Are we witnessing a bug apocalypse? Bugs, insects of all kinds, are just disappearing. Biologists estimate that numbers of bugs, such as beetles and bees, have declined significantly in the last 35 years. The data on specific insect numbers is patchy, and pinpointing the causes of decline is difficult, but the overall picture indicates a serious decline is occurring.
We may not miss those summer evening midges that got in our ears and eyes, nor an insect-splattered windshield when we drove. We do not shed tears for the lost whine of a mosquito, and we rejoice that our cabbages have not been turned into Swiss cheese by caterpillars, but the absence of these and other insects has consequences.
We are complicit in this insect loss because we take their habitats for housing, mining and agriculture, and we use chemicals to eradicate insects that carry malaria or Lyme disease or cause crop damage. This may all be beneficial to us but
habitat loss and eradication can start chain reactions that limit the diversity and abundance of other populations and that affects the overall ecology and health of the world.
The world we live in and depend on was created by insects, and they are the basis of our terrestrial food chain. We sit at the top of this food chain, and 50–90 percent of our diet comes from flowering plants like rice and wheat, fruits and vegetables. Eighty percent of all flowering plants depend on insect pollinators to reproduce, so without the bees, butterflies, wasps, ants, flies, midges, mosquitoes, moths and beetles, flowering plants would fail to reproduce and disappear. It follows then, that the existence and health of these pollinators directly affects our food security. An example of this effect is the collapse of bee colonies that has forced urgent investigation because bees pollinate about one-third of our crops, including fruits, nuts, vegetables and animal-feed crops, like clover fed to dairy cows.
In addition to helping produce our food, insects are food. They certainly were food for our ancestors and still appear on many international menus, but mostly they are food for other species. Fish feed on aquatic insects. Toads, their relatives, and many birds rely on insects as a major part of their diet, as do insect-loving mammals. And even larger mammals, from foxes to bears, will turn to insects when other food is scarce. Because insects are the most abundant source of food on dry land and in fresh water, they are essential to food webs and food chains, which could collapse as insect populations decline. An illustration of this can be seen in birds that eat flying insects, such as larks, swallows, and swifts. They are are declining in numbers and the obvious factor that links the declining numbers of these birds is their diet of insects.
If that is not enough compelling evidence for the importance of insects, think trash. Together with bacteria and fungi, insects get rid of the leftovers. If organic waste from leaf litter to corpses was not decomposed by their actions, the earth would become a very large trash heap.
Insect decline is both a problem and an opportunity. Once we’re aware of the problem, we have the opportunity to ask what we can do about it. We can become citizen scientists and train to monitor insect populations. We can become activists and lobby for appropriate legislation to control pesticides and mitigate habitat loss. Those of us who are gardeners can decide to spray or not to spray and when we plant we can choose species that attract a variety of insects. And all of us should think carefully before we choose our own comfort and convenience over the life of an insect. It may just the last one of its kind and we have no idea of the ripple effect its extinction could cause.
—Lesley Frost, Advocacy Chair
Sources: Live Science, NC State University, Science Alert, Center for Food Safety, Mother Earth News, Yale University)