Entomologists warn of “ecological apocalypse”

Recent Research, published in the journal PLOS ONE, shows a 76 per cent decline in the flying insect population of Germany over a period of just 27 years. Concerns over drastically falling insect levels have been held by many for years, but this new research has fuelled worries that pesticide use, once presumed to be safe, could actually be having catastrophic effects.

Since 1989, amateur entomologists have captured over 1500 samples of flying insects in 63 different nature reserves across Germany. The data was collected in a highly standardised way, using malaise traps, which consist of a large tent that funnels insects into a cylindrical trap at the top. On top of the seasonal decrease of 76 per cent, researchers also recorded a mid-summer decline of up to 82 per cent.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Even though the data was collected in Germany, some scientists and pesticide skeptics believe that the findings give a good estimate for insect populations throughout the world, particularly in comparable agricultural areas. As this is by far the most extensive study of its kind currently available, there is little choice but to assume global populations have taken a similar hit. Indeed, the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS) carried out in 2016 found that 40 out of the 57 species studied were in decline, with the heath fritillary (Melitaea athalia) , a species native to southern England, down 82 per cent in the last decade.

A separate study, carried out in Regensburg, Bavaria by scientists from the Technical University of Munich and the Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, has reported a drop in the number of recorded butterfly and Burnet moth species from 117 in 1840 to just 71 in 2013. The director of the Senckenberg Entomological Institute, Thomas Schmitt, said, “Our study reveals, through one detailed example, that even official protection status can’t really prevent dramatic species loss.”

Another study, published by the Zoological Society of London in 2012, found that many insect populations were in decline worldwide and that this was likely to affect pollination and thus limit food sources for other animals.

Butterfly species Melitaea Athalia native to Southern England. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Although weather variation may explain some of the fluctuations from year to year, it seems evident that the overall decline may be due to anthropological factors. A member of the team that worked on the study, Professor Dave Goulson of Sussex University, has said that “Farmland has very little to offer for any wild creature”, thus this decrease appears to go hand in hand with agricultural expansion. However, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact causes of the deterioration; Goulson suggests a lack of suitable food along with the use of pesticides as the two major factors affecting flying insect populations.

These revelations follow recent claims by one of the UK government’s leading scientific advisors, Professor Ian Boyd, that the systematic and poorly regulated use of pesticides is having a detrimental effect on wildlife in Britain and across the globe. Comparing the monitoring of pesticides with that of pharmaceuticals, Boyd said “Vigilance on the scale that is required for medicines does not exist to assess the effects of pesticides in the environment”. He has called for governments to drastically increase monitoring of longer term pesticide effects, stating that with the current regulations the effects of large-scale pesticide use cannot be understood until it is too late.

Boyd’s comments have proven the subject of debate as it is widely believed that pesticides are essential in order to feed our ever-increasing population. However, this argument has been countered by a report presented to the UN Human Rights Council in February, which called the idea that pesticide use is necessary to feed the world a “myth” and stated that the use of pesticides has “catastrophic impacts on the environment, human health and society as a whole”.Despite this, the huge economic influence of the pesticide industry has led to little progress for those campaigning for tighter legislation on pesticide use.

Paradoxically, insects can be hugely important to agriculture. Their integral role in pollination is widely known and well-documented. This sudden plummet in flying insect populations may prevent damage to crops from pests, but also vastly decreases their chances of being fertilised in the first place. It is clear that unless this problem is addressed immediately, the ramifications for future generations could be disastrous.

One thing that can be agreed upon is that further research needs to be done to fully explain these shocking results and quantify the situation in other areas of the world. The samples from this study have been preserved for further analysis and there are calls for more research to be undertaken urgently. Although research is ongoing, many believe that action must be taken as soon as possible in order to prevent irreversible damage to the futures of both the insect population and our own.

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