Dear bugs, where are you?

Are we hurtling towards an ‘Ecological Armageddon’?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The recent spell of warm weather has brought about more time being spent outside and I love being outside. After school trips to the lake and long walks with the dogs on the fells feel like a treat that we all know won’t last forever, so we are enjoying every moment while we can.

As we were driving out of town recently to enjoy another day (two weeks of constant sunshine here in Cumbria is a rarity) of warmth, my husband remarked how clean my windscreen was. Seems like an innocent, if rather dull observation to make, but he was referring to the fact that there were no bugs on it. Cue conversation about how when we were kids in the seventies and eighties there seemed to always be hundreds of bugs splattered across the windscreen of our parents cars, particularly during warm spells such as this one. It turns out this is actually a ‘thing’ and is known as ‘the windscreen phenomenon’ – who knew? (Everyone except me, apparently). So, where have all the bugs gone?

Some believe that insecticides on crops are wiping out insect life – experts point to intensive agriculture and the use of pesticides. Most of us are aware of the decline in bee life over the last decade or so, “Since 2006, beekeepers in Britain have lost about a third of their managed bee colonies each year largely due to the loss of flower-rich grassland which has declined by 97 per cent from the 1930’s, and the increased use of  insecticides on crops.” (Sarah Knapton for The Telegraph). It’s depressing. And what about all the other insects?

A German group called the ‘Krefeld Entomological Society’ has been monitoring insect numbers at 100 nature reserves in Western Europe since the 1980’s. They observed annual fluctuations but discovered that by 2013 numbers began to plummet by nearly 80%!

According to Matt Shadlow, Chief Executive of British Insect conservation charity ‘Buglife‘ – “This is part of the wholesale loss of small  animals in recent decades.  The public know about bees and butterflies, but these are just the tips of the iceberg. Moths, hoverflies, wasps, beetles and many other groups are now sparse where once they were abundant.”

It has been claimed that the changing shape of cars (they are more aerodynamic) could be a contributing factor to the lack of insects on our windscreens,  although this is disputed by many including Scott Black, executive director of The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. Black says his pride and joy as a teenager in Nebraska was his 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1—with some pretty sleek lines. “I used to have to wash my car all the time. It was always covered with insects.” So there goes that theory then 😉

So, a lack of insects splattered across our windscreens saves us a job right? No need for scrubbing and scraping! Joking aside, this situation is potentially catastrophic. A significant drop in insect populations could have far-reaching consequences for humans and for the natural world, who depend on bees and other invertebrates to pollinate crops.

Journalist Christian Schwägerl tells us that “researchers emphasize that pollinating insects improve or stabilize the yield of three-quarters of all crop types globally — one-third of global crop production by volume.” This situation has quickly become known as ‘ecological armageddon’ and calls for monitoring of insect populations are rife (although this may be tricky when scientists have described over a million species of insect with over 4 million yet to be recorded – that’s a lot of monitoring!).

Lynn Dicks at the University of East Anglia reminds us – “If total flying insect biomass is genuinely declining at this rate – about 6% per year – it is extremely concerning. Flying insects have really important ecological functions, for which their numbers matter a lot. They pollinate flowers: flies, moths and butterflies are as important as bees for many flowering plants, including some crops. They provide food for many animals – birds, bats, some mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians. Flies, beetles and wasps are also predators and decomposers, controlling pests and cleaning up the place generally.”

So what can (potentially) be done to reverse the decline in insects?

Some suggest that taking individual responsibility for food production will have a positive impact. An article in Resilience states that – “A fair amount of food can be grown in a back yard, reducing dependence on agricultural systems, localising our personal food supply, whilst at the same time providing food and habitat for insects and other wildlife. We can grow a diversity of plants in our spaces, in polycultures – a contrast to the oft seen monoculture of field grown crops.”

An expected increased global population (9 billion by  2050) will only exacerbate the problem as the need for further food resources is stretched – will we just keep intensifying agriculture to accommodate this, ignoring the suggestion that insecticides are destroying the insects that are so very necessary to the long term production of this much needed food (approximately 1/3 of global crops)?

Insecticides are to blame – no – humans are to blame. It is an uncomfortable truth but one that should be acknowledged; humans had the power to create this situation and now that power needs to be used to undo the mess it has created. Writer and naturalist Michael McCarthy says – “even the most successful organisms that have ever existed on earth are now being overwhelmed by the titanic scale of the human enterprise, as indeed, is the whole natural world.”

It’s definitely time for change.

Cx

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