Words by Joseph Lew Art by Tess Lockhart
If you’ve never heard the term ‘Insect Apocalypse’ before, like me you’re probably picturing masses of man-eating cockroaches and swarms of wasps the size of cars.
And whilst these visions of murderous invertebrates might exist solely in your nightmares, the actual insect apocalypse is far more horrifying and far more imminent. In fact, it is happening right now, we are in what scientists are describing as the beginning of the sixth mass extinction.
A recent study published in the Biological Conversation proved what people around the world had begun to notice, the diminishing presence of insects, whether it be less moths crowded around streetlights or butterflies slowly disappearing from backyard gardens.
The study showed dramatic declines in insect populations, declines so severe that they placed 40% of insect species at risk of extinction and left a third categorically endangered. These findings were not isolated, however; similar studies globally demonstrated comparable patterns of insect decline—researchers in Belgium found that almost a third of native butterfly species had become extinct within the last century, and in Germany, researchers measured a 76% decline in flying insect biomass within a 27 year period.
Whilst you may be thinking that this doesn’t sound like such a bad thing—fewer mozzies, and less pesky flies, these studies suggest otherwise. They indicate that whilst the vast majority of crucial pollinators, decomposers and pest control species are highly affected, mosquitoes and other adaptable and generalist species such as biting Diptera, have risen in abundance.
But it isn’t just the insects that are in trouble…
The agricultural industry is dependent on insects; approximately 75% of cultivated plants require animal-pollination, usually in the form of bees and other nectar-feeding invertebrates. Farmers in Burkina Faso have found that pollination by honeybees increases both the yield and quality of crop harvests by up to 62%. The decline of bee populations has disastrous ramifications both economically and ecologically—pollination by bees contributes approximately $212 billion to the global economy, whilst lack of effective pollination will drive many plant species to extinction.
Insects also play a staple role in the diet of the two billion people who consume them daily. As a result of their ability to multiply rapidly and cost-efficacy, entomophagy (the consumption of insects) has become a common practice in many cultures in South and Central America, Africa, Asia and parts of Australia and New Zealand. These populations rely upon insects as a major source of protein, fats, amino acids and essential vitamins.
So what is driving this mass extinction? Research has shown that the leading contributor of this mass decline in insect species is the rapid habitat loss driven by increased urbanisation and industrialisation. Unsustainable pest control techniques are also to blame, with commonly used pesticides such as DDT and Fipronil, resulting in the mass deaths of millions upon millions of honeybees worldwide.
In order to combat this, a major shift has to be made in the agricultural industry. Commercial insecticides and herbicides need to be replaced by more ecologically friendly options, such as the introduction of biological pest controls (eg. aphid feeding lacewings and ladybugs). However, proper research must be conducted to ensure that it will have a minimal impact on the ecology of the region, in order to prevent the reoccurrence of a crisis like that of the cane toad control program.
On a small scale, consumers should shop consciously, supporting organic and local farmers whilst reducing demand for conventionally grown commercial crops. Urban horticulture is another way to benefit local insect populations, with vegetable patches and community gardens providing habitats for native bees while allowing hobbyist gardeners to cultivate their own organic produce.
Although the Insect Apocalypse is already underway, a concentrated effort between agricultural giants and individuals may be able to slow down the impact of this environmental crisis.
And if you’re wondering why you should care, the truth is, if the insects don’t survive this mass extinction, we might not either.