Insects are cancelled

It's time to put declining insect population under the microscope

We’re no newcomer to species-wide extinctions: the Tasmanian Tiger, the Quagga and, infamously, the Dodo. With the onset of rampant climate destruction, we’ve moved onto the next level: the mass extinction of 40% of the world’s insect species.

Comprehensive new research co-authored by scientists from The University of Sydney (USyd)and the University of Queensland (UQ) focuses on 73 reports of insect mass extinction from around the world. Through a systematic analysis of the underlying reasons for declining insect populations common to these studies, the researchers highlight the threat to the biodiversity of insect species worldwide.

The message is clear: we’re approaching the planet’s sixth mass extinction.

How has this gone unnoticed for so long? The study claims that conservation studies disproportionately focus on the loss of charismatic vertebrates (read: cute, fluffy animals) and routinely overlook alarming rates of insect population decline.

All major insect groupings are being threatened, including butterflies, moths, bees and dung beetles. What’s concerning is that these creepy-crawlies are crucial to the functioning of most of our global ecosystems, and the impact of their disappearance is proving severe.

It’s a little known that humble butterflies and moths provide us with direct measures of habitat quality. Unfortunately, they’re the most vulnerable to habitat deterioration. Their disappearance affects the delivery of key ecosystem services, pollination and natural pest control. Without these, entire food-chains collapse .

The decline of the bee population has equally severe effects. Bees play central roles in food development for humans and their reduced number worldwide directly correlates to the decreased economic value of the areas they frequent.

Dung beetles have a unique ecological function that is difficult to replicate. These critters are irreplaceable inthe livestock sector because they assist in decomposing animal waste.  Man-made agricultural practices have intensified the work of dung beetles to the point where such practices are accelerating the beetle’s demise.

The catastrophe extends to other animals, where insects are fundamental to their food chains. Insects play an essential role in the diets of most vertebrates such as fish, birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. It’s no surprise that vertebrates are declining at around half the rate of insects.

Nearly 50% of studies point to habitat change––such as the introduction of invasive species, or city expansion for housing––as the leading factor in insect population decline. Beyond this, pollution, climate change and man-made biological factors  like disease-ridden microorganisms are the culprits.

Climate-change deniers have no counter-argument against the complicity of humans in the decline of insect populations: the science, as per this report, proves it. From untenable rising global temperatures to chemical pesticides, we have been instrumental in creating the calamity.

We are witness to the largest extinction on the planet in 250 million years. It’s clear that we need radical changes in our agricultural practices. But what remains unclear is whether we will ever actually make any changes, and rationally plan our way out of this crisis. The study argues that ignorance of 70 000-year-old Indigenous farming methods is a driving factor in insect decline in Australia. Given the sophistication of Indigenous practices in maintaining food surpluses for tens of thousands of years, perhaps we ought to look back to a tried-and-tested method of saving our planet.