How to avoid the insect apocalypse

Are our insect pollinators doomed to die, taking us with them? The science is patchy but one thing 70 scientists from around the world are clear on is that inaction is unacceptable

Last year dire warnings about the fate of insects made headlines. The insect apocalypse was nigh, creepy crawly armageddon was upon us. 

We weren’t about to be overrun by insects, the fear was we were losing them and their crop-pollinating benefits.

Anecdotes were shared of windscreens, formerly splattered with insect bodies, now cadaver-free. A review searching for scientific papers on insects and including the term ‘decline’ unsurprisingly found plenty of papers tracking the insect population drop. 

The review predicted “dramatic rates of decline that may lead to the extinction of 40 percent of the world's insect species over the next few decades.”

It’s a review which has drawn a fair amount of criticism.

The truth is more complicated, far murkier, probably less alarming, but still worrying enough to spur 70 scientists from around the world to call for immediate action to stop decline. 

The issue is there’s a lot that is unknown about insect populations around the world. Trends in land use and habitat destruction are clear, but without data it’s a stretch to predict exactly just how many insect species are at risk. 

However, while scientists secure the funding to gather data and do the work required, there’s a chance species could vanish. This is why the roadmap the scientists have created includes steps which can be taken now, while scientists work to increase knowledge.

University of Waikato lecturer Chrissie Painting is one of the scientists in the group and helped add a Southern Hemisphere voice to the call for action.

The global roadmap the group created includes a list of “no-regret solutions” as immediate actions to take while data is gathered. 

“You can do these things, they’re going to have benefits, whether or not there was already decline and alongside these things we can start actually doing the research to find out what some of the most pressing problems are,” Painting says.

The immediate solutions include an end to pesticide use, an increase in diversity of agriculture, and a reduction in light and water pollution. 

No-regret solutions in the suggested roadmap. Image: Supplied

After these solutions are in place the roadmap suggests prioritising species which require conservation protection.

Painting says inaction or business as usual is a risk with so little research existing on New Zealand’s thousands of insect species. 

“We really don’t know what’s going on. We don’t even know about their ecology enough to even say how important they are. I think by not doing anything we risk losing species we didn’t even know existed and that having effects we probably can’t understand at the moment.” 

As well as pollination, insects can play an important role in ecosystems, sometimes as a food source for other species, or even as outdoor disposal systems. Painting points out that giraffe weevil larva tunnel in dead or dying wood.

“They're tunnelling around inside trees and are really important for decomposing trees and making sure that we've got healthy forest that is turning over. There’s loads and loads of species that are doing the same thing but in different host plants.”

Without this happening, wood would take longer to break down and fertilise future growth.

A global role model

One of the drivers for the global roadmap was Germany’s commitment, described as a “clarion call” to other nations to reverse their insect decline. 

Germany was the subject of a 2017 study which suggested flying insects had declined by more than 75 percent over almost 30 years at 60 protected areas. Public awareness of the issue helped drive the creation of an action plan estimation to cost around $167 million.

Germany’s plan includes the phasing out of the weed killer glyphosate, recommendations to protect hedgerows and meadows  and even extends to leaf blowers with warnings they could damage insects and soil should only be used if absolutely necessary. 

A quarter of the cash – $41 million a year – is expected to be used for monitoring projects. 

It’s the kind of money for monitoring New Zealand scientists can only dream about.

Painting: “Doing long-term studies is extremely difficult because that’s not how funding is allocated.”

As well as a difficulty to secure funds for ongoing work, there’s the issue of how science is done. Career progression is built on publishing work, and sometimes long-term monitoring projects don’t offer the same opportunity for quick turnaround papers. 

At the same time there’s a clear need for it to help end the constant response of “we just don’t know” to questions about our insect populations.

A long-term suggestion called for by the international group of scientists is for an international body to document and monitor the effects of the proposed solutions on insect biodiversity.

There’s also a call for future partnerships between the public and private sector and sustainable finance.

Innovative solutions

Innovative thinking will clearly be needed to implement some of the roadmap’s suggested changes.

Without pesticides it’s likely crop productivity will reduce. This might mean larger areas of land need to be converted to cropping and this could destroy current insect habitat. Painting acknowledges the challenge this could create. 

She says finding options that are more insect-friendly will need to be a focus for the future.

“Yes, there could be impacts on crop outputs but I think we need to come up with clever ways to work with the insects that we have using methods that aren't harmful to other beneficial insects and to human health.”

Without change, a decline in the numbers of bees, flies, and other pollinators could also impact crop productivity.

“Again, it’s that whole thing of we just need more research going on to understand those interactions. We just don’t know.”

Read more:

The unloved Cinderella of science

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