You’d think an apocalypse would rate more than a single appearance in the news cycle but the subject briefly came and went in the magazine section of the New York Times: “The Insect Apocalypse is Here”. In it staff writer Brooke Jarvis reports on a growing number of recent studies documenting a dramatic decline in insects. And then it struck me. Once upon a time a drive in the country would leave our car windshield with a bad case of bug juice acne. In fact it wasn’t unusual to hear an occasional “splat” when a particularly juicy airborne arthropod crossed the road at the wrong time. When was the last time that happened?
Apparently it was this kind of casual observation that piqued the curiosity of some members of a club of bug watchers* in Krefeld, Germany whose unique techniques and compulsive archiving had them systematically measuring the mass of insects in German nature preserves since 1989. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0185809 Using standardized collection methods they were able to document an 80 percent decline in insect mass over 29 years. This quantitative analysis was entirely consistent with their casual observation that in 1989 a liter bottle was needed to hold the insects they collected at the site, while the most recent samplings required only a half liter bottle. It also rang true for other observers who realized that now they ingested fewer bugs than they did several decades ago during bike rides through the Danish countryside.
The recognition of a tremendous decline in insect biomass puts into important context scores of previous carefully documented observations of the decline and extinction of individual species and amplifies the significance of each. Instead of a large and growing number of soloists each singing their own woeful ballad we now have a huge orchestra and chorus singing and playing a single massive tragic symphony in a minor key.
The NYTimes magazine article strikes me as even more consequential than Rachel Carlson’s conservation milestone, Silent Spring. Carlson called attention to the disappearance of iconic species at the top of the food chain – peregrine falcons, eagles, ospreys – while the findings of the Krefeld group relate to species close to the bottom. The disappearance of birds of prey is an aesthetic tragedy. Destruction of the opportunity of ever observing a falcon’s stoop or a fish hawk’s plunge is surely as great a loss for nature-lovers as destruction of Van Gogh’s Starry Night would be for aesthetes. And the cultural damage from the loss of iconic species goes further – eroding the evocative choices of names for athletic teams (think Philadelphia Eagles), automobile brands (think Ford Falcon) and even military weapons (think the Marine helicopter V-22 Osprey).
But insects? Hardly iconic, though they do grace the names of a few athletic teams (think Charlotte’s Hornets). Unlike raptors, however, insects are a critical element in the earth’s entire ecosystem – pollinators of a great many of the plants that feed the herbivores (as well as us humans) and a major direct food source for legions of reptiles, amphibians, birds and freshwater fish.
If the Krefeld study turns out to be the tip of an arthropodal iceberg – if insect biomass worldwide is dramatically dwindling – three questions loom. What is causing it? Does it matter? And, if it matters, what should we do about it?
Possible answers are already being tossed about to the first question: loss of habitat to agricultural monocultures, widespread pesticide use, changing climate, a toxic mix of a variety of pollutants, some combination of all of the above. Answers to the second question are no doubt divided for a variety of reasons. Among the “noes”: “Bugs are a nuisance – the fewer the better.” “I couldn’t care less – there are more important things, like my 401K, to worry about.” “I’m sure human ingenuity will find a way to replace any important function they are performing, if there are any.”
Among the “yesses”: “I’m an alfalfa farmer and my income depends on pollinating insects.” “No birds, no bats, no frogs or toads – life is going to be all plastic toys and video games.” “OMG, of course it matters!! If crop and forage pollination depends on insects, what is going to happen to us??”
Once conventional wisdom finally reaches the conclusion that it matters, what next? By then, there may well be more clarity about causation. But my money is on multiple whammies.
If I’m right and the decline is the result of climate change, widespread insecticide use, a multi-pollutant stew and habitat destruction from monocultural agriculture we are certainly between rocks and hard places or, if one prefers a more literary metaphor, we are faced with the choice of boiling, baking or ficasseeing our children before consuming them. In fact, it is almost as hard to imagine sustaining our present life in a world with less land devoted to agriculture, free of pesticides and without massive fossil fuel consumption as it is to think of the absence of insects and all of the subsequent downstream effects.
One response to this Swiftian dilemma is acceptance of our fate. This problem, like our individual mortality is unsolvable. Therefore make the best of the present moment.
Another is acceptance’s close cousin, denial. Perhaps even more tranquilizing than acceptance, with an identical outcome. But if neither of those choices is appealing, where to start?
First don’t hunt for a silver bullet. We got where we are as a result of uncountable small steps by many many people over many decades. Backtracking is going to be the same. And there is no shortage of where to start. Decline bags when purchasing small items, reduce or end your use of garden pesticides, walk or bike on short trips instead of driving, work to elect enlightened representatives, join another environmental organization, set an example, talk it up etc. etc. and so forth. Meanwhile realize that it is impossible to live one’s life in modern day America without contributing to the headlong rush to destruction in many ways, but by keeping the problem foremost in our minds and taking every opportunity to make one more tolerable favorable action after another we will end up taking two steps backwards – unwinding the problems we’ve caused – for every one we take on our present path towards an apocalypse which may well include a lot more than insects.
Given the importance of the Krefeld study, other confirmatory reports are certain to appear soon and capture a spot in the news cycle. When that happens – and perhaps even before – we can expect professional pushback and disinformation from some predictable corporate players., Pesticide manufacturers, crop dusters, agribusiness, fossil fuel extractors, shippers and refiners and other deep pocketed likely suspects are no doubt already hard at work plotting their response. And there surely will be a segment of the population ready to amplify it.
Recently at a neighborhood association discussion about doing away with two cycle gasoline powered leaf-blowers one community member asked. “What on earth…… What on earth are we going to use to get rid of all those leaves? ” Hmmmm. Somehow only a generation or two ago we got along with a much more modest arsenal of ways to destabilize the entire earth’s balance. Maybe we need to get out of the box we’ve been drawn into and reinvent things like a tool with multiple bamboo tines on the end of a long wooden handle that runs on muscle power.
*If bird watchers now prefer to be called “birders” should we consider people interested in watching insects “buggers”?