Action for Insects

Photo, Kieron Huston

DWT's CEO, Harry Barton, reflects on the loss of insects globally and why we should care

Seven o’clock on a crisp July morning, the intense sun a strange intrusion in this chilly world of dew and mist.  It’s one of those rare moments when there is no audible sound created by humans.  No distant road rumble, no tractor or lawn mower, no indistinct voices next door or plane cutting through the clear sky above.  It’s then that I hear the hum.  Not the monotonous drone of an electric motor but the soft purring of thousands of bees in the 100 foot lime tree that towers majestically over our garden.   The more I listen the more it is everywhere, like a calm, quiet voice talking sense that eventually gets heard when everyone else has stopped shouting.  Unobtrusive, unspectacular, just an army of small hovering beasts going quietly about its essential work.

A bit like astronomy, insects seem to go hand in hand with unfeasibly large numbers. Making up at least half of all living organisms, there are somewhere between one and ten million on the planet.  Species that is.  In terms of actual numbers of individuals, scientists estimate that there are over ten quintillion in the word at any one time.  That’s 10 with 18 zeros after it by the way.  Which means there are around 1.3 billion insects for every human.

Puss moth caterpillar

Photo, Tom Hibbert

But it’s the diversity of these beasts that really blows the mind.  There are around 20,000 species of insect in the UK – more than 13 times the number of wild plants - but that’s nothing compared to what you might find in the tropics.  One acre of Amazon rainforest is estimated to contain 70,000 insect species, and scientists once found more than 700 species of beetle on a single tree!   But numbers only tell part of the story.  Think about the extraordinary beauty of the damselfly or swallowtail butterfly, the deadly gracefulness of a preying mantis or the sheer terror of some of the bugs that patrol many less familiar tropical habitats, and which have inspired countless monsters in horror films.  Whether it’s colour, appearance or lifecycle, there’s more variety in the insect world than most of us could even imagine.  Little wonder that scientists increasingly look to the insect world for inspiration on subjects that range from disease control to design and engineering.

Perhaps it’s this immensity that is dooming our insects.  There are so many, they seem so ubiquitous, that three quarters of them could vanish and most of us wouldn’t notice.  And disappearing they certainly are - eight times faster than mammals, birds and reptiles, and over 40% are threatened with extinction.   There is evidence of insect biomass decreasing by 2.5% per annum.  That may not sound much, but if we keep on the same trajectory there would be none left a century from now.  And what is particularly striking when reading through the sombre list of insects that are known or thought to be extinct, is the sheer number with no common names.  Much of the time we simply don’t know what we’re losing, let alone how useful these species might be to us.

Common cockchafer / Maybug, climbing up grass stem

Photo, Nick Upton/2020VISION

There are a lot of reasons why we’re losing our insects, but two stand out.  First, our landscape has changed immeasurably from a century ago.   Half our woodland, hedgerows and wetlands have gone since the 1950s, along with the habitats they provided.   These statistics are all too familiar.  But we’ve also tidied up the landscape, flailing hedges more often, improving fields for agriculture and converting scrubby patches, lawns and village greens to uniform, neat grass monocultures.  There is much less space for insects, and what space remains is less welcoming. 

But it’s not just about habitat.  We are covering the land in chemicals that are poisonous to insects.  We are spraying a wider variety of more toxic substances over a larger area of the landscape than we did 25 years ago, and we’re doing it more often - the average acre of arable land gets more than 17 treatments each year.   And it’s not just farmland.  Look at our lawns.  A healthy lawn at this time of year has species like plantain, buttercup, daisy and self-heal adding colour and texture.  It has areas of longer grass too, perhaps left uncut until late July.  But the new world of sit on mowers and lawn dressing has created a uniform sea of intense green that is as little use to an insect as a sterilised tank of chlorinated water would be to a fish. 

Culm grassland

It’s not too late to turn this around though.  The Wildlife Trusts’ recent report, Reversing the Decline of Insects, contains an uplifting range of examples of where farmers, communities and local authorities have turned the tables on this depressing tide of destruction.  Places like Balerno in Edinburgh and Wadebridge in Cornwall that have created pesticide free zones and stopped all applications on public open space.  Schools Like Charlton Manor Primary in Greenwich, London, that have turned a piece of derelict land into a haven for insects.  And here in Devon, hundreds of farmers in the culm measures that have helped restore over 22,000 hectares of habitat and reduced pesticide use too.

As usual, the great ideas and action are coming from the fringes.  We need to turn these inspiring exceptions into something more mainstream.   Sadly, our government is showing little signs of understanding the ecological crisis we face despite the rhetoric.  Our Prime Minister recently announced his intention to make sweeping changes to the planning system so that new built development will not be held up by “newt counting” (there is very little evidence that it ever has been).  If we’re going to succeed, we have our work cut out.  

But there are people out there listening, and we need to inspire them with our vision and ambition.  We need every town and city to be pesticide free, every farm to be reducing its use of agrochemicals, and every garden to be a place where insects can thrive.  This wouldn’t just help insects, it would save money and make our living spaces healthier.  As customers we have to pay for the millions of pounds that water companies spend annually removing pesticides from drinking water, and there is good evidence that farmers could halve the amount of pesticide they use with no impact on food production.

Wildflower verge with houses in the background

Photo, Katrina Martin / 2020VISION

So here’s some things we can do.  We can leave an area of our lawn to grow long and stop using any chemicals in our gardens.  We can talk to our town or parish councils and churches and persuade them to change the management of our local spaces to give insects a chance.  And we can write to our MPs and persuade them to push for a 50% reduction in pesticide use by 2030.  But whatever we do, we need to do it quickly as time is not on our side, and crucial new legislation affecting our environment is expected to be passed this year.

House martin feeding fledglings

Photo, James Rogerson

As the sun goes down it catches a cloud of tiny white flying beasts, too small to identify, that waft around my garden like snowflakes that refuse to land. I don’t know what they are and there are too many to count.  But I can be sure they will be filling some vital function that I don’t understand, and will no doubt be providing a welcome food supply to the house martens flying overhead and the bats that will start to emerge in the next hour. 

Insects are the backbone of our natural world.  We may not like every bug and creepy crawly that we happen to cross paths with, but the creatures in this strange and impossibly vast micro universe have one thing in common.  They make up the workforce that keeps us and our planet running.  For years we’ve been happy to ignore them, exclude them and abuse them.  It’s about time we started to value them.

If you want to be part of The Wildlife Trust’s call to reverse the decline of insects, please sign up to our campaign….