Insect extinction threatens ‘collapse of nature’

Creepy crawlies: Insects make up 70% of all animals species on Earth. © Verein Krefeld

According to a shock report, Earth’s insects could be wiped out in the next 100 years — with “catastrophic” consequences for humankind. Scientists say drastic action is needed to avert disaster.

Right now, we are living through the sixth major extinction event in Earth’s history. Meteors, ice ages and volcanic eruptions caused the first five. But this one is different — this time, humans are to blame. The species being harmed the most? Insects.

According to a new report, more than 40% of insect species are declining, and a third are currently endangered. Every year the total mass of insects on Earth decreases by 2.5%, eight times faster than that of mammals. If this continues, within a century they will all be wiped out.

Warning signs can be seen across the world. English farms have recorded a 58% fall in butterfly species; Puerto Rico has lost 98% of its ground insects in the last 35 years; and 75% of flying insects have disappeared from Germany’s nature reserves.

“If insect species losses cannot be halted, this will have catastrophic consequences for both the planet’s ecosystems and for the survival of mankind,” warns scientist Francisco Sánchez-Bayo.

Insects are an essential part of all of Earth’s ecosystems, providing food for birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and larger animals. “If this food source is taken away, all these animals starve to death,” explains Sánchez-Bayo.

Insects also pollinate 80% of the world’s plants, recycle nutrients and help keep soil healthy. “Love them or loathe them, we humans cannot survive without insects,” says Professor Dave Goulson.

And yet, it is we humans that are responsible for their widespread destruction.

The report claims that industrial agriculture is the main thing devastating insect populations, particularly the widespread use of pesticides. Climate change and urban sprawl also contribute.

So what can be done to help?

Experts insist we must change the way food is produced. That means growing more food organically, cutting down on pesticides and giving over land to wild spaces.

Consumers could also avoid buying intensively farmed foods, demand political action and take measures to reduce their own carbon footprint, for example, by eating less meat and travelling less by plane.

Bug’s strife

Scientists say there need to be radical improvements in how we produce food and how with care for the natural world. But will this actually happen? It is easy to arouse people’s passions when rhinos and pandas are threatened with extinction, but less so with insects. How can this be changed?

Some insist this is connected to wider issues. Climate change, animal extinctions, deforestation: it comes down to humanity’s insatiable desire to consume. From what we eat and wear to how we travel, do we all have a duty to live in sustainable ways? If so, what changes would have the most impact?

You Decide

  1. Is insect extinction the biggest threat facing humanity?
  2. Should humans attempt to control nature?

Activities

  1. Write down all the words that you associate with “Insects”. Share your ideas with the class. Are most of your ideas positive or negative? Why do some people dislike insects? Does this stop us caring about them as much as we should?
  2. Make a one-page fact sheet which presents the importance of insects to the rest of the world. Include what you have learnt from this article, as well as from your wider research. Make sure the fact sheet is bold and eye-catching.

Some People Say...

“An ant is over six feet tall when measured by its own foot-rule.”

Slovenian proverb

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Insects make up 70% of all animal species and are the most abundant creatures on planet Earth, outweighing the mass of humans by a factor of 17. Around 80% of wild plants need insects for pollination, and 60% of birds rely on insects as a food source. In the last 50 years, the populations of all mammals, birds, reptiles and fish have fallen by an average of 60%.
What do we not know?
If sufficient action will be taken in time to avert disasters. “Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades,” the study states.

Word Watch

Extinction event
Defined as a widespread and rapid decrease in the biodiversity on Earth.
Meteors
For example, approximately 66 million years ago a meteor crashed into Earth destroying around three quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth (including the dinosaurs).
Report
“Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers,” published in the journal Biological Conservation.
58% fall
According to analysis from 2000 to 2009.
Agriculture
The practice of farming, including cultivating soil for growing crops and rearing animals to provide food, wool and other products.
Pesticides
Substances used to destroy insects which pose harm to crops and farm animals.
Urban sprawl
The quick growth of urban environments into rural areas.
Organically
Food produced without fertilisers, pesticides or other artificial chemicals.

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