Bug PR – How do we think about the insect world?

Most people aren’t fond of insects, arachnids, and creepy-crawlies. How might their lack of charisma contribute to their population declines globally?

Art by Altay Hagrebet

Very often, I meet people who are squeamish about bugs. Screams ring if and when they see a spider, and creepy-crawlies are unceremoniously squished or batted away. Friends or relatives are called in to extract the poor beetle in question, trapped between a sheet of paper and a glass. 

I confess, I do not really understand the fear of bugs. They are very small, mostly harmless, and humans enjoy a large advantage over bugs in terms of size and coordination. While some can be dangerous, the average bug is pretty friendly. 

What’s more, bugs are incredibly useful. Insects — wasps, beetles, butterflies — are major pollinators, essential to food security, operating as vital cogs in ecosystems worldwide. Our waste products are digested and recycled by bugs: saprophages, coprophages, carrion-eaters. Despite a cultural perception that bugs are dirty, borers, flies, and dung beetles are the diligent cleaners of the world, quietly cleaning up the messes of civilisation and wilderness alike.

As important as they are, bugs are deep in crisis. Many scientists and communities report once thriving swarms of bugs as rapidly disappearing; seasons and locations that once pulsed with insect life are now strangely quiet. The loss of pollinators is felt keenly in the ecosphere. 

Studies of insect populations have reported depressing and alarming levels of decline: a 2019 paper which reviewed accounts of insect death across the world, found that current rates of decline could lead to the extinction of 40% of global insect populations in the coming decades. Further, reports of a 99.5% decline in the population of Australia’s beloved bogong moths are a chilling wake-up call to the scale of insect death we are facing.

As bugs struggle for survival against the rapid vicissitudes of pollution, pesticides, habitat loss, and climate change, humans need to think soberly about our relationship with the invertebrate world. 

Obviously, combatting bug deaths will require serious policy changes to development, agriculture, and climate mitigation plans. For too long, humans have made bleak wholescale changes to the ecosystems that surround us, focusing on what appear as huge and quantifiable issues: agricultural turnover, profitable new suburbs and mines, and industrial output. Insects are small and often unseen. Population surveys are relatively sparse and, like much data on biodiversity, concentrated in the Global North. As such, the lives of molluscs and moths and midges are not always given due consideration in our decision-making calculi.

But does the squeamishness and revulsion many people hold towards bugs have tangible consequences for human-bug relations, contributing to sustained climate inaction?

In one sense, it seems intuitive that human distaste for bugs reduces the social and political investment in protecting them and their ecosystems. It’s common for environmentalist campaigns to focus on imagery of cute and exciting animals — think koalas, elephants and dolphins. We often struggle to motivate people to care about the lifeforms that are more mundane or less aesthetically appealing. 

Perhaps this disinterest and dislike of bugs has implications for the way we discuss ecological crises. 2016 research in the journal Insect Conservation and Diversity lamented the focus of Australian media on European honey bees as pollinators to the detriment of native insects. Encouraging people to value and emotionally connect with bug life could improve people’s investment in the policy changes which might save them.

All the same, finding an animal adorable does not guarantee that it will be effectively protected. The media coverage and mimetic charity campaigns on koala vulnerability has not meaningfully slowed the march of deforestation. Australia is facing an extinction crisis that extends to objectively adorable marsupials; if being cute was enough to save a species, bilbies and potoroos would be superabundant. 

Many of the causes of extinction are out of ordinary people’s direct consciousness and control; a warming climate and decisions about land usage are far removed from people’s emotional connection to animals. 

Nevertheless, when I hear people joke that they wish insects would just disappear or see people release a plume of pesticide into the air upon sighting a beetle, it seems that some positive bug PR would not go astray. 

Disgust towards bugs is so deeply ingrained that it’s hard to imagine people reversing lifelong anti-bug sentiment easily. Teaching people to notice and appreciate the bugs around us from an early age is important — we need to appreciate dragonflies, native bees and jewel beetles as we explore the world. Building insect hotels in the backyard and learning about the extraordinary diversity in bug species could help people to view them as more than just pests. 

Bugs are threatened by a variety of macro-level processes, most of which are humanity’s fault. Given all they do for us, we should at least give them the affection they deserve.