Insectageddon: a global crisis of insect extinction and population decline

Many of us have realized how important insects are to our natural ecosystems in recent years, from the life-enhancing beauty of butterflies to the critical function pollinating insects play in our food supply. So it’s no surprise that the so-called “insectageddon” has sparked widespread anxiety.

A new research contributes to a developing narrative of dramatic decline, bolstering the belief that there were more insects in nature in the past — and that things were better. Car windshields used to be splattered with insects, and this latest study utilizes a “splat rate” to infer that the quantity of flying insects in Britain has decreased by over 60% between 2004 and 2021. But how reliable is this conclusion, and how worried should we be?

To determine the degree of insect decline, thorough and long-term records of species changes are required. We can rely on one of the greatest datasets in the world to help us understand these changes and what could be causing them since Britain has a long history of observing nature dating back decades. Light traps for moths and other night-flying insects, as well as walk-and-count transects for butterflies, are among the existing monitoring programs.

So if we have so much information, why is there still debate about the severity of decline. 

Recent studies have discovered that patterns of change are more complicated than statements predicting catastrophic decreases would lead you to expect. Because we know that nature is dynamic, there is frequently a significant turnover in the species that exist at any particular location, as well as a continual reshuffling of communities. Winners and losers were identified in a 2020 survey of more than 5,000 species in the United Kingdom. An examination of nearly 50 years of insect data indicates long-term decreases in moths but not aphids, as well as signs of shorter-term recovery periods — a far more encouraging picture than you might expect.
It demonstrates the complexity of the landscape when reporting on the wellbeing of insect populations.Understanding why certain species suffer while others prosper is critical to formulating action plans to assist all of nature thrive.

Another issue is that the sorts of information examined, such as the number of species at a location or the types of species there, and the measurements made may not necessarily convey the same narrative. Given that short-term reporting may not reflect long-term trends, especially in insects whose populations can adapt extremely fast to their environment, deciding which historical baselines to evaluate changes against is equally critical.This high variability of insect populations means we need gold-standard data to distinguish between long-term trends and normal year-to-year variation.

To be clear, while most scientists are worried about insect losses, they will also caution against the increasingly popular exaggeration of imminent catastrophe. Instead, we should concentrate our efforts on ensuring that the steps we take to address the climate catastrophe also promote biodiversity. Given the present focus in the UK on tree planting and expanding forests, the fact that moth reductions are worse in woodlands is worrying.

Our appreciation of green spaces together with government commitments for nature recovery are cause for optimism.There are several instances of how careful site management and restoration may greatly increase biodiversity, but we must do it across a much larger area of the landscape. Butterflies have been successfully introduced to the Cotswolds and Rockingham Forest. We know how to manage environments for many species to ensure their survival. And that, of course, may mean more insects splattered on car windscreens.

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