A Growing Crisis: Insects are Disappearing — And Fast


We all know about the huge declines in bee and monarch butterfly populations. Now, it turns out that in some areas nearly all insects are at risk of extinction. And if we don’t solve this problem soon, the repercussions could be huge.

Insects are an important part of the global ecosystem. They not only provide important pollination services, but they also occupy an important place on the bottom of the food chain for many animals. Fewer insects means less food, leading to plant and animal population declines.

“The growing threat to [insects], which play an important role in food security, provides another compelling example of how connected people are to our environment, and how deeply entwined our fate is with that of the natural world,” said Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, in a press statement.

One of the challenges is that insects are not well understood at an individual species level, because there are millions of insect species and only a limited number of insect specialists. Only about 20 percent of the world’s insect species are cataloged, and the symbiotic relationships that many plants have with insects are rarely fully understood.

“Unfortunately, information on invertebrates in general, including insects, is very limited, restricted to a few groups and a few localities,” Rodolfo Dirzo, an ecologist at Stanford University, told Yale 360. He was the lead author of a 2014 study that was one of the first to document the fall in global insect mass.

So, what’s causing the insect decline? In one word, us. The specific causes are likely very complex, but they are almost certainly connected to human impacts. It could be chemicals, like the pesticides class “neonicotinoids” that are connected to the bee declines. Or the growing number of rivers and waterways around the world that are polluted due to factory and agricultural run-off, or the still-growing number of pollutants we’re putting into the atmosphere. But one thing is almost certain: We are to blame.

“Their decline is primarily due to changes in land use, intensive agricultural practices and pesticide use, alien invasive species, diseases and pests, and climate change,” said Sir Robert Watson, vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, in a press statement.

Another oft-cited cause is the overuse of nitrogen fertilizer – something far too common in the monoculture corn fields of middle America. These corporate-driven, mono-culture farming methods are also to blame, as they limit the space for most insects and the plants to which they connect to survive.

Instead of waiting to discover the cause, we need to take immediate action now. That means reducing the number of chemicals we use, eliminating pollution and rapidly cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions, which also may be connected to what’s happening. It also means reducing the scale of monoculture farming and returning to more natural, diverse, bio-dynamic farming methods that increase biodiversity.

Because if we lose insects, we’ll soon lose a lot more.

Image credit: Uditha Wickramanayaka via Flickr

Food & Agriculture

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Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

8 responses

  1. This makes all the sense in the world .Unfortunately everything we do in this world is for short term gain , with hardly a thought given to what happens in the future . Hopefully we won’t cause our own species to go extinct in the process of survival – how ironic .

  2. As a production superintendent for a major independent oil company I can attest to the fact that our insect population has diminished horribly. My days of collecting butterfly specimens in my local area has proved to me that most species have completely disappeared from south Louisiana. Even the dreaded mosquito has seemed to disappear. The only insects I see now are “gnats” , ants, flies, and cock roaches. At this date this summer I have seen about 10 butterfly’s total. I used to have a bee hive on my property that was fantastic for my garden but it died last spring and my garden’s production has dropped to less than 1/10 of 2 years ago. Whatever is killing our insects must be found AND STOPPED ,ASAP, or we as a species are doomed.

  3. We have seriously over populated the planet. Without modern agricultural techniques
    demand would have outstripped supply. Changes can be made to mitigate the detrimental effects of modern methods at the expense of production. The ecosystem will adjust to the new reality by itself. We may not like the adjustments but we will have to live with them.

  4. I would disagree ,Yachter , the planet can easily support the population . It is the strife in the world which in many cases causes food shortages ,as well as the lack of cooperation. The other side of the problem of course , is the pollution, misuse ,and waste of our resources .

  5. Overpopulation isn’t the problem. A population with NO concern or responsibility for the future is! Commonly used chemicals have nearly killed my wife and I. The same chemical is what is killing the honey bees and other insects. Bee hives today use honeycomb frames cast in polystyrene and also use an insecticide for the mites in the hives, both based in BENZENE! This chemical is the mother of all aromatic products today! It attracts the bees then kills them. I was a Design Sculptor for one of the big three auto companies. Benzene was a big part of the created clay models being produced. It would render pre-painted plastic sheeting stretchy to better cover the clay models. Because of my time using plastic solvents, I now have no pituitary gland! Don’t think because I miss used this substance, at the company’s direction, it is not deadly to the general populace. All internal combustion is sickening and killing with it! It’s everywhere! Most products!

  6. Use of chemicals is a very insidious activity! Our sensory systems cannot detect most of them until it is to late! Marketing is using the strongest attractions man knows of to push these totally untested and deadly substances today.
    I have a farm producing corn and soybeans. In my lifetime it has gone from organic methods, to the use of chemicals that are making some people on a “short time basis” very rich, and many others very dead! Propagating live substances creates new life…generating dead things produces our death!
    Some products with benzene toluene or similar substances: All plastics, perfumes, room re-fresheners, fabric softeners, clothing, cloth,( like carpet etc), asphalt, eating utensils and containers, car interiors, (If left in the hot sun that interior is deadly). There is no time to list just 2% of the items that are contributing to our sickness and death. We better hope for a peaceful afterlife, because the greed of this earth is not going to change!

  7. Agricultural chemicals have have been around for decades. The same for industrial and home chemicals.

    The new kid on the pollution front is the big increase of electro-magnetic radiation. When I was a toddler, radio was new. Then came FM and TV broadcasts. Now we have cell phone towers, “smart” meters on our houses, satellite TV, businesses using more forms of broadcast, ham radio broadcasts, stray voltage (electric power utilities using the earth as a return path for spent current), WiFi in our homes and in our towns in some cases, radar coming on so-called driverless autos, military radar (secret in some areas used for training), wireless security systems, and on and on.

    Electro-magnetic radiation at the frequencies used for the above systems attacks life 24 hours a day. It penetrates our building materials and our clothing. There are alternatives such as fiber optic cables for some of it. Much of it is for entertainment. Isn’t it time to take a look at the new environmental pollutant? Our body is controlled by an electro-chemical system. We know it is affected by electro-magnetic radiation. We ignore the downsides of EMR for fun and profit.

  8. Its about time more people write about the obvious antidotal evidence of pollinator die-off… as for agribiz chemicals being around for decades… how old is this planet? Bees (and insect pollinators) been round making this place abundant for 180 million years. Thats a long time before we humans limbed outta trees and learned to walk upright. If you study bees you know they have the greatest “recombining” genetics of any creature on this planet… because of they adapt to all the wonderful things their cross pollination brings… Darwin said (in Origin of Species) it was the co-evolutionary moment of insect pollinators and flowering grasses that created the environment suitable for us and the world we have today… But this recombining genetic is also the honey bees downfall… for in the last 150 years mankind has created a toxic world from diesel fumes to radio waves to toxic soils streams and plants… bees are genetically predisposed to evolve towards what is abundant… today death is abundant and bees are adapting to it… get it?

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