What You Can Do About Insect and Pollinator Decline and Extinction

Insects are in trouble. You’re a force of nature. Use it for good.

By Andrew Burnett - 6 Min Read

Have you ever watched The Road starring Viggo Mortensen? John Hillcoat directed the movie, based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name. McCarthy set his narrative in a bleak and brutal post-apocalyptic world. I do not want to highlight the plot. Rather, I want to focus on the setting. For an unspecified reason, Earth is grey and dying. The ecosystems we rely on have utterly collapsed. Survivors scavenge for scraps of food. Humanity's worst impulses reign amid severe and chronic scarcity.

Stay with me for a second. By mass, insects are the most abundant animals on Earth (class Insecta, we are class Mammalia). If you put all insects into a single mass, they would outweigh humanity by a factor of 17. In addition to being abundant, they are also diverse— there could be as many as 30 million species–approximately 80 percent of the world's species. Insects play a foundational role in ecosystems. There are 20,000 known species of bees alone. Bees pollinate blossoms, which enables plants to fruit. Ants, termites and beetles decompose and recycle the nutrients of dead organisms. Most foundational of all, insects are the bottom of the food chain. Without them the whole house crumbles.

A series of recent peer-reviewed studies, including a review of the scientific literature on insect populations published in the last forty years, concluded that biomass (the weight of all insects on Earth) is dropping by about 2.5 percent every year. The global scientific review, published in Biological Conservation, concluded that diversity is also declining, with 40% of living insects facing near-term extinction. Unless we alter our practices, humanity will drive the foundations of ecosystems to extinction within a few decades. If insects go, plants and animals follow. In short, Earth may begin to resemble the bleak setting of The Road.

A recent, authoritative aggregation of studies (called a meta-analysis) titled Worldwide Decline Of The Entomofauna: A Review Of Its Drivers, outlined four broad factors driving insect loss-

  • Habitat loss from human development, deforestation, and the expansion of agriculture
  • Pollution, particularly via pesticides, fertilizers, and industrial wastes
  • Parasites, pathogens, and invasive species
  • Climate Change

Is this the outcome we choose?

According to the authors, “habitat restoration, coupled with a drastic reduction in agrochemical inputs and agricultural ‘redesign’ is probably the most effective way to stop further declines… Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades”.

"A cheap, functional product that poisons your water supply is horrifically expensive in suffering and lesser human outcomes–even if you’re only counting dollars and cents."

All pretty dispiriting, eh? However, we are all consumers. As such, we make decisions that determine whether farmers raze forests, fill wetlands, or apply an unsustainable amount of pesticides to their crops. The consequences of inaction are too bleak to make purchasing decisions purely based on price. Holistically (and accurately!) assessed, products have many costs in addition to their purchase price. A cheap, functional product that poisons your water supply is horrifically expensive in suffering and lesser human outcomes–even if you’re only counting dollars and cents. Other costs include the function of the ecosystem(s) that produced it, the well-being of laborers, and the chemical compounds in the earth, air, product and, in time, you. All too often, we learn widely used compounds interfere with human health. In short, purchase prices can hide other, graver costs. We can only escape the harm by altering our behavior.

USDA Organic is a legal designation with verification requirements. USDA Organic is subject to audit and inspection. At a minimum, it means Organic operations maintain or enhance soil and water quality, while also conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife. Farmers may not use synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering. This is a concrete step with tangible benefits.

"In biology, few organisms long remain above the degradation of their ecosystem."

Admittedly, our present calls for greater action. We determine what we will pass on and how future generations will remember us. If our nearest-term convenience is paramount, they will judge as we deserve. If we accept and act on scientific consensus and implement solutions toward better human outcomes, future generations will also judge as we deserve. In biology, few organisms long remain above the degradation of their ecosystem.

Let’s end on a hopeful note of action. Some of us are fortunate enough to own a plot of this grand Earth. How we choose to manage that plot affects life–all life–honeybees and humans included. If we apply pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers for the “perfect” lawn, we are part of the problem–manicured lawns are more harmful than a parking lot. If we manage our plots as ecosystems with diverse, local plants, we will provide habitat for insects and other living creatures with whom we share this Earth and it's fate. The Xerces Society makes it easy to make your yard a pollinator’s delight. Where there’s a will…

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