Insect Armageddon: how modern life is killing man’s essential friend

In the UK, people are being asked to count butterflies. Gregory Bull / AP
In the UK, people are being asked to count butterflies. Gregory Bull / AP

Here is this year’s most unpopular cause: insects. I suspect, if you think of insects at all, you will be absolutely sure you have enough of them in your life. What is there to like about those six-legged little beasts, which can bite at one end, sting at the other and are generally regarded as pests? None of us want them near our bodies, in our homes, cars, or (worst of all) anywhere near our food.

But something a friend said to me this summer made me think again about insects. Did I remember, he said, my parents driving their car and complaining about the number of bugs squished on the windscreen or the front of the bonnet?

Of course I did. I also remember helping my father clean off the mess.

Well, said my friend, where have all the bugs gone?

And he was right. Over the past few years when driving on the roads of Europe, I occasionally do hit a few flies and moths but it’s nothing compared to the carnage on the windscreens of my childhood.

This month in Britain we are being encouraged to take part in an insect survey called the Big Butterfly Count – butterflies being the most beautiful of our flying insects.

They appear to be in significant decline. The British naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham commented on the absence of insects in the trees of the New Forest where he lives.

He said he had not seen a single butterfly in his garden and the bugs that, on summer evenings, used to come into his bedroom – moths and craneflies – were also scarcer than ever before.

“Our generation is presiding over an ecological apocalypse and we’ve somehow or other normalised it,” he said.

Bug statistics are tricky because humans have a great aptitude for counting things we think are important and not bothering to count stuff we do not care about.

For most of us, insects have tended to fall into the latter category.

But in the case of butterflies, scientists speak of numbers more of less having halved among Britain’s most common species over the past 40 years.

Intense periods of drought, such as in 1976 or 1995, have made matters worse.

And this year Europe is experiencing some of the hottest and driest weather for years. Other studies suggest European butterfly populations are in what some scientists call a “horrific decline” and others portray as “insect Armageddon”.

Pollution and a loss of habitat are being blamed but a more important factor – at least, according to scientific researchers – is intensive farming methods and pesticide use. Insects are considered pests. Powerful pesticides known as neonicotinoids, or neonics, are for some the prime suspect.

Neonics are effective killers but they do not discriminate between insects we do not want near our crops and those without whom we would not have any crops at all.

Bees, for example, and other vital pollinators appear to be badly affected by exposure to neonics.


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The European Union restricted the use of these pesticides a few years ago, despite protests from the farming lobby.

But in the US, the Trump administration has overturned the ban in national wildlife refuges.

A spokesman for the US Fish and Wildlife Service said this was necessary to “fulfil needed farming practices”, a bizarre contradiction to the very idea of “wildlife refuges”.

The environmental movement worldwide has been inspired by many campaigners but perhaps the most notable was the American writer Rachel Carson.

In 1962, she published an extraordinary book entitled Silent Spring, which outlined the damaging effects of pesticides on other animals, including birds.

The idea of no birdsong is horrific to most people. The idea of no insects is not as immediately alarming but after a few seconds’ thought, it is obvious that whatever their role as our least favourite species, in a world without insects, humanity is doomed.

A third of the world’s crops, including most fruits, rely on insect pollination.

Insects also play a key role in digesting dead and decaying animal and plant material, as well providing food for birds and other species.

It is debatable whether insects will ever feature on any list of favourite creatures but they are indispensable neighbours. Literally indispensable.

If every last bug were to be killed off, it is difficult to see how humans could long outlast them.

The European Union is considering a total ban on neonics by the end of this year.

In some countries and even in some gardens, more and more land is being set aside for unkempt weed-filled areas to thrive without human cultivation in the hope that our friendly enemies, the bugs, might return.

Animal life is wonderfully resilient and anything is possible, especially with scientists sounding the alarm.

Profits and good harvests for farmers are most certainly important to all of us. But short-term quick cash is worthless in a degraded planet with few pollinators and nothing to harvest.

Even bugs have their place, even if it is not buzzing around our bedrooms late at night.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter

Published: August 13, 2018 06:51 PM


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