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‘Insect apocalypse’: my waking nightmare

Ben Dolphin

Like anyone with more than a passing interest in the environment I keep a keen eye on the latest headlines from the natural world. There’s plenty of good news to celebrate from Scotland, with both local and national initiatives working to safeguard our environment for future generations, but I’d be the first to admit that it’s often drowned out by a steady, daily drip feed of global gloom.

Disturbing as the drip feed is, it doesn’t keep me awake at night. Not because I don’t care, nor because the news it brings isn’t worth pondering in the wee small hours, rather I think we’re all too accustomed to bad news where the natural world is concerned. We’re hardened to it. Like a hum in the distance it’s always there, and so while it makes you angry or drives you to distraction, you kind of learn to live with it.

The exquisite variety of insects. Top – two of our most beautiful, a tiny (1cm) ruby-tailed wasp and a green tiger beetle. Bottom – living most of their lives underwater, a stonefly (L) and mayfly (R)

Last month though, I read an article in The Guardian that quite literally kept me awake at night. Entitled ‘Plummeting insect numbers ‘threaten collapse of nature’’, it summarised the findings of a new global review of 73 studies into declining insect populations. Just so we know what we’re talking about here, it’s beetles, flies, bugs, moths, butterflies, earwigs, grasshoppers, crickets, bees, wasps, ants, dragonflies, damselflies etc. Y’know, insects.

The article was as stark as it sounds and the review itself didn’t mince its words, referring to the ‘dreadful state of insect biodiversity in the world’. It told how half of all insect species are rapidly declining in number, and a third are faced with extinction at the current rate of loss. Habitat change and pesticide use were indentified as the primary destructive forces, compounded by light pollution, invasive species and climate change, all as a result of relentless human consumption. Rounding off, the study said:

The conclusion is clear: unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades’

WHAT!!??

It was a lightning bolt. Insects as a whole, go extinct!? Surely not ALL insects?

I just couldn’t conceive of it, but while some commentators took issue with the rigour of some studies the review had included, or with how the review was compiled, they generally shared the sense of alarm. Some still pulled short of sharing its apocalyptic conclusion, however, saying that while some species will inevitably disappear, others will fill the voids they leave behind. Plus of course there are places in the world where insect populations are increasing.


The trends in Scotland bear this out to some extent, because when the last major review of UK biodiversity was collated into the State of Nature report in 2016, it was evident that many insect species were stable or even increasing in number or range. 61% of butterfly species in Scotland had increased over the long term. Total numbers of large moths showed no significant change in northern Britain over the 40 years up to 2013. Crane flies are thought to be increasing in number due to the warmer, wetter weather. And of course there never seems to be any shortage of midges.

Two of our declining large moths – white ermine (L) and garden tiger (R)

But such quibbling misses the point when 15% of Scotland’s dragonflies are at risk of extinction and more than one in three of our butterfly species are in decline, putting 18% of them at risk of extinction. The apparent stability of total large moth numbers in Scotland masks declines in some species that are balanced by other species spreading northwards, Scotland’s pollinating insects (including bees and hoverflies) have declined in number by 51% since 1980, and bumblebee abundance is down by 60% since the 1950s.

Undeniably, there are winners reaping considerable benefits in our wake, especially the more ‘generalist’ species that can survive in a variety of habitat types rather than being tied to one or two particular plants or places. But in terms of the overall diversity of the insect world, and the total biomass of insects worldwide, the overall trend seems to be going in one direction.

Although disturbing news like this has featured in the drip feed for years now, insects still have a tough time grabbing mainstream attention. Any high profile column inches tend to be focused either on the insects we love to hate, like midges, or the ones we love to like – bees and butterflies, the media darlings of the insect world. The rest of them rarely feel the warmth of that spotlight.

Insects did however edge into the mainstream in 2017 following the publication of a study by the Krefeld Entomological Society. The group had been deploying insect traps across 63 sites in Germany since 1989, and in 2016 they noted a 77% decrease in total weight of insects caught over that timespan. An average annual decline of 6%.

Alarming, certainly, but it wasn’t the report or its cold hard figures that caught people’s imaginations. What reverberated stronger and longer was the irresistible debate it sparked around what is now known as the ‘windscreen phenomenon’ – the nostalgic harking back to some time in the not-so-distant past when our cars were filthy with insect splats in summer. It’s entirely anecdotal evidence of course but from what I read on social media in the weeks and months afterwards, most folk were of the opinion that their cars are much cleaner now than they used to be, and that the blizzards of moths in their headlights are barely even flurries now by comparison.

After I moved to Scotland in 2003 I remember consciously thinking, before I started any long drive to the hills in summer, about how much insect mess there would be on the car afterwards and how difficult it would be to get it all off. It’s definitely not like that now. That’s not to say that there aren’t splats on my car. There are, but there’s never so much mess that I ever think it needs scrubbing off.

Non-biting midges at Loch Leven. Are some insects too numerous to ever disappear?

I should point out though, I’m rather sceptical about how accurately we remember how things used to be. Not just because our memories fade with time, but also because I think the everyday chatter around us influences how we think and what we say. Do we remember accurately? Or are we just telling people what we think they want to hear, channelling the mainstream opinion that we’re all accustomed to hearing? The murkiness of memory reinforces the importance of scientific research and compiling longstanding data-sets, but the anecdotal evidence is compelling nonetheless. If our memories ARE reliable and this anecdotal apocalypse is real, it’s scary how it can pass by almost unnoticed.

But that’s ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ for you, where you become accustomed to the modern scarcity of wildlife and think that it’s normal, because as drastic as the long term changes are, they don’t happen overnight in human terms and so we barely notice. That applies to whatever ‘weren’t there more back in the day?’ metrics you care to mention, whether it’s seabirds on cliffs, moths outside your windows, or starlings over cities.

It seems woefully naive in retrospect, but in the face of such disturbing news I’ve been as likely as anyone to cling to the lifeline of what always seemed a safe assumption – that as bad as things get, the state of nature is generally okay in the protected areas we’ve set aside as wildlife refuges, or in the relatively wild places as yet untouched by humans.

The German study picks away at this lifeline, as all 63 of its survey sites were located in protected areas. I suppose you’d perhaps expect to see reserves being compromised somewhat in Western Europe, where they are relatively small and surrounded by industry, towns or intensive agriculture. But what about a large remnant patch of virgin rainforest in the tropics, for instance, deliberately set aside and protected from development? Yes, it might be surrounded by fields and plantations but given its size and integrity it’s presumably still managing to be a biodiversity stronghold of sorts?

Nope. Apparently not.

The Guardian article linked back to a previous feature that told of a scientist’s return to the El Yunque national forest reserve in Puerto Rico, after a long 35 year absence.The reserve is larger than the Isle of Rum, so by any reckoning its lush interior should offer refuge regardless of what surrounds it, but instead of finding a pristine wilderness the team of surveyors found that 98% of ground insects had disappeared. With no other obvious force at work, a warming climate was blamed, as insects in tropical rainforests have a very narrow temperature tolerance and become less fertile in heatwaves, and the number of days with extreme heat had increased massively in the last 40 years.

That protected reserves, remote from human influence and set aside for wildlife were now entomological deserts, truly terrified me. The prospect of widespread, sudden, mass extinctions of insect life within my lifetime seemed plausible for the first time. Call it the straw that broke my camel’s back if you like, but that article effectively cut what was left of my already frayed lifeline.

Nature’s waste disposal unit. Red-breasted carrion beetle (L) and a sexton beetle (R) breaking down a dung beetle.

Cut loose and drifting in the darkness, the next two nights were sleepless and uncomfortable. I just stared into a void, thinking about it over and over. It was worse than a nightmare because this was something I couldn’t wake up from. This was actually happening, provoking a genuine existential fear the like of which I hadn’t experienced in more than 35 years, not since I’d lain awake in cold terror that a nuclear war could spark at any moment.

That comparison might seem laughable, but readers of a certain age doubtless remember how very real the threat seemed and perhaps experienced the same fears that I did as a youngster. Having cartoons like When the Wind Blows or hearing ‘4 minute warning’ siren tests several times a year didn’t exactly help allay those fears, and so….and I’ve never told anyone this….I’d cross my fingers and whisper a hushed plea for it to not happen. Every night. For years. And this calamity-in-waiting feels every bit as grave as that one did.

A world without insects, or even significantly fewer insects, doesn’t bear thinking about given their fundamental importance to all life on this planet. When we talk about the services insects provide we tend to focus on pollination. Between 80 and 90% of global flowering plants depend upon insects for their reproduction, and 75% of global crops rely on insect pollination, but their importance goes way beyond that.

Insects such as ground beetles are an essential link in the decomposition process, consuming and recycling carcasses, dead wood and excrement, and in turn assisting with soil production and soil fertility. Insects help to disperse seeds, control agricultural ‘pests’ without the need for pesticides, and have been vital in medical research.

But at a much more fundamental level they are the building blocks of food chains. Not just on land, where they sustain most of the garden birds in your neighbourhood, but consider too their importance to freshwater habitats like rivers and lochs. Many of the familiar insects we see on the wing, such as dragonflies, damselflies, stoneflies, caddisflies and mayflies, actually spend the vast majority of their lives underwater. Dragonflies for instance, typically live for weeks or a couple of months as winged adults but can spend, quite literally, years underwater in their larval form. All this larval life is food for other aquatic insects such as water beetles, and of course for fish, even for trout and salmon, which in turn are consumed by aquatic birds and mammals such as heron and otters.

Bees and butterflies, the media darlings of the insect world. Important pollinators.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the consequences of losing something from the bottom of a food chain, as opposed to losing something from the top, but think of it as a house. Losing red squirrels or wildcats is an appalling loss whatever way you look at it, but ultimately they’re just tiles on your roof. You’ll feel the effects if you lose a couple of tiles, certainly, and they ARE important to the integrity of the house, but your house isn’t going to collapse as a result. Insects, however, are your foundations. Lose those and there’s no doubt whatsoever, your house will collapse. Indeed the first sign that something was wrong in Puerto Rico, even before the sticky insect traps were put out overnight, was the near total absence of birds. Without insects, much of the natural world falls quiet.

Channel Four News ran an extended feature reporting on the global review, and it was heartening to hear an ecologist being interviewed who described Brexit in wonderfully frank terms, as ‘navel gazing’ in comparison. Jackie Long seemed a bit taken aback by that, which isn’t surprising given the present always seems far more important than the future.

As if to underline how blasé we are about our uncertain future in an increasingly eccentric climate, just two weeks later the UK was fanned by African heat and, for the first time since records began, the temperatures rose above 20C in a winter month. Most folk seemed singularly unconcerned, though. News anchors smiled unquestioningly, the BBC delighted in the beach scenes, economists celebrated the ice cream sales…. while the environment in strife, apparently so important to report on just days earlier, was already forgotten.

I was down in Gloucestershire at the time, sitting in a field in a t-shirt, watching butterflies and bees flitting about in the winter sunshine. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel nice in the sun, but I again felt that horrid existential unease in my stomach. Whether the freak February was or was not because of human-induced climate change really didn’t seem to matter. What the hell was going on? Why were so few people expressing concern, and what would the effects be on our wildlife, especially now that insects in particular had been lured out into the open by unseasonal warmth?

Back in mid January during yet another freakishly mild spell, at home in Fife, I was sat outside when a queen wasp landed on the table next to me. Stirred from hibernation she was the first I have ever seen in a winter month, and unsurprisingly there was no food for her at that time of year. No nectar-bearing flowers. Not even the snowdrops were out. No energy with which to build a nest and kickstart the next generation. Cold was forecast later that week so I wanted to give her a fighting chance. I trapped her in a glass, made a thick sugary solution and dripped it down the inside. She spent two long minutes lapping it up, before flying away to who knows where.

Erm….wasps in January?

It felt good to have done it, but I pondered whether saving one wasp would make any difference in the grand scheme of things. The studies seem to indicate that insects in temperate regions like ours are generally better able to adapt to a changing climate than those occupying specific niches in the tropics, which is reassuring to some extent. But given the calamitous collapse of insect populations elsewhere in the world, often sudden, unexpected or both, I don’t see how we can take anything for granted.

We’re royally messing this planet up and we’re fools if we think we can anticipate all the possible consequences of our actions as a species. Doubtless we’ll have our attention focused on one particular environmental problem, only to find ourselves blindsided by something else, even more serious, that we wholly failed to see coming. Might we get to the point, even in temperate Scotland, where individual acts of kindness such as feeding sugar to a wasp, could determine the fate of an entire species? Insects, especially our most common and familiar species, are so numerous and ubiquitous it’s hard to imagine they could ever decline, much less disappear. But in these uncertain and unsettling times when nobody can say for sure where we are headed, nothing short of doubling our efforts to safeguard this precious place we call home, for the sake of ALL its inhabitants, will suffice. Because once the foundations have gone, we’re all homeless.

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