Decline in insect populations
An increasing number of scientific studies are reporting substantial declines in insect populations worldwide. Most commonly, the declines involve reductions in abundance, though in some cases entire species are going extinct. The declines are far from uniform. In some localities, there have been reports of increases in overall insect population, and some types of insects appear to be increasing in abundance across the world.
Some of the
Possible causes are similar to other
In response to the reported declines, increased insect related conservation measures have been launched. In 2018 the German government initiated an "Action Programme for Insect Protection",
The fossil record concerning insects stretches back hundreds of millions of years. It suggests there are ongoing background levels of both
Concern about a human-caused Holocene extinction has been growing since the late 20th century, although much of the early concern was not focused on insects. In a report on the world's invertebrates, the Zoological Society of London suggested in 2012 that insect populations were in decline globally, affecting pollination and food supplies for other animals. It estimated that about 20 percent of all invertebrate species were threatened with extinction, and that species with the least mobility and smallest ranges were most at risk.
Studies finding insect decline have been available for decades—one study tracked a decline from 1840 to 2013—but it was the 2017 re-publication of the
A March 2019 statement by the Entomological Society of America said there was not yet sufficient data to predict an imminent mass extinction of insects and that some of the extrapolated predictions might "have been extended well past the limits of the data or have been otherwise over-hyped". For some insect groups such as some butterflies, moths, bees, and beetles, declines in abundance and diversity have been documented in European studies. These have generally led to an overall pattern of decline, but there are variable trends for individual species within groups. For instance, a minority of British moths are becoming more common. Other areas have shown increases in some insect species, although trends in most regions are currently unknown. It is difficult to assess long-term trends in insect abundance or diversity because historical measurements are generally not known for many species. Robust data to assess at-risk areas or species is especially lacking for arctic and tropical regions and a majority of the southern hemisphere.
Causes and consequences
The causes of the declines in insect populations are not fully understood. They are likely to vary between different insect groups and geographical regions.
The use of increased quantities of
Insect population decline affects ecosystems, and other animal populations, including
Three principal metrics are used to capture and report on insect declines:
- Abundance – simply put the numerical total of individual insects. Depending on context, it can refer to the number of insects in a particular assembly, in a geographical area, or the sum total of insects globally (regardless of which species the individuals belong to).
- Biomass – the total weight of insects (again regardless of species).
- Biodiversity – the number of extant insect species. Depending on context, a reduction in biodiversity can mean certain species of insects have vanished locally, though it may mean species have gone totally extinct across the entire planet.
Most of the individual studies tracking insect declines report just abundance, others just on biomass, some on both, and yet others report on all three metrics. Data directly related to diversity loss at global level is more sparse than for abundance or biomass declines. Estimates for diversity loss at a planetary level tend to involve extrapolating from abundance or biomass data; while studies sometimes show local extirpation of an insect species, actual world wide extinctions are challenging to discern. In a 2019 review, David Wagner noted that currently the Holocene extinction is seeing animal species loss at about 100–1,000 times the planet's normal background rate, and that various studies found a similar, or possibly even faster extinction rate for insects. Wagner opines that serious though this biodiversity loss is, it is the decline in abundance that will have the most serious ecological impact.
Relationship between decline metrics
In theory it is possible for the three metrics to be independent. For instance, a decline in biomass might not involve a decrease in abundance or diversity if all that was happening was that typical insects were getting smaller. In practice though, abundance and biomass tend to be closely related, typically showing a similar level of decline. Change in biodiversity is often, though not always, [note 1] directly proportional to the other two metrics.
Rothamsted Insect Survey, UK
The Rothamsted Insect Survey at Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, England, began monitoring insect suction traps across the UK in 1964. According to the group, these have produced "the most comprehensive standardised long-term data on insects in the world". The traps are "effectively upside-down Hoovers running 24/7, continually sampling the air for migrating insects", according to James Bell, the survey leader, in an interview in 2017 with the journal Science. Between 1970 and 2002, the insect biomass caught in the traps declined by over two-thirds in southern Scotland, although it remained stable in England. The scientists speculate that insect abundance was already lost in England by 1970 (figures in Scotland were higher than in England when the survey began), or that aphids and other pests increased there in the absence of their insect predators.
Dirzo et al. 2014
A 2014 review by Rodolfo Dirzo and others in Science noted: "Of all insects with IUCN-documented population trends [203 insect species in five orders], 33% are declining, with strong variation among orders." In the UK, "30 to 60% of species per order have declining ranges". Insect pollinators, "needed for 75% of all the world's food crops", appear to be "strongly declining globally in both abundance and diversity", which has been linked in Northern Europe to the decline of plant species that rely on them. The study referred to the human-caused loss of vertebrates and invertebrates as the "Anthropocene defaunation".
Krefeld study, Germany
In 2013 the
According to The Economist, the study was the "third most frequently cited scientific study (of all kinds) in the media in 2017".[note 3] The British entomologist Simon Leather said that he hoped media reports, following the study, of an "ecological Armageddon" had been exaggerated; he argued that the Krefeld and other studies should be a wake-up call, and that more funding is needed to support long-term studies. The Krefeld study's authors were not able to link the decline to climate change or pesticides, he wrote, but they suggested that intensive farming was involved. While agreeing with their conclusions, he cautioned that "the data are based on biomass, not species, and the sites were not sampled continuously and are not globally representative".[note 4] As a result of the Krefeld and other studies, the German government established an "Action Programme for Insect Protection".
El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico
A 2018 study of the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico reported a decline in arthropods, and in lizards, frogs, and birds (insect-eating species) based on measurements in 1976 and 2012. The American entomologist David Wagner called the study a "clarion call" and "one of the most disturbing articles" he had ever read. The researchers reported "biomass losses between 98% and 78% for ground-foraging and canopy-dwelling arthropods over a 36-year period, with respective annual losses between 2.7% and 2.2%". The decline was attributed to a rise in the average temperature; tropical insect species cannot tolerate a wide range of temperatures. The lead author, Brad Lister, told The Economist that the researchers were shocked by the results: "We couldn't believe the first results. I remember [in the 1970s] butterflies everywhere after rain. On the first day back [in 2012], I saw hardly any."
Netherlands and Switzerland
In 2019 a study by
2019 Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys review
A 2019 review by
The methodology and strong language of the review were questioned. The keywords used for a database search of the scientific literature were [insect*] and [declin*] + [survey], which mostly returned studies finding declines, not increases. Sánchez-Bayo responded that two thirds of the reviewed studies had come from outside the database search. David Wagner wrote that many studies have shown "no significant changes in insect numbers or endangerment", despite a reporting bias against "non-significant findings". According to Wagner, the papers' greatest mistake was to equate "40% geographic or population declines from small countries with high human densities and about half or more of their land in agriculture to 'the extinction of 40% of the world's insect species over the next few decades'." He wrote that 40 percent extinction would amount to the loss of around 2.8 million species, while fewer than 100 insect species are known to have become extinct. While it is true that insects are declining, he wrote, the review did not provide evidence to support its conclusion. Other criticism included that the authors attributed the decline to particular threats based on the studies they reviewed, even when those studies had simply suggested threats rather than clearly identifying them. The British ecologist Georgina Mace agreed that the review lacked detailed information needed to assess the situation, but said it might underestimate the rate of insect decline in the tropics.
In assessing the study methodology, an editorial in Global Change Biology stated, "An unbiased review of the literature would still find declines, but estimates based on this 'unidirectional' methodology are not credible. Komonen et al. considered the study "alarmist by bad design" due to unsubstantiated claims and methodological issues that undermined credible conservation science. They stated what were called extinctions in the study represented species loss in specific sites or regions, and should not have extrapolated as extinction at a larger geographic scale. They also listed that IUCN Red List categories were misused as insects with no data on a decline trend were classified as having a 30% decline by the study authors. Simmons et al. also had concerns the review's search terms, geographic biases, calculations of extinction rates, and inaccurate assessment of drivers of population change stating while it was "a useful review of insect population declines in North America and Europe, it should not be used as evidence of global insect population trends and threats."
Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reported its assessment of global biodiversity in 2019. Its summary for insect life was that "Global trends in insect populations are not known but rapid declines have been well documented in some places. ... Local declines of insect populations such as wild bees and butterflies have often been reported, and insect abundance has declined very rapidly in some places even without large-scale land-use change, but the global extent of such declines is not known. ... The proportion of insect species threatened with extinction is a key uncertainty, but available evidence supports a tentative estimate of 10 per cent."
van Klink et al. 2020
A 2020 meta-analysis by van Klink and others, published in the journal
Crossley et al. 2020
In a 2020 paper in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution that studied insects and other arthropods across all Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) sites in the U.S., the authors found some declines, some increases, but generally few consistent losses in arthropod abundance or diversity. This study found some variation in location, but generally stable numbers of insects. As noted in the paper, the authors did not do any a priori selection of arthropod taxa. Instead, they tested the hypothesis that if the arthropod decline was pervasive, it would be detected in monitoring programs not originally designed to look for declines. They suggest that overall numbers of insects vary but overall show no net change. However, the methodology of the article was criticized in two "Matters Arising" articles in Nature Ecology and Evolution, because it failed to account for changes in sampling location and sampling effort at LTER sites and for the impact of experimental conditions, had inconsistencies in the database constitution and relied on an inadequate statistical analysis.
Isbell et al. 2022
In 2022, 66 researchers led by Forest Isbell had conducted a survey of 3331 biodiversity experts (meaning scientists who published a study on the subject of biodiversity over the past decade) for Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment journal. This included 629 experts in terrestrial and freshwater invertebrates: on average, they believed that around 30% (with an uncertainty range between 20 and 50%) of these species are or have been threatened with extinction (including the species which had already gone extinct since 1500.) As insects account for the vast majority of the world's invertebrates, this figure by extension applies to them as well. In the words of the researchers, the apparent mismatch between the surveyed experts' estimate and that of IPBES means that more investigations into insects and other "hyperdiverse and understudied taxa" are urgently required.
Anecdotal evidence for insect decline has been offered by those who recall apparently greater insect abundance in the 20th century. Entomologist
The windshield phenomenon – car windscreens covered in dead insects after even a short drive through a rural area in Europe and North America – seems also largely to have disappeared; in the 21st century, drivers find they can go an entire summer without noticing it. John Rawlins, head of invertebrate zoology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, speculated in 2006 that more aerodynamic car designs could explain the change. Entomologist Martin Sorg told Science in 2017: "I drive a Land Rover, with the aerodynamics of a refrigerator, and these days it stays clean." Rawlins added that land next to high-speed highways has become more manicured and therefore less attractive to insects. In 2004 the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds organised a Big Bug Count, issuing "splatometers" to about 40,000 volunteers to help count the number of insects colliding with their number plates. They found an average of one insect per 5 miles (8 km), which was less than expected.
In March 2019 Chris D. Thomas and other scientists wrote in response to the apocalyptic "Insectageddon" predictions of Sánchez-Bayo, "we respectfully suggest that accounts of the demise of insects may be slightly exaggerated". They called for "joined-up thinking" in responding to insect declines, backed up by more robust data than were currently available. They warned that excessive focus on reducing pesticide use could be counterproductive as pests already cause a 35 percent yield loss in crops, which can rise to 70 percent if pesticides are not used. If the yield loss was compensated for by expanding agricultural land with deforestation and other habitat destruction, it could exacerbate insect decline.
In the UK, 27 ecologists and entomologists signed an open letter to
In April 2019, in response to the studies about insect decline, Carol Ann Duffy released several poems, by herself and others, to mark the end of her tenure as Britain's poet laureate and to coincide with protests that month by the environmentalist movement Extinction Rebellion. The poets included Fiona Benson, Imtiaz Dharker, Matthew Hollis, Michael Longley, Daljit Nagra, Alice Oswald, and Denise Riley. Duffy's contribution was "The Human Bee".
Much of the world's efforts to retain biodiversity at national level is reported to the United Nations as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Reports typically describe policies to prevent the loss of diversity generally, such as habitat preservation, rather than specifying measures to protect particular taxa. Pollinators are the main exception to this, with several countries reporting efforts to reduce the decline of their pollinating insects.
A study suggests that the most influential factors, that can be counteracted, are habitat loss and degradation, pesticides, and climate change. It recommended enacting policies via governments at all levels across the globe that address these in a meaningful way.
- Recognition of arthropods' role
In a 2019 paper, scientists listed 100 studies and other references suggesting that insects can help meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) adopted in 2015 by the United Nations. They argued that the global policy-making community should continue its transition from seeing insects as enemies, to the current view of insects as "providers of ecosystem services", and should advance to a view of insects as "solutions for SDGs" (such as using them as food and biological pest control). The public in many countries is largely unaware of benefits and services that insects provide, and negative perceptions of insects are widespread.
- Wildflower strips
- Reduction of pesticide-use
Beyond halting habitat loss and fragmentation and
- Gardening and education
The Entomological Society of America suggests that people maintain plant diversity in their gardens and leave "natural habitat, like leaf litter and dead wood". The Xerces Society is a US based environmental organization that collaborates with both federal and state agencies, scientists, educators, and citizens to promote invertebrate conservation, applied research, advocacy, public outreach and education. Ongoing projects include the rehabilitation of habitat for endangered species, public education about the importance of native pollinators, and the restoration and protection of watersheds. They have been doing a Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count which includes observations from volunteers for 22 years.
It has been suggested that "Because many insects need little space to survive, even partial conversion of lawns to minimally disturbed natural vegetation—say 10%—could significantly aid insect conservation, while simultaneously lowering the cost of lawn maintenance".
More media coverage has been proposed.
- Buffer zones
Buffer-zones around nature reserves where pesticide-use is drastically reduced has been proposed for inclusion in the countermeasures. Scientists who proposed the measure conducted a Germany-wide field study and found that insect samples in these areas are contaminated with ~16 pesticides on average, proportionate to the agricultural production area in a radius of 2 km.
Decline of insect studies
One reason that studies into the decline are limited is that entomology and taxonomy are themselves in decline. At the 2019 Entomology Congress, leading entomologist Jürgen Gross said that "We are ourselves an endangered species" while Wolfgang Wägele – an expert in systematic zoology – said that "in the universities we have lost nearly all experts". General biology courses in college give less attention to insects, and the number of biologists specialising in entomology is decreasing as specialities such as genetics expand. In addition, studies investigating the decline tend to be done by collecting insects and killing them in traps, which poses an ethical problem for conservationists.
- Biodiversity decline
- Colony collapse disorder
- Decline in amphibian populations
- Population decline
- Holocene extinction
- List of endangered insects
- Pollinator decline
- ^ Some studies find cases where, in certain locations, change in biodiversity is inversely proportional to the other metrics. For example, a 42 year study of insects in the pristine Breitenbach stream near Schlitz, which is believed to have been unaffected by anthropogenic decline related causes except for climate change, found that while abundance of insects decreased, biodiversity actually rose, especially during the first half of the study.
- ^ Francisco Sánchez-Bayo and Kris A. G. Wyckhuys (Biological Conservation, April 2019): "In 2017, a 27-year long population monitoring study revealed a shocking 76% decline in flying insect biomass at several of Germany's protected areas (Hallmann et al., 2017). This represents an average 2.8% loss in insect biomass per year in habitats subject to rather low levels of human disturbance, which could either be undetectable or regarded statistically non-significant if measurements were carried out over shorter time frames. Worryingly, the study shows a steady declining trend over nearly three decades."
- ^ The Economist (23 March 2019): "The study [Hallmann et al. 2017] was the third most frequently cited scientific study (of all kinds) in the media in 2017 and pushed the governments of Germany and the Netherlands into setting up programmes to protect insect diversity."
- Annals of Applied Biology, 20 December 2017): "Four years ago a group of German entomologists reported that there had been a huge reduction in the biomass of insects caught using Malaise traps sited in 63 German nature reserves since 1989 (Sorg et al., 2013). This shocking observation went almost unnoticed until a reanalysis of the data appeared recently (Hallmann et al., 2017). The latter paper generated a flurry of media activity and the phrase 'Ecological Armageddon' swiftly circled the globe. Although not denying the decline reported, there are a number of caveats that should be considered when reading the two papers; the data are based on biomass, not species, the sites were not sampled continuously and are not globally representative (Saunders, 2017). The authors of the German study were not able to link the observed decline to climate change or pesticide use; although agricultural intensification and the practices associated with it, were, however, suggested as likely to be involved in some way."
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