Without insects, what happens to planet?

December 19, 2018

Amid the many worries about the fate of the planet, all tied up to changing climate and the future of life, one visible difference that we are just beginning to understand is almost staggering in its implication. Insects are vanishing around the world. The repercussions are immense.

What does it mean, that insects are vanishing? Earlier this month, the New York Times magazine published, “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here,” an article by Brooke Jarvis examining what this reality portends for life on the planet. Insects, after all, are the creatures that help pollinate plants and are at the base of the food chain. What these small samples of life have in common is their abundance. They are everywhere. Or so they were.

In Germany, a study by an entomological study there found that flying insects in German nature reserves had decreased by 75 percent over 27 years.

In the United States, scientists have found that the population of monarch butterflies has declined by 90 percent over the past 20 years. A Puerto Rican rainforest reported a drop in insects of about 75 percent. And so on. Quantifying just how great the population drops are is difficult — in many cases, there are no earlier numbers with which to compare.

But scientists are continuing to examine available data. They find that fish that eat mayflies don’t have as many to eat; birds that dine on insects are suffering because the insects are few and far between; and European birds that once survived on beetles and dragonflies seem to have vanished. That shows the wider implications of a decline in insect populations as the food chain on which larger animals survive begins to crumble.

All of this remains under study, with culprits aplenty being investigated. There is worry over the effects of certain types of pesticides or herbicides, the destruction of habitat and loss of wild places to human interference and, of course, rising global temperatures.

What is understood, though, as Jarvis writes, “What we’re losing is not just the diversity part of biodiversity, but the bio part: life in sheer quantity.”

That loss of biodiversity is known as the sixth extinction, only the sixth such occurrence in world history — an era when species begin disappearing quickly, a calamity prompted by human action rather than spewing volcanoes, asteroids or an ice age.

It seems only right, then, that humans find solutions even as more research is completed about the fate of the insects. There are big actions, the sort nations can take (and that ours is refusing right now) but there also are the types of things states, cities and individuals can do.

People can plant flowers that encourage butterflies or bees to stop by. They can grow plants organically, without chemicals. Governments, rather than leave roadsides and medians bare or covered by concrete or brick, can plant wildflowers and trees.

Like the city of Santa Fe, governments also can avoid pesticides and herbicides that inflict harm — and, yes, that means a lot more pulling weeds by hand.

In Europe, where awareness of this issue is greater, the European Union has extended a ban on certain pesticides altogether. There, farmers can be paid to create insect habitats; that’s something New Mexico could do. We could model such projects, too, at city parks or state public lands. We could be more aware of what is happening around us even as scientists study causes and implications. Time is running out, after all.

Insects pollinate plants. They are the basis for food of many creatures, which then become food for bigger animals. Bugs help decomposition along.

Without them, we face a world without flowers, where bees don’t pollinate plants and bears can’t find berries as a result, and where old leaves do not decompose and return to the soil, helped along by bugs.

The world without insects would be a harsh place in which to live. Their collapse puts all other species at risk.

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