Podcasts

Are we experiencing ‘Insectageddon’?

Population decline paints apocalyptic picture for Earth’s ecosystems

Reports of dramatic declines in insect populations in the last few years have been shared, with the apocalyptic warning that the world is experiencing “insectageddon”. 

It’s “hardly surprising there is huge concern” over the idea, said Jane Hill, professor of ecology at the University of York, writing in The Guardian in May, after new survey results revealed that the number of flying insects in Britain has “plunged” by almost 60% since 2004.

The findings, jointly published by charities Buglife and Kent Wildlife Trust, added to an “emerging narrative of severe decline” in insect populations, and built on an idea that “things were better in the past”, said the paper. But how serious is the issue?

An imperfect science

Insects are critical to the world’s natural environments and ecosystems, performing essential services such as pollination, decomposition and pest control. Yet insects remain “one of our planet’s greatest mysteries, a reminder of how little we know about what’s happening in the world around us”, said The New York Times.

Britain has some of the world’s longest-running data records on insect populations, but the tracking is something of an imperfect science. Monitoring methods include relying on volunteers to conduct counts and record their results, as well as a network of light traps being used to track moths. 

And there are significant gaps in scientific knowledge about specific species. As efficient pollinators, bees “benefit from a better public image than most insects”, said the Financial Times (FT), while creatures with a reputation for “stinging and biting to damaging foliage and fruit” like wasps have been afforded less focus in scientific research.

Some human interventions undoubtedly had a direct impact on insect populations, including the invention and subsequent proliferation of harmful chemicals used in pesticides to kill off unwanted garden pests. But given how quickly some species can evolve, measuring the impact of climate change, pollution and environment degradation is having is still a huge challenge.

A complicated picture

“The scale of the observed decline raises doubts about how long ecosystems can remain resilient,” said The Economist in 2019.

Even so, the situation is “more complex” than a picture of “imminent global collapse”, said National Geographic. Nature is “dynamic” and there is a “constant reshuffling of communities,” added The Guardian. 

If insect numbers were to plummet, the result “would be catastrophic”, said The Economist. But studies and survey results should “act as a timely warning” as the worst fears are yet “unproven”. 

“Most researchers are concerned about insect declines, but most will also caution against the increasingly common hyperbole of impending doom,” said Professor Hill. Focus should instead be shifted to ensuring measures taken to tackle climate change also benefit biodiversity, she said.   

Work can also be done to better communicate the benefits of less popular creatures, like wasps. An advocate for the winged creature, Seirian Sumner, a professor of behavioural ecology, wrote in her book Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps that the problem with these misunderstood insects “is people”. 

“The occasional sting,” said the FT, “is a small cross to bear for the benefits they bring to your garden.”

The Overview

How serious are current threats to insect populations? Are reports of an “insectageddon” causing unnecessary concern? And what can be done to boost the image of less popular creatures?

In this episode of The Overview podcast, The Week speaks to environmentalist and broadcaster Chris Baines, Professor Sumner, macreoecologist Dr Nick Isaac of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and Dr Erica McAlister, senior curator at the Natural History Museum.

Recommended

Britain is getting wetter – so why are there hosepipe bans?
Bough Beech Reservoir in Tonbridge is currently showing as ‘below average’
Behind the scenes

Britain is getting wetter – so why are there hosepipe bans?

What’s wrong with carbon offsetting?
Emissions seen in the sky from a coal-fired power plant
Podcasts

What’s wrong with carbon offsetting?

How climate change might shape our holidays
Himandhoo, the Maldives
In Depth

How climate change might shape our holidays

Is the Inflation Reduction Act a win for Biden?
Joe Biden
Talking point

Is the Inflation Reduction Act a win for Biden?

Popular articles

Is World War Three on the cards?
Ukrainian soldiers patrol on the frontline in Zolote, Ukraine
In Depth

Is World War Three on the cards?

Will China invade Taiwan?
Chinese troops on mobile rocket launchers during a parade in Beijing
Fact file

Will China invade Taiwan?

Ten Things You Need to Know Today: 11 August 2022
10 Downing Street
Daily Briefing

Ten Things You Need to Know Today: 11 August 2022

The Week Footer Banner