As I write this, a ladybug is crawling across my computer screen. This is the time of year when ladybugs try to find a warm place to spend the winter. They like to hibernate in groups.
As a farmer, I rely on ladybugs. They are tiny but voracious predators of aphids and other garden pests. We encourage ladybugs whenever possible.
We also know that many of the beneficial insects that farmers depend on—like ladybugs, bumble bees, and various pollinators—are in trouble. The plight of bees and the problem of colony collapse disorder has been widely reported on.
But a three-decade study of 63 nature reserves in Germany has found that the problem is even more serious—and more widespread—than we previously thought.
Researchers from Raboud University and the Krefeld Entomological Society spent 27 years trapping flying insects of many species in mesh funnels called “malaise traps”. While they examined individual insects, they also weighed the insects collectively to measure their total biomass.
Their results—published a few weeks ago—are genuinely starting.
They found that over 27 years, insect populations dropped by 75%.
During mid-summer, when insects are usually most numerous, the decline was even worse: a whopping 82% loss over three decades.
They also found that the number of species caught had decreased; biodiversity was becoming diminished.
Because the study happened in 63 different nature preserves, the problem isn’t a single area of habitat loss. Nor can weather explain the long-term trend. Researchers speculate that the major cause could be intensive agriculture around the nature areas, and especially the use of new and more powerful pesticides like neonicotinoids. We also know that the proliferation of genetically crops has led to the use of more pesticide, rather than less.
We have reason to believe insect populations are falling all around the world. And that’s alarming, because our ecosystems depend on insects. Insects break down waste and build soil, they are food for songbirds and fish, they pollinate both our food crops and wild plants.
Damage to the insects at the base of an ecosystem will be passed all the way up the food chain. Our entire biosphere would collapse without insects. And yet, global insect populations are being decimated in ways that most of us aren’t even aware of.
Insects are rarely a centerpiece of environmental campaigns. People love to look at pictures of polar bears, or whales, or baby seals. But how many people will march in the streets to protect dung beetles or termites? Those creatures, though unpopular, are crucial contributors to their respective habitats.
If you are one of the people who wouldn’t mind if the world had fewer insects in it, consider this: the loss of habitat for wild insects is actually encouraging the insects who cause the most pain and suffering for humans.
Insects like bedbugs and cockroaches adapt to the pesticides used to kill them. And new subspecies of mosquitoes have developed in in subway tunnels in cities like London; they reproduce more easily and breed all year round instead of going dormant in the winter.
We’re not going to live in a world without insects; but we could very well live in a world that favours the most unpleasant insects.
When facing global ecological collapse, it’s easy to get caught in a “malaise trap” of our own. But there are things we can do to take action on wild insect protection—the easiest step is to reduce the amount of pesticides used in agriculture.
The use of neonicotinoid pesticides was recently restricted in Ontario after concerns were raised by conservation groups and the National Farmers Union. That kind of high-level policy change is important.
We can also make changes in our own lives, by trying to eat more organic food when possible. Future generations may not care if we eat healthy food—but they’ll definitely care if we make choices to protect the insects our biosphere depends on.
Aric McBay is a farmer and author.