.ie, based on the ‘All-Ireland Pollinator Plan’ devised by the National Biodiversity Data Centre (NBDC). This gives straightforward guidelines on measures we can adopt on our lands or within our local areas to help pollinators survive and thrive. We can also grow our own food, buy more organic, local produce where possible and eat less, but better-quality meat. In our gardens, we can keep overgrown and wildflower patches, plant native trees and plants, and install ‘bug hotels’. We can also become ‘citizen scientists’ with the NBDC, by volunteering to do simple surveys on various insect species in our local areas. See biodiversityireland.ie.
At a basic level, we need to stop seeing all surrounding bugs as ‘pests’ and start viewing them for what they are – amazing tiny creatures with the ability to support all life on Earth.
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