By Jeremy Hance
They formed the unlikeliest of survey teams: in 2017, University of Reno entomologist Lee Dyer, graduate student Danielle Salcido, and executives from some of the world’s biggest banks spent a week roughing it at a gathering facilitated by the Earthwatch Institute. The team chatted, laughed, hiked and scrounged the coniferous forests of Arizona’s Chiricahua National Forest hunting for bugs.
At night, the researchers gave presentations about the impacts of global warming on insect populations. On the last day, a researcher offered a talk on the value of native plantings around homes — a message that really connected.
“They loved that talk; discussion ensued, and they left with excitement to plant native trees in their yards,” says Salcido. But she worries whether this small-scale solution undercut a week’s worth of messaging to get these powerful people to comprehend the links between a rapidly warming world, plummeting insect populations, and the impacts both may have on ecosystems and civilization.
“I was disappointed they left thinking we can solve these complicated global issues by planting a tree,” she says. “In their minds ‘doing their part’ was so distilled and small-scale; I realized that when many people are giving honest efforts to do their part, they are naïve [as] to how much change that will bring about.”
Beyond the pollinator garden
Salcido’s story isn’t unique.
For years, insect decline solutions — usually couched in terms of “bees” and “pollinators” — touted “bug-friendly” gardens and the curbing of lawn pesticide use. All that was needed, these messages arguably implied, was small, individual actions and everything would be fine. Entomologists heartily disagree.
“The extent and causes [of insect declines] are obvious,” says University of Pennsylvania entomologist Daniel Janzen. “[Insects] do not need more ‘research.’ What they need is mitigation and amelioration via investment.
“What [insects] need is large unperturbed wild conserved areas … They need the climate change turned off and the [human] population increases turned off,” says Janzen, who’s been researching insects in Costa Rica for over half a century.
The problem, scientists say, isn’t only individual — it’s systemic. The causes of insect decline are global and structural, so solutions require sweeping change — much of it top-down, some of it grass roots-up, but all bigger than so far envisioned. Implementing those big solutions will in turn require full, honest engagement by scientists, lawmakers, CEOs, bankers, policy wonks and community organizers.
But, so far, that worldwide commitment isn’t happening. “It seems like there is a lot of noise, but not a lot of action,” says Helen Spafford, an entomologist most recently at the University of Hawaii in Manoa.
Janzen is openly pessimistic: “All that is new is today’s publicity hype and hand wringing, which will come to nothing, as it always does.”
The good news? Some of the tools needed to decisively reverse insect decline are already known, and that same tool kit could help deal with other major ecological calamities. But the harrowing question remains: is Janzen right? Will we curtail the mass depletion of nature’s foundational animals in time?
“Turn the [email protected]#$%&! climate change around”
Entomologists cited three major impacts propelling insect decline: habitat destruction (largely driven by agribusiness), the escalating climate crisis, and widespread pesticide use. A few went further, arguing overpopulation underpins all of these.
For Bradford Lister, a biologist at Rensselar Polytechnic Institute, who co-authored the landmark 2018 study identifying a 60-fold insect decline over 40 years in a Puerto Rico nature reserve, the priority must be climate change.
“We’ve got to reduce emissions. If we don’t, then, we can just hang up the future for our children, and our children’s children, and generations upon generations to come, because it’s going to be an unimaginably degraded world,” he says.
The upside of climate change is that the solution is so undeniably obvious: stop burning fossil fuels. The hindrance remains political. “In the shortest term,” says Salcido, “[We need to] vote [for] leaders that recognize the perils of global climate change [who] will be proactive both at home and on the international front.”
Given the extent to which climate change may already be driving insect decline in the tropics, Lister is highly interested in ensuring there are safe places where insects can weather worsening global warming. “[We] are thinking about what it’s going to take… [to] provide the insects with refugia, with corridors that connect those refugia, and perhaps, even creating microhabitats,” he says. This requires conserving diverse landscapes, such as high-altitude areas to give insects places to retreat from the heat.
Of course, even refugia may not matter, if we don’t as Janzen wrote succinctly: “Turn the [email protected]#$%&! climate change around.”
Smarter on pesticides
Pesticide management may require a more nuanced approach. Some entomologists, for example, worry that banning one insecticide simply leads farmers to switch to potentially more toxic chemicals. Other researchers argue for tighter regulation now, while also searching out creative pest control alternatives.
“Pesticide practices need to be reviewed thoroughly, not only for their detrimental effects on insects, but whole ecosystems,” says Dr. Patricia Henriquez, a University Mayor entomologist in Argentina. “Their use should be reduced and, when allowed, replaced by sustainable practices.”
The EU is arguably the most aggressive in dealing with pesticides to date. This year it banned three controversial neonicotinoid pesticides from almost all crop uses, based on reams of data proving that neonicotinoids have long-standing impacts on bees and other pollinators.
Hans de Kroon, a Radboud University ecologist and co-author of a major 2017 insect abundance decline study out of Germany, calls the neonicotinoid ban an “important step” and a chance to study how insect abundance responds.
Axel Ssymank, an entomologist with the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, believes pesticide controls within the EU need to be even stronger, including total bans within protected areas and adjacent agricultural areas. He also favors prohibiting “full-field application of pesticides that include seed-coatings.” Today, many crop seeds are coated in neonicotinoids that spread up through a plant as it grows. Instead, he says, pesticides should only be applied when an active insect pest problem is detected.
Elsewhere, Bhutan has pledged to become the world’s first fully organic agriculture nation — with all pesticides prohibited — although no deadline has been set for the transition.
Not all entomologists favor outright bans. Dr. Dino Martins, who helps Kenyan farmers moderate pesticide use, says “the key issue is doing it intelligently.” He argues that developing countries with rapidly growing populations, like Kenya, must focus first on “food security and nutritional security.” But that still doesn’t mean spraying pesticides willy-nilly.
“What happens when you’re sick?… You go and see a doctor and you get a diagnosis.… When a plant is sick, immediately what we do is start pouring chemicals on it, often without identifying the problem,” says Martins, Executive Director of the Mpala Research Center in Kenya.
Working with farmers, Martins starts with education: “I show them an aphid or a whitefly through a magnifying glass or microscope. The look on their faces: one of absolute wonder and consternation because they didn’t realize this aphid is a little thing; it’s living with its family,” he explains. “Once people have that understanding, it’s much easier to have the next part of the conversation, about yes, you’re using a chemical, [but] is it going to kill the insect? Is it going to kill the soil? Is it going to kill you? What are the effects downstream? Can we do it better? Can we do it cheaper? And how do we do it long-term?”
The key, says Martins is finding ways to increase crop yield while decreasing pesticide use. He thinks that, with education and assistance, agricultural regions can play a vital role in offering habitat for insects, without sacrificing productivity. “I actually work on some farms that have higher levels of insect diversity than adjacent natural areas,” Martins reveals.
Farmers “need to heed the advice of scientists instead of following the advice of companies that sell chemicals for the sake of making money,” concludes University of Sydney ecologist Francisco Sanchez-Bayo. “The new Green Revolution needs to be truly ‘green’ in the modern sense of this word, unlike the old one that focused on chemicals.”
Land sparing versus land sharing
Of the three major direct threats to insects, habitat loss was cited as the most pressing problem right now, with ecosystem conservation solutions roughly centered on two approaches: land sparing vs. land sharing.
Land sparing argues that we should fully industrialize agriculture wherever it is currently being done to maximize yields, in order to spare as much land as possible for native ecosystems elsewhere. Land sharing argues for a matrix of wild areas and nature-friendly agriculture. Likely, both approaches are needed.
Conserve and restore large ecosystems, emphasizes Janzen: “I won’t even think about a conservation area [smaller] than 50,000 hectares [193 square miles],” but this approach “costs money, lots of money.”
“Biodiversity hotspots such as primary rainforest … should be given early attention, but our second priority should be the regeneration of damaged ecosystems,” says Michelle D’Souza, a researcher currently leading the Kruger Malaise Program, a major survey of insects in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
University of Oxford entomologist and ecologist Dr. Owen Lewis agrees that habitat destruction must be seriously limited, but says solutions are simultaneously needed that “allow insects to persist” in farming areas and on plantations. “Retaining and restoring forest patches along streams and on steep slopes within oil palm plantations is one way forward,” he says, referring to his work in Borneo.
Vojtech Novotny, a University of South Bohemia entomologist who studies insects in Papua New Guinea, urges a ban on all biofuels “particularly [crops grown] in the tropics” as they create “endless demand for… agriculture land.” In addition, he says we should “promote more intense agricultural methods” including the use of genetically-modified crops — a controversial suggestion. “We need to feed humanity, and the higher yields we achieve per area, the more space will remain outside agriculture for wild nature,” Novotny says.
Entomologists working in Europe, arguably the most heavily developed continent, see greater need for “nature-friendly” agricultural practices. Ssymank says Europe requires a “complete restructuring of our agriculture in a sensible way” to avoid biodiversity loss.
“Farmers need to restore the landscape by planting trees and hedges around their fields, and flowers between crops to encourage pollinators and beneficial insects that will control and avoid a pest outbreak,” agrees Sanchez-Bayo.
One strategy that could cut curb the need for more farmland, according to Henriquez, is to deal decisively with food waste: “We do not need to produce more food, we need to be more efficient and reduce its loss.”
Lister says it’s also time to get serious about direct insect conservation, utilizing captive breeding and setting up preserves devoted to insects. “Insect conservation has come a tremendous way in the past 20 years,” he says.
All these actions — whether combating climate change, reducing pesticide use, or protecting natural areas and reinvigorating croplands — would do far more than help insects. They would protect other wildlife, store carbon, reduce water pollution and much more. The solutions that encourage insect abundance intersect with solutions for our other global ecological woes.
“We need a coordinated, international effort to protect the living systems on earth that produce the air, water and food we need to live,“ concludes Spafford.
But changing course won’t be easy. Deforestation, climate change and pesticide overuse, “all three of these unpleasant truths are anathema to the wealthy world and of no interest to the [Jair] Bolsonaros and, and the upper classes that survive because of them,” Janzen writes, referring to the Brazilian rightist president and Venezuelan leftist leader, both known for their anti-environmental policies.
Overpopulation (but not of insects)
There is, says Lister, a deeper, darker conundrum: “We are at least 60 percent to 70 percent over carrying capacity of the planet. That means we need 1.6 to 1.7 Earths to support the current human population. If that goes to 9 to 10 billion people, as predicted [by later this century]… we are going to need another Earth.”
Underlying all our environmental woes, say a number of entomologists and ecologists, is the indisputable, but rarely discussed, reality of 7.5 billion human beings — six billion more than in 1900. And yet, the human population explosion remains a mostly untouchable topic, but a problem for which proven solutions exist.
The best way to combat overpopulation, experts say, is not war, famine or disease. What we already know works is supporting women globally: making sure they are educated (educated women statistically have fewer children) and providing quality healthcare, including contraceptives and family planning — everywhere.
Fertility rates have declined in much of the world over the last 50 years. Still, those rates remain unsustainably high in one region: Sub-Saharan Africa, notes Novotny. He argues for an economic solution there and elsewhere to insect decline: “Make sure developing countries, particularly in Africa, increase personal income by US$2,000-$3,000 per capita, which everywhere else [globally] caused decline in family size.” As humans are able to meet or exceed their basic needs — such as nutrition, healthcare, education and elder care — they everywhere tend to have fewer children.
Lister points to success in China, which recently announced its population will plateau within a decade and then begin declining, due to women having fewer children. “I’m thinking, ‘Hallelujah. This is the best news I’ve heard in ages!’” he says.
The Delta Plan — the Netherlands example
The first hard data hinting at an insect apocalypse came in 2017 with a study that found winged insect populations had dropped by 75 percent in 27 years in German nature areas. The neighboring Dutch took this data to heart, and a mere two years later are pressing forward with action to improve insect life.
“Our study… led to shock [in the Netherlands], it was on every television program, it was in all the papers,” says Hans de Kroon, a German study co-author and a scientist from the Netherlands.
De Kroon and colleagues were even invited to speak to the Dutch parliament. Then a local journalist called the head of a powerful farming organization to ask his opinion. He responded that an insect apocalypse “‘is not [conducive] to our profits… We’re very concerned about this,’” according to de Kroon. Encouraged, the researchers reached out to the farming group, bringing about a productive alliance that may lead to a large-scale change in how the Dutch produce crops and livestock.
The result is the Netherlands’ Delta Plan for Biodiversity Recovery — a revolutionary new national conservation blueprint which has received a thumbs up from Carola Schouten, the nation’s Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food. As importantly, it is supported by scientists and agribusiness.
“Several millions” of Euros have been slated “to change the way we do our agriculture and to improve the quality of our landscape,” reports de Kroon.
The plan includes numerous inducements to encourage producers to employ nature-friendly farming methods, and pledges to change laws to aid insects. It also proposes creating corridors between nature reserves; recycling nutrients for healthy soils; a renewed focus on natural pest control; and assuring infrastructure leaves more biodiversity than it destroys.
“Systematic change is necessary in order to achieve these goals, which means that the costs and benefits of biodiversity must be internalized,” reads the plan.
If the Delta Plan is fully implemented, the Netherlands could be a crucial testing ground for approaches that turn the corner on insect Armageddon.
“I’m hopeful that we can learn the lessons the insects are trying to teach us, and change our way of doing things,” says Martins.
Seeing Insects Anew
In his 2006 book, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, E.O. Wilson, the world’s most celebrated entomologist, writes of a human world without insects:
[A]mid widespread starvation during the first several decades, human population plunges to a small fraction of their former level. The wars for control of the dwindling resources, the suffering, and the tumultuous decline to dark-age barbarism would be unprecedented in human history. Clinging to survival in a devastated world, and trapped in an ecological dark age, the survivors would offer prayers for the return of weeds and bugs.
I’d hazard a guess: this bug-depleted dystopia is not a world any of us want — not Monsanto’s CEO, Cargill’s lobbyists, Congo rainforest loggers, or investors dumping millions into Amazon cattle ranches or Sumatran oil palm plantations.
If given the opportunity to talk with Kenya’s leaders, Martins would ask them: “’How do we want to live? Do we want to live sustainably? Do we want food that is nutritious? Do we want soil that’s healthy? Functioning forests and wetlands?’ If the answer is yes… then I’d say we really need to consider … the biodiversity of the insects that make it happen.” He adds, “That’s an approach we’ve used [successfully] with farmers, and I would scale it up to talk with policymakers.”
When Homo sapiens came on the scene some 250,000 years ago, we entered a world already run by the super-abundant, mega-diverse family of insects. That hasn’t changed — everything from soil nutrients to waste management to the food chain — rests atop the busy backs of these tiny things.
But insects are more than ecological mechanics — they’re splendid, beautiful, awe-inspiring, weird, ugly, frightening, funny, devastating and enriching creatures. They are nature herself, made manifest in the trillions.
“Insects offer us a deep insight into the wonder of nature and the wonders of the universe,” says Martins. “If we lose them, we’re losing that ability to see. To see and to learn and to understand ourselves and the world around us. I would say we need the insects more than they need us.”
Sánchez-Bayo, F., Wyckhuys, K.A.G., Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers, Biological Conservation. 232, 2019, 8–27.
Hallmann, C.A., Sorg, M., Jongejans, E., Siepel, H., Hofland, N., Schwan, H., Stenmans, W., Müller, A., Sumser, H., Hörren, T., Goulson, D., de Kroon, H., 2017. More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS One 12, e0185809.
Lister, B.C., Garcia, A., 2018. Climate-driven declines in arthropod abundance restructure a rainforest food web. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas. 1722477115.