The Insect/Human Apocalypse

© Jessica Hilton

There is a lot of talk about the ‘insect apocalypse’ – in other words the rapid collapse in numbers and species of insect living in our world, driven by humans.

Accelerated declines are thought to be due to record-breaking use of powerful pesticides, habitat loss, climate change and other forms of pollution. Shifting baseline syndrome means that it is easy to forget the relative abundance of insects only a generation or two ago (remember having to clean splatted insects off cars after a long drive?) The moth count in Southern England showed declines of 40% between 1968 and 2007 but this, like other similar declines, is likely to be just a snapshot of a longer trend.

A growing number of experts warn though that the consequences for us will make it as much a human apocalypse as an insect one

As an aside I have always been strangely drawn to depictions of apocalypse (the plagues of Egypt, Z for Zachariah, Coupland novels, and Children of Men). These stories usually point to a single cause of catastrophe, but what we are talking about with the insect apocalypse is a subtle, pernicious and far-reaching catastrophe for humans. The truth is, if humans were made extinct, there would be only a small handful of wild species which would also go extinct, mostly parasites.  If insects became extinct, however, life as we know it would be rapidly unravel.

I recently typed the word ‘insect’ into my phone’s predictive text, and my android helper suggested the next word might be: ‘pest’ ‘control ‘or ‘repellent’. Insects do not inspire feelings of warmth, intrigue or even utility to most people. Butterflies and bees don’t need PR help; the literally myriad unnoticed other species that underpin our life support ecosystem need a bit of profile, however.

ladybird

The usefulness of insects to humans takes many forms, some of which I’ll explore in subsequent blogs. If our refuse collectors stop, we all suffer; in the same way if soil decomposers are harmed by pesticides, soil structure collapses, crops need even more inputs of fertilisers and energy to cope, and erosion is more likely. If the predators and parasites of crop pests are knocked-out by pesticides, their free, sustainable, and highly targeted services are lost (at a cost to us all). The role of pollinators in human survival has been very well communicated; but even ants, which cause mixed reactions, have perfected scavenging our wasteful habits and their flighty offspring form the summer explosions on ‘ant days’ which literally fuel swifts’ and swallows’ return to Africa.

So we ignore insects at our peril. Not just their staggering diversity, which brings stability to our ecosystems and helps them do jobs like storing carbon and holding water; but their sheer abundance –  their economies of scale. Without insects we perish; the flipside is also true in our Anthropocene era: without humans, insects flourish.

  • The series of blog pieces echo themes in the accompanying report: Insect Declines and why they Matter by Dave Goulson.
Stag beetle

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