Tag Archives: insects

The Bugs And The Bees

Apparently, the global political chaos we are experiencing is only one of humanity’s problems–and perhaps not the most threatening.

The Washington Post isn’t the only media outlet reporting on what is being called an “insect apocalypse.”

Scientific American has an equally alarming–if somewhat more measured– report.

Around the globe, scientists are getting hints that all is not well in the world of insects. Increasingly, reports are trickling in of unsettling changes in populations of not only butterflies and bees, but of far less charismatic bugs and beetles as well. Most recently, a research team from the U.S. and Mexico reported a startling decline between 1976 and 2013 in the weight of insects and other arthropods collected at select sites in Puerto Rico.

Some have called the apparent trend an insect Armageddon. Although the picture is not in crisp enough focus yet to say if that’s hyperbolic, enough is clear to compel many to call for full-scale efforts to learn more and act as appropriate.

Insects have always outnumbered other life forms–by far. According to scientists, nearly a million species have been described to date. (That compares with 5,416 mammals.) Entomologists suspect there could be two to 30 times as many actually out there.

Or were. And a steep decline would have significant consequences for humans.

Insects pollinate a spectrum of plants, including many of those that humans rely on for food. They also are key players in other important jobs including breaking dead things down into the building blocks for new life, controlling weeds and providing raw materials for medicines. And they provide sustenance for a spectrum of other animals—in fact, the Puerto Rico study showed a decline in density of insect-eating frogs, birds and lizards that paralleled the insect nosedive.

All told, insects provide at least US$57 billion in services to the U.S. economy each year.

How steep is the decline? The Post reports

In 2014, an international team of biologists estimated that, in the past 35 years, the abundance of invertebrates such as beetles and bees had decreased by 45 percent. In places where long-term insect data are available, mainly in Europe, insect numbers are plummeting. A study last year showed a 76 percent decrease in flying insects in the past few decades in German nature preserves.

The article quoted two scientists who had worked in the Puerto Rico rainforest forty years ago, about what they found when they recently returned.

What the scientists did not see on their return troubled them. “Boy, it was immediately obvious when we went into that forest,” Lister said. Fewer birds flitted overhead. The butterflies, once abundant, had all but vanished.

Other research has confirmed the loss of insects–and the dramatic reductions of insect-eating frogs and birds.

Lister and Garcia attribute this crash to climate. In the same 40-year period as the arthropod crash, the average high temperature in the rain forest increased by 4 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperatures in the tropics stick to a narrow band. The invertebrates that live there, likewise, are adapted to these temperatures and fare poorly outside them; bugs cannot regulate their internal heat.

Pesticides and habitat loss are also culprits.

Most of us of a “certain age” can remember catching fireflies–lightning bugs–as children. We recall having to clean smashed bugs off windshields, and seeing swarms of insects around streetlights. I haven’t seen a firefly in years–and my windshield stays pristine even on long drives. Last summer, I didn’t have a single mosquito bite, although for years I was sure mosquitos found something about me irresistible.

Nice as it is not to spend summers scratching, the implications for the ecosystem are frightening.

I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know that this really isn’t a good time to be governed by aggressively ignorant people.

Meanwhile…

Like Nero fiddling while Rome burned, most of America is transfixed and distracted by the daily Gong Show in Washington.

It’s bad enough that–while the news focuses on the President’s most recent bizarre and misspelled tweet storm– cabinet members are busily rolling back regulations protecting citizens from contaminated air and water, protecting students from predatory “educators,” or protecting irreplaceable national lands from being ravaged and looted by fossil fuel interests.

Worse, we are also being distracted from emerging reports about changes to our planet that should terrify us.

The world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”, according to the first global scientific review.

More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.

The planet is at the start of a sixth mass extinctionin its history, with huge losses already reported in larger animalsthat are easier to study. But insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals, outweighing humanity by 17 times. They are “essential” for the proper functioning of all ecosystems, the researchers say, as food for other creatures, pollinators and recyclers of nutrients.

We are beginning to see reports of the collapse of insect populations, and the researchers who authored the report say that the phenomenon extends globally–far beyond the specific collapses that have been documented. As the article in the Guardian put it,

The researchers set out their conclusions in unusually forceful terms for a peer-reviewed scientific paper: “The [insect] trends confirm that the sixth major extinction event is profoundly impacting [on] life forms on our planet.

“Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades,” they write. “The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least.”

The article, published in the academic journal Biological Conservation, attributes the dramatic decline of insect populations to intensive agriculture, especially the heavy use of pesticides, although it also found that urbanization and climate change are significant contributors to the problem.

There have been a number of stories about the mysterious loss of bee colonies-indications are that western states like Oklahoma lost half of their bumblebees between 1949 and 2013. But the problem extends far beyond bees, and the consequences of the predicted insect loss would be staggering.

One of the biggest impacts of insect loss is on the many birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish that eat insects. “If this food source is taken away, all these animals starve to death,” he said. Such cascading effects have already been seen in Puerto Rico, where a recent study revealed a 98% fall in ground insects over 35 years.

The new analysis selected the 73 best studies done to date to assess the insect decline. Butterflies and moths are among the worst hit. For example, the number of widespread butterfly species fell by 58% on farmed landin England between 2000 and 2009. The UK has suffered the biggest recorded insect falls overall, though that is probably a result of being more intensely studied than most places.

I strongly advise clicking through and reading the entire, depressing article. At the very least, it will give you something to be depressed about other than the disaster in the White House.