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A vanishing act: Investigating the global spate of insect die-offs

Despite being maligned, insects are vital pollinators, crucial waste recyclers, and the base of food webs that we rely upon.

In 1828, Charles Darwin penned a letter to his cousin saying, “I am dying by inches from not having anybody to talk to about insects.” Nearly two centuries later, Darwin would be both thrilled and horrified. While people are abuzz about insects, their discussions are flecked with words like “apocalypse” and “armageddon”.

The drumbeats of doom began in 2017, when the Krefeld Entomological Society reported that the mass of Germany’s flying insects had plummeted by 75 percent in three decades. Since then, similar studies from Europe and America have been published, but no one knows how representative they are of trends elsewhere. The specificity of the observations, however, offers a new window into the state of class Insecta.

Why the decline?

In the Anthropocene, insects are clobbered by an array of threats from pollution to urbanization; even seemingly harmless activities can affect them. Entomologist Barkat Hussain uses the example of artificial lights, which attract nocturnal insects like moths and butterflies. These insects can exhaust themselves to death by encircling light bulbs or fall prey to predators that spot an easy target.

Jessamyn R. Adorada, PhD, an entomology professor at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, has witnessed the loss herself, explaining that she used to collect insects in the foothills of Mount Makiling for research. “[But now] we have to go off-road to be able to collect the diverse forms of insects,” she shares.

Another issue is the influx of invasive species, which are harmful non-native organisms. Take the scarifying beetle, which arrived in the Philippines through ornamental palms. Big, hungry, and difficult to kill, the beetle can bore into coconut palms, drinking the sap and exposing them to diseases.  As native host plants disappear, the populations of plant-eating insects also shrink and become less diverse.

Gravity of the fall

Adorada states that if all organisms were represented in a pie chart, one-eighth are vertebrates, two-thirds are insects, and the rest are plants. With such a large population, the decrease in insect populations is less rapid in comparison to that of vertebrates. Nonetheless, a significant decline remains and requires public attention to mitigate it.

The entomology professor mentions that pollinators, including bees, were the first group of insects with a significant population decline. With time, such decline was also seen in butterflies, moths, beetles, and aquatic insects like mayflies and caddisflies.

She adds that even the rare populations of insects, such as tiger beetles and the aforementioned mayfly, are becoming smaller. “They are endangered now. Most probably, in a few years, they could be extinct already,” Adorada emphasizes.

To make matters worse, entomology researchers in the Philippines face various challenges in obtaining their data. Of these challenges, the greatest is the lack of funding for their research. “If you would propose this in [the Philippines], they would say, ‘Why? Why are you going to work on that?’”  Adorada laments. She says that the government and many of the country’s institutions do not understand why entomology research is necessary. 

Crawling foundations of life

For people living in areas full of disease-carrying mosquitoes, the decline in the insect population might seem like an outlandish concern. But insects are indispensable creatures. They are vital pollinators, crucial recyclers of waste, a unique resource for medicinal purposes, and the base of food webs that people and animals rely upon.

As bioindicators, insects are harbingers of ecosystem change. Yet they are often seen as pests, making them some of the most misunderstood animals on Earth. According to Adorada, the notion of a “pest” is unique to humans. Mankind defines pests in terms of our standards of good and bad—standards that are largely based on aesthetics, economics, and personal welfare, and shaped by cultural bias and personal experiences.

In reality, many so-called pests are essential components of our ecosystem. Although some people have an aversion to insects, they cannot deny that these organisms play crucial roles in sustaining life. A termite-infested house, for instance, is a problem. But in a forest, termites act as decomposers. If they vanish, organic molecules would be locked away in piles of dead plant material, unavailable to living organisms until they are released by fire or erosion.

Another commonly maligned insect is the mayfly. Even though it does not bite or sting, it can still elicit terror. During the summer, hordes of mayflies emerge from lakes and rivers to mate, a phenomenon that resembles a biblical plague or an Alfred Hitchcock film. In some cases, these insects can even be spotted blanketing cars and enveloping gas stations. But there is good news in this messy package: Mayflies only grow in areas with little pollution. When they appear in large numbers, it indicates not only a healthy insect population but also a healthy environment.

Window of hope

Despite this devastating development, hope remains for the restoration of these insects. Organizations and institutions such as the Philippine Initiative for Environmental Conservation, WWF Philippines, and the Parks and Wildlife Bureau have been working on addressing the decline and management of insect populations.  There are also a variety of Republic Acts that have been created for environmental conservation such as Republic Act No. 9147 or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act.

Moreover, changing the negative perceptions toward insects also goes a long way. Adorada stresses the importance of educating people, especially children, on how one could indicate if an insect is harmful or not. By this, less of their population would be unnecessarily killed. Male mosquitoes, for instance, are often killed in the wrongful belief that they will bite when in truth, only female mosquitoes do.

With all the environmental crises that our Earth is facing, it is crucial that awareness on this topic is being spread. Despite the many efforts being done by organizations, the general public plays an important role in the conservation of our wildlife.

Although it may be difficult, one must put aside the fear of insects and see their great significance in people’s lives to work toward a much greater fear—irreversible damage to the planet. To once again quote Darwin, “The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.”

By Anceline Rhys Imson

By Amanda Palmera

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