In Depth

Insect apocalypse: a threat to all life on the planet?

New study finds that 41% of insect species face extinction

A consistent decline in insect species as a result of habitat loss and pesticide overuse poses a risk to all life on Earth, a leading environmental scientist has warned.

In a newly published report titled “Insect declines and why they matter”, Professor Dave Goulson of the University of Sussex warns that insects are dying out up to eight times faster than larger animals, with 41% of insect species facing extinction. 

“We can’t be sure, but in terms of numbers, we may have lost 50% or more of our insects since 1970,” writes Goulson - who says that this decline could have serious consequences for human life. 

“Whether we live in an urban or rural environment, invertebrate life is a cornerstone of human well-being and prosperity,” he says. “We could not feed the global human population without pollinators.”

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What are the numbers?

According to scientific estimates, insects make up the bulk of animal life, by mass and by numbers, with more than 5.5 million insect species.

But a series of recent studies have warned of significant drops in insect populations. 

In April, researchers at the University of Sydney reported that “human activities such as hunting and habitat loss through deforestation, agricultural expansion and intensification, industrialisation and urbanisation” was resulting in “dramatic rates of decline”. 

These rapid drops may “lead to the extinction of 40% of the world’s insect species over the next few decades”, the experts predicted.

The new report from Goulson states that 23 bee and wasp species have gone extinct in the last century. And UK butterflies that specialise in particular habitats have fallen by 77% since the mid-1970s.

As The Guardian notes, “there are also knock-on effects on other animals”, such as the spotted flycatcher, which only eats flying insects. Populations of the bird have dropped by 93% since 1967.

How does this affect humans?

“If we don’t stop the decline of our insects, there will be profound consequences for all life on Earth [and] for human well-being,” says Goulson, who points out that insects are essential for all ecosystems as pollinators, food for other creatures and recyclers of nutrients.

The decline of bees poses a particularly significant threat. According to Business Insider, “without bees and other pollinators, supermarket shelves would hold about half the fruits and vegetables they have now”.

The resulting lack of certain nutrients and vitamins provided by such foods mean “we would probably be very sickly”, the news site adds.

“And it’s not just our wild bees and pollinators that are declining,” Goulson says. “These trends are mirrored across a great many of other invertebrate species. Of serious concern is the little we know about the fate of many of the more obscure invertebrates that are also crucial to healthy ecosystems.”

Can anything be done?

Goulson says urgent action is needed to boost insect populations, including putting an end to routine and unnecessary use of pesticides and increasing efforts to create insect-friendly landscapes.

“Conservationists are calling for a new UK environment bill with tough, legally binding pesticide reduction targets, as well as the creation of a nature recovery network to reverse declines of insects and all wildlife,” The Scotsman reports.

Dr Gary Mantle, chief executive of Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, said: “This unnoticed apocalypse should set alarms ringing. We have put at risk some of the fundamental building blocks of life.

“Insects and other invertebrates can recover quickly if we stop killing them and restore the habitats they require to thrive, but we all need to take action now.”

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