An “ecological armageddon” has been set in motion, thanks to an extraordinary 75 percent or more decline in insect species worldwide, finds a new study twenty-seven years in the making — a striking development one of the researchers described as, unabashedly, “very alarming.”
“The fact that the number of flying insects is decreasing at such a high rate in such a large area is an alarming discovery,” study researcher Hans de Kroon, of Raboud University, told The Guardian.
With the total mass of flying insects plunging by more than 75 percent in just over a quarter century, ‘very alarming’ hardly pretends to describe the jaw-dropping findings.
Insects play an inextricable role in the health of planetary ecosystems, providing prey for larger species and pollinating the world’s agricultural crops and edible plants — so, a decisively steep decrease in their numbers prognosticates at best an austere future.
In 1989, dozens of amateur entomologists across Germany began using a strictly standardized method of collecting insects using mesh tents called malaise traps to catch 1,500 samples of all flying insects from 63 nature preserves. But, despite, the somewhat limited geographical breadth of the research, scientists warn their findings, published in the journal Plos One, apply to any area focused predominantly on agriculture.
“After measuring each year’s samples by weight, scientists found that the average fell by more than 75 percent over the 27-year period. During the summer months, the fall was measured at around 82 percent,” RT reports, emphasis added.
That’s an 82 percent decline during the season insect populations should be their most voluminous.
Environmental and natural scientists and others have warned for years vanishing pollinator populations will ultimately spell disaster for humans and other animal species, but such a comprehensive study as that undertaken by researchers with Raboud University in the Netherlands has never before been managed.
Despite the dwindling of insects is clear and undeniable, the scientists were uncertain as to a singular cause, positing pesticides, urbanization, changing climate, and other factors are all likely contributors.
“The weather might explain many of the fluctuations within the season and between the years, but it doesn’t explain the rapid downward trend,” lamented Martin Sorg of the Krefeld Entomological Society in Germany and leader of research by the amateur entomologists. He believes the tiny creatures forays away from protected areas — which offer infinitely greater diversity than agriculturally-cultivated land — contributes to population downfall.
“Farmland has very little to offer for any wild creature,” he continued. “But exactly what is causing their death is open to debate. It could be simply that there is no food for them or it could be, more specifically, exposure to chemical pesticides, or a combination of the two.”
Whatever the cause, the scientists fear the situation has quietly reached apocalyptic proportions.
“Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on Earth,” asserted Professor Dave Goulson of Sussex University, who contributed to the study, but “there has been some kind of horrific decline. We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects then everything is going to collapse.”
As the Guardian notes, many specific species of flying insects and pollinators, like the Monarch butterfly, have come under the microscope over dwindling numbers, but — because the researchers in this study sampled species like wasps and flies not ordinarily studied, at all — this body of data is considered comprehensive enough to be representative of the true scope of the problem.
Worse, researcher Caspar Hallmann of Radboud University says the fact the study conducted sample sweeps of environmentally-protected areas should further amplify alarm.
“All these areas are protected and most of them are well-managed nature reserves,” he noted. “Yet, this dramatic decline has occurred.”
A two-year study from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services appearing on the website for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and published in February 2016, hoisted a red flag on vanishing insect numbers worldwide — bluntly reminding the world, in part,
“Nearly 90 per cent of all wild flowering plants depend at least to some extent on animal pollination.”
Additionally, “The volume of agricultural production dependent on animal pollination has increased by 300 per cent during the past 50 years, but pollinator-dependent crops show lower growth and stability in yield than crops that do not depend on pollinators.”
That, before the extent of insect declension had been assessed.
“It provides important new evidence for an alarming decline that many entomologists have suspected is occurring for some time,” U.K.’s University of East Anglia’s Lynn Dicks, who did not participate in the research, said of the study findings.
“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.”
Goulson darkly lamented that, during a road trip across France this summer, the splats of dead insects didn’t even force repeated windshield cleanings as such a route through the country would have in years past — a telling if grim reminder of the inextricable role in the planet’s health insects play.
Perhaps now scientists and researchers won’t be seen so much as alarmists — and the resounding Cassandra call to action can be heeded with some expediency — if the situation isn’t already irreversible.
It was just two years ago Goggy Davidowitz, professor in entomology, ecology, and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, sounded nearly the exact alarm Goulson is now imploring the world to hear.
“If insects were to disappear, the world would fall apart,” Davidowitz flatly asserted after a similarly ominous study in November 2015, “there’s no two ways about it.”
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Orangeaurochs.