The Insect Apocalypse: Why Entomologists Need Your Help
Scientists are sounding the alarm, warning of plummeting insect populations and apocalyptic outcomes. Where once insects fluttered under street lights and chirped in forest meadows, there is now a distinct feeling of absence. There’s even a name for this feeling: the windshield phenomenon. Research from around the globe is shedding light on what could be a part of Earth’s sixth mass extinction. Are these signs of an insect apocalypse, or is there still much we don’t yet know about the most abundant creature on the planet?
As we explore the insect apocalypse, consider that our current knowledge of insects is a mere fraction of what remains to be discovered. Every day, entomologists are out in the field, discovering new species and studying some of our planet’s most elusive creatures. If you’re interested in a career unraveling the mysteries of insects and their whereabouts, apply to one of the University of Florida’s online entomology and nematology programs.
Sounding the Alarm
Alarm bells started ringing when several high-profile research papers began pointing to declines in insect populations. One of these bombshells dropped in October 2017, when researchers found a 76% decline in insect biomass in Germany over a 27-year period. These results demonstrate that flying insects as a whole are declining, not just vulnerable species such as bees, butterflies and moths. Another research paper, published in 2018, found that since the 1970s, the weight of insects and other arthropods had declined by as much as 60-fold — this time in Puerto Rico. This research also showed declines in insect-eating lizards, frogs and birds, revealing how interconnected and fragile ecosystems can be.
From moths in Great Britain to monarch butterflies in California, researchers have reported startling declines in local insect populations. Unfortunately, insects don’t seem to be faring much better on a global scale. A 2014 study looking at global biodiversity loss found a 45% drop in the abundance of invertebrates over a 40-year period. Researchers concluded that “defaunation is both a pervasive component of the planet’s sixth mass extinction, and also a major driver of global ecological change.”
The Base of the Food Web
Insects play a crucial role in nature as pollinators of flowering plants, redistributors of energy and sources of food for countless animals. What has scientists so concerned is that a decline in insect populations could cause a cascade traveling up the food web, collapsing entire ecosystems. Apex predators like the American alligator may be at the top of the food chain, but where would they be without the insects that feed their young and sustain their prey?
Albert Einstein is famously misquoted as saying, “If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.” Although there’s no evidence that Einstein actually said this, the sentiment certainly holds some truth: a future without bees and other insects would be bleak. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, about 75% of the world’s flowering plants and 35% of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators, including bees, beetles, butterflies, moths and other insects. Without insects, humanity would continue to limp along thanks to wind-pollinated crops, but our forests, rivers, lakes and skies would be as devoid of animal life as any post-apocalyptic landscape.
New Evidence Only Raises More Questions
New evidence paints a more nuanced picture of declining, increasing and fluctuating insect populations. One study reviewed about 5,300 data sets on insects and other arthropods across North America. Over 40 years of data revealed that although some insects did decline or increase in abundance, changes in population sizes were indistinguishable from zero. Another recent study reported similarly mixed results. A meta-analysis, the largest to date, compiling data from 166 long-term surveys from 1,676 sites across the world revealed a 9% decline in land-based insects per decade. However, freshwater insect populations were shown to increase by 11% per decade. The increase in freshwater insects is hopeful, but researchers were quick to point out that freshwater insects could never replace land-based insects.
Return of the Insect Apocalypse
Is it time to cancel the apocalypse? Far from it. The above findings only show that there is a great deal we don’t yet know about insects or what’s causing their populations to decline in certain parts of the world. Insect populations are known to fluctuate. However, insects are also up against a number of challenges brought on by humans, including:
- Habitat destruction
- Harmful chemicals
- Invasive species
Climate change is another concern. The study on insect and arthropod declines in Puerto Rico pointed to climate warming as the driving force behind the collapse of the Luquillo rainforest’s food web. Issues like climate change will only grow as the human population, and its impact on the environment, grows. Comparing things to Armageddon may be a bit premature, but there may one day be an insect apocalypse unless these issues are addressed.
The World Needs Entomologists
Without passionate entomologists monitoring ecosystems, setting up traps and combing over years of data, there’s no telling how little we would know about disappearing insects, and the work of these scientists is far from over. If we’re to get to the bottom of declining insect populations, we need entomologists raising awareness of anthropogenic impacts on the environment, monitoring insect populations and protecting our planet’s pollinators and decomposers. We also need integrated pest managers able to control pest populations without relying on harmful measures that endanger other arthropods.
Interested in staving off the insect apocalypse? Become an ecologist, biologist, entomologist, research scientist or integrated pest manager by joining one of UF’s online entomology and nematology programs. Whether you pursue a graduate certificate or a master’s degree, our programs can empower you with the knowledge needed to benefit the field of entomology and the world at large. The world needs entomologists with a passion for insects and all manner of six- and eight-legged creatures. Will you be one of them?