Where have all the insects gone?

The Large Carder Bee (Bombus muscorum) or Moss Carder Bee as it is also known has suffered a 23% population decline since 2012.

As a child, it was always my job to remove moths from my big sister’s bedroom. They were common visitors then and she was terrified of them, especially the big furry white moths which would flicker around the light and bang themselves off the window panes, probably puss moths. I would gently cup them in my hands to ease them out the window again (but not before pretending to throw them at my sister, which was always met with fearful squeals). I don’t see those big furry white moths indoors any more.

Another common occurrence was cleaning bugs off the car windscreen – how after a long car journey, our parents would have to stop and clean off the windscreen, having accumulated the remains of lots of dead insects.

Have you noticed this doesn’t happen any more? At least not where I live, in the midlands. Last summer, we took a trip to West Donegal and after the last leg of that journey – through the more remote countryside in the west – we did indeed have to clean the windscreen to improve visibility, and it reminded me of how regularly you would have to do this 20 or 30 years ago.

These may seem like strange insect-focused nostalgic tales of my youth – like when it was always sunny in the summer and we had snow every winter – but is there any more to it?

Recent research from Germany, published in the journal Plos One, highlights a severe collapse in flying insects. The German entomologists found that three-quarters of flying insects had vanished in the last 27 years. But what was most telling about this research was that these extreme losses were measured in nature reserves. While one might expect insect losses in localized areas, on highly intensive farmland or in urban centres, it was shocking to see that even in nature reserves – which we like to tell ourselves are our refuges for our wild species – even here, biodiversity is under threat.

We have known about what we call the sixth mass extinction for a long time. Indeed, we have perhaps become desensitized to news stories about the last Rhino or threatened Polar Bears, those charismatic large mammals that have been used as flagship species for conservation programmes and environmentalism. And if we can’t prevent the loss of gorillas or tigers – due to habitat loss and an exploding human population – how would ecologists convince people of the importance of an insect? People tend not to like insects anyway. So why would they care about the loss of flies, midges or wasps or mosquitoes? But perhaps this massive widespread loss in our insect populations shows something even more disturbing and sinister in how we are changing the planet on such a broad scale. And perhaps this is the type of research that might make decision-makers sit up and take notice.

It is important to note that insects have been here a very long time – for hundreds of millions of years, and have thrived in every continent except Antarctica; in soil, air and water; in every habitat except the ocean. Insects lived on earth long before there were dinosaurs, and long after their disappearance. So why are such highly successful, highly evolved insects now disappearing?

The researchers in Germany, working across 62 nature reserves since 1989, found the annual average fell by 76% over their 27-year study period, but in summer, the drop was even more extreme – by 82%, when insect numbers should be at their peak!

The German entomologists have not laid the blame for these losses on any one issue, but it is probably safe to assume that man-made landscape changes, lack of food, and the use of pesticides and chemicals at an industrial scale have combined to make much of these German landscapes inhospitable to insects that thrived there for millennia until the 1980s.

Why are their findings anything new when compared to research on other endangered species?  Because this level of insect loss – across varied families, genera and species, across insects with very different diets and lifestyles – shows a blanket loss of biodiversity – and is therefore thought to signal that all life on earth is on course for an ‘ecological Armageddon’. This is not a story about a single primate losing its home to palm oil plantations, this is widespread annihilation of countless species, in one go.

It is an important story because it is an indicator to how much we are changing the planet but also because insects are important – they are important as pollinators of our food, as the base of food chains for countless birds, bats and other mammals, and as predators who control other insect pests, and decomposers, which clean up dead matter.

Last June, I took on the role of Project Officer on the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan because its tenets struck me as something fundamental and extremely necessary. The Plan hinges on the belief that we must allow nature to have some space in our landscapes, that we have squeezed nature out through our constant tidying up, and ‘improving’ and spraying and mowing, and that for all our sakes, and for our food production and for the general health of our environment, it is now time to question the way we manage land, and to see if we can perhaps leave some space for nature once again.

Just like the German entomologists, ecologists in Irish universities and here in the National Biodiversity Data Centre, were measuring losses in bees and other insect populations over the past 30 years, and decided something should be done about it. The brainchild of Dr Úna FitzPatrick (National Biodiversity Data Centre) and Dr Jane Stout (TCD), the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan was born.

Take our bees… In Ireland, we have 99 species of bee: one honeybee; 21 Bumblebee species and 77 solitary bee species. Since the 1980s, over half of all these species have undergone huge declines and one-third are now threatened with extinction. So we see, this is not just a German problem.

Indeed, even my earlier windscreen story, it turns out is now a common anecdote and is now recognised as the ‘windscreen phenomenon’ among entomologists – we may already have been witnessing a loss in flying insect biomass here too.

The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan takes a very positive approach to nature conservation – it is a call to action, underpinned by the message that everyone can help – in our gardens, in schools, in local councils, on farmland and even in business.

A big challenge is spreading the word about insect losses and how we can all create more pollinator-friendly landscapes – by providing food, safety and shelter wherever possible. Most people don’t know that by allowing wildflowers to grow (such as Dandelions or clover), this will go a long way towards reversing declines in our pollinating insects. When people understand that our bees are actually starving, they do empathise and you can see them wondering what changes they can make on their own farm or in their garden to allow for more wildflowers.

We should all be grateful for research like this Plos One paper from Germany, which highlights changes that might otherwise go unseen. If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t fallen. The Pollinator Plan is about telling people the trees are falling and let’s do something about it!

If we care about our ability to produce our food, we must care about pollinating insects. And if we care about wildlife and healthy ecological systems, we must care about the maintenance of all insect populations.

Ecologists are very conscious of always being the harbingers of more bad news, but I like to think that the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, while, yes, communicates about our threatened bees, it also offer really positive actions and empowers everyone to make a difference.

Juanita Browne, Project Officer, All-Ireland Pollinator Plan

To find out more about the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, please see pollinators.ie

Email: pollinators@biodiversityireland.ie