World on the edge of ‘ecological Armageddon’

Bug’s Life: It is estimated that insects make up around 80% of all animal species on Earth.

Should insects have rights? According to scientists insect populations are plummeting. This could have disastrous consequences for humanity and ecosystems all across the world.

Though they are tiny, insects have a huge influence on our world. But now scientists claim that they are in danger — and we could be too.

A recent study in Germany found that the population of flying insects has decreased by 75% since 1989. This includes creatures like butterflies, bees, and wasps.

Professor Dave Goulson who participated in the study called the findings “horrific”, and described how vast tracts of land are becoming “inhospitable to most forms of life”.

He states that the cause of the decline is “open to debate”. However, the use of chemical pesticides and destruction of wild areas are likely causes. And either way, it is humans who are to blame.

Insect extinction would have catastrophic consequences. Firstly, bugs play a crucial role in pollinating plants and crops — many of which are used for human food. One study estimated that insect pollination worldwide is worth €153 billion. And other researchers found that wild bees provide crop pollination services worth $3,251 per hectare per year.

Insects are also a critical food sources for bigger animals like birds, lizards, and amphibians. And their extinction could devastate complex ecosystems. In the UK the number of farmland birds has fallen by 55% since 1970. Environmentalist Michael McCarthy claims that insect decline is the “principal reason” for this.

With Earth’s human population predicted to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, having fewer insects will make feeding billions more humans even harder. Writer and activist George Monbiot has described ecological destruction as “the world’s most pressing environmental issue” and potentially “more catastrophic” than climate change.

As well as being crucial to the prosperity of humanity, some insects are extremely intelligent in their own right. Biologist Marc Srour claims that ants, bees, and termites have “very high intelligence”. Research suggests that honeybees have the ability to count, and can even recognise human faces.

But should insects have rights?

Suffrage-ants

“Insects are animals which need protection,” some argue. They may not be big or cute, but insects are crucial to life on Earth. Giving them the same rights as other animals will help avert catastrophic extinction. And the more our knowledge of insect intelligence increases, the more we will view them as meaningful forms of life in their own right.

“This is ridiculous,” others reply. Many insects are detrimental to humans. Malaria killed over 400,000 people in 2015, but should we allow mosquitoes to thrive because of animal rights? If we really want to help insects we need practical solutions. Cutting the use of pesticides and making farms more efficient would be a good start.

You Decide

  1. Should insects be given rights?
  2. Is insect extinction the biggest threat facing humanity?

Activities

  1. Without using a dictionary, write down a definition of “intelligent”. Do you think bugs would count as intelligent using your definition?
  2. Do some research into insect intelligence. Use the Atlas Obscura link in Become An Expert as a starting point. Can you find any insects with powers that humans do not have? Are you surprised by any of the abilities that insects have? Do you think there are any insects which are cleverer than mammals or bigger animals?

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?
A 2017 report by the United Nations (UN) stated that by killing large amounts of insects pesticides have the potential to “destabilise ecosystems”. A 2017 study led by Martin Lechenet and published in Nature Plants, claimed that farms could reduce pesticide use by 42% without any negative effects on productivity and profitability.
What do we not know?
The German study was formed from data collected from 63 nature reserves across the country. Therefore it only gives a partial indication of the rates of insect population decline. We cannot say for certain how insect populations are changing on a global scale.

Word Watch

Study
Research led by Hans de Kroon of Radboud University. More than 1,500 samples of all flying insects were collected at nature reserves across Germany.
Pesticides
A substance used for destroying insects harmful to crops. A 2017 UN report described pesticides as a “human rights concern” and argued that they were not necessary to meet global food needs.
Study
According to the paper Economic valuation of the vulnerability of world agriculture confronted with pollinator decline, published in Ecological Economics in 2009.
Researchers
2015 study led by David Kleijn of Wageningen University.
Hectare
The equivalent of 10,000 metres squared.
55%
According to a 2017 report by the UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.
Research
Elizabeth Tibbetts and Adrian Dyer describe the facial recognition capabilities of bees in a 2013 Scientific American paper. The counting ability of bees was investigated by Professor Mandyam Srinivasan of the Queensland Brain Institute.
400,000
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

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