The bug season is well beyond the coming winter, so it’s safe to write about what wonderful creatures insects are. They do wonderful things for us; pollinate our food crops and flowers, feed the birds, control pests, consume our waste and give us useful things like silk and beeswax.
The most useful thing they are doing now is forecasting the end of life on earth as we know it. They are warning us that we likely are witnessing the earth’s sixth mass extinction.
“Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on Earth [but] there has been some kind of horrific decline,” Dave Goulson, a prominent British biologist was quoted in The Guardian newspaper last month. “We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects, everything is going to collapse.”
That type of talk sounds laughable to anyone who spends time in Haliburton County during May and June. Outside can be a nightmare at that time of year as the blackflies emerge, followed by the mosquitoes, deer flies, horse flies, sand flies, gnats and a variety of No-See-Ums.
Yet even in the land of bug abundance there is speculative evidence that some species are disappearing. Black flies are far less frequent than they were 20 years ago.
If you want to collect evidence of your own, pay attention to your auto windshield next spring. Truckers in developed countries have reported fewer windshield bug splatters in recent years.
Various studies around the world are reporting major declines in insect populations.
One German study conducted over 27 years reported recently that flying insect populations in parts of that country have declined by 75 per cent. The latest State of Nature report by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds suggests that United Kingdom insect populations have declined 59 per cent since 1970.
We don’t give insects much thought because they do not appear to have any purpose except to irritate us. The only bugs that receive much human concern are honey bees and Monarch butterflies.
Also, the pesticide industry is a $50 billion a year business that spreads money around governments and elected officials to receive favourable attention and lessened scrutiny.
Insects make up about 70 per cent of all earth’s animal species. Roughly 80 per cent of all wild plants rely on insects for pollination and 60 per cent of birds rely upon them for food.
Certainly insects can be harmful and destructive. Think emerald ash borer and other nasty bugs that are sickening our forests. Or, malaria and West Nile, diseases that are a curse on humanity.
But we must balance our thinking about bugs. The dangers of insect population declines are serious because bugs are critical to ecosystems that sustain overall life on earth. We need more awareness of the ecological importance of diverse and abundant insect populations.
Back in 1992, a group of 1,700 scientists from around the world issued a warning that humans had pushed ecosystems to the breaking point that could ruin life on the planet.
Now 15,000 scientists from 184 countries have issued a follow-up to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1992 warning.
"Humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse," says the follow-up warning. "Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory."
There is hope, however, that a sixth mass extinction can be prevented. Decisive action on chlorofluorocarbons, the chemicals found in aerosol cans, refrigerators and air conditioners, has shrunk the dangerous hole in the earth’s protective ozone layer.
"The rapid global decline in ozone depleting substances shows that we can make positive change when we act decisively," says the follow-up from the world’s scientists.
We can act decisively by learning more about what is happening in the insect world and how it affects us. Because if the decline of insect populations is a sign that a sixth mass extinction is underway, we need to worry that humanity might be one of the species that does not survive it.