We live in an era of disappearances. No, I’m not referring to Law and Order-esque missing persons cases. I’m talking about the non-human part of the natural world.
In fact, this period, a geological age known as the anthropocene, is the epoch damned by humans and significant, in part, due to the tremendous amount of human extinction the earth is currently experiencing. The past 50 years have seen a loss in biodiversity that’s more rapid than in all of human history—and presents serious risks and threats to ecosystems, and survival as a whole.
We’ve all seen the heart-wrenching photos of starving polar bears, and have heard the seemingly weekly updates about newly-declared extinct species. From the Northern White Rhino to the Po’ouli Songbird, we’re losing animal species at a rate that’s up to 10,000 times higher than the natural rate.
And this doesn’t even take into consideration the biodiversity losses we’re facing in terms of soil as well as fungi and plant species. But leaving aside the fact that our soils are losing their fertility at rates of 24 billion tonnes per year, let’s focus on another hit to the global ecosystem. Let’s talk about insects.
Entomofauna: the insect life of a region
Similar to the losses in soil, our current agricultural regime is threatening insect species at rates previously unseen. Describing what is actually referred to as the ‘insect apocalypse’, a study published earlier this month is one of the few scholarly journal articles to make it out of the ivory tower of academia and into the front page of media sources all over the world.
Why did this type of extinction make the news? Because Earth may be home to the extinction of 40% of insects over the next few decades. Oh and given a business-as-usual approach, this may be a nearly insect-free planet within the next century.
What a wonderful world… without insects?
Why aren’t environmental organisations highlighting the potential world without insects? Because they’re small. They’re pests. They leave us with bumps and bites and they eat our crops. So why is their existence so valuable?
Bees are an exception to this white noise about threatened insect populations. But let’s take a second to consider the importance of all insects—and put our own survival into perspective.
In 2017, a study spanning almost three decades detected a 76% decline in flying insect biomass in Germany. That’s not so bad considering that death rates are up to 98% in some rainforests in Puerto Rico. With insects comprising about 70% of all terrestrial species sharing this planet, theirs is now considered the sixth major extinction event—which is impacting more than just the life forms that buzz.
Insects are a valuable source of food for many of Earth’s species. Without them, animals like birds and frogs would die—and the leopards, bears, and humans that feed on these living things would also face extinction. As many of us know from the current fear surrounding bee deaths, our pollinators are directly responsible for most of the food supply. Without them, say goodbye to more than 50 of our favorite foods—including lettuce, peaches, apples, almonds, and sweet potatoes. The insects of the world also play a role in our hydration; we need them to aerate and purify water. If you’ve ever dug in the ground or picked up a handful of soil, you’ll have a pretty good idea that insects are essential to soil health. As ecologist Francisco Sánchez-bayo summarizes, “if we remove them (insects), we disrupt all life on the planet.”
Spray, swat, eat
Insects are dying left in rights for reasons beyond the 5.6 billion pounds of pesticides used worldwide each year. We’re stealing their homes as urbanisation spreads further and further. We’re taking their food as we grow ours in an increasingly intensive manner. We’re introducing new pathogens and species that threaten their existence. We’re polluting them with fertilizers. Oh yeah, and climate change, which is impeding the survival of insect species in mountains and tropical regions.
What can we do?
For multiple reasons beyond the survival of invertebrates, we need to rethink our current agricultural practices. We need to NOT think of only yields and ignore the ecosystems upon which agriculture depends. We’re approaching a world of 8, 9, and 10 billion inhabitants. There is an increasingly large number of mouths to feed. With the need for agricultural expansion, this requires a much smarter way of growing food.This means a serious reduction in pesticide usage.
The EU and countries like Australia have already started banning neonicotinoids—the class of pesticides seen as a serious threat to bees and other insects. Costco has recently banned the famously-controversial weedkiller Roundup. There’s talk of banning fertilizers and and pesticides all around the world over fears of environmental and health damage.
At a global level, it appears that we’re making great strides to minimize or stop the use of the chemicals that are endangering the health and survival of many insect species. Beyond that, farmers need to adopt a new set of pest-management practices—with dangerous pesticides only used as a last resort. They need to ditch monocultures and consider insect habitats as essential components of their farmland. They need to think about biodiversity—instead of an all-encompassing focus on yield.
We’re not helpless in the fight against the insect apocalypse either. We can save our creepy-crawlies by changing the way we live.
- Go wild with your garden. As we become increasingly urbanised with tiny homogenous lawns, naturally-chaotic gardens are key. Cut down on the mowing, incorporate native flowers, and make use of a compost heap. Think messy. Diversity of the space = diversity of the insect population.
- Support agriculture that supports bugs. Buy organically and biodynamically-grown produce. Choose agriculture that doesn’t use chemical inputs like pesticides and herbicides.
- Change your view of insects and start caring. Insects are important and we need to stop demonizing them. Yes, flies and ladybugs may not be as cute as puppies or baby elephants, but the latter depend on the former and we need to shift how we view these crucial players in the world’s ecosystem. If nonstop buzzing is driving you crazy, don’t resort to Rambo-mode and try to relocate the pesky pest instead.
- Consider your footprint. Climate change is a killer. Do what you can to reduce your ecological footprint. Drive less, eat more plants, shop locally, reduce your air miles, buy what you need instead of what you want.