Bees, moths, butterflies and even dung beetles – creatures essential for the functioning of a healthy environment – are being wiped out by mankind. What is being described as the “largest extinction event on Earth” for millions of years also threatens our own future, say conservationists. The intensification of farming and use of pesticides threatens the very creatures that pollinate the crops we eat.
Scientists are making their doomsday prediction after reviewing 73 historical reports of insects around the world, including studies in the United Kingdom.
The new report warns that unfussy and pollutant-tolerant insects are replacing a vast diversity of specialist species, with four major drivers behind a decline that could see four out of ten species vanishing in coming decades as habitat loss through land conversion to agriculture, agri-chemical pollutants, invasive species and climate change conspire to imperil some of the most numerous creatures on the planet.
Researchers Francisco Sanchez-Bayo and Kris Wyckhuys, whose study appears in the journal Biological Conservation, warn: “The conclusion is clear: unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades.
“The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least, as insects are at the structural and functional base of many of the world’s ecosystems since their rise at the end of the Devonian period, almost 400 million years ago.”
Insects make up half of all life forms on earth and form the bedrock of food chains and the planet’s life-systems. From blood-filled mosquitos sustaining birds to dung beetles recycling waste into plant nutrients, the humble six-legged creatures’ survival adaptions have allowed them to evolve and flourish until now.
Mark Wright, director of Science, at WWF warns how the edifice is crumbling. He said today: “This is not about a summer without the chirp of crickets – this is about the disappearance of the foundation of life on Earth.
“The collapse of insect numbers is another sign that our planet is in crisis and we need urgent action, on a global scale, to protect nature. Our future depends on it.”
The study’s authors call for habitat restoration, a dramatic reduction in pesticides and changes to agriculture to help insects, such as flower-rich strips planted along the margins of fields, or rotating crops with clover to benefit bumblebees.
Meanwhile, Buglife, the British based charity championing invertebrate conservation, said habitat fragmentation, agricultural intensification, pesticides, climate change and disease are not self-standing threats but interact, making it difficult to identify the “top issue”.
The charity warns some factors may be under reported such as light pollution and electromagnetic radiation.
There is also ample evidence of declines in temperate regions driven by a combination of climate change and habitat fragmentation.
Buglife, along with other conservation groups, is urging Environment Secretary Michael Gove to take a stance on pesticide testing that would ensure they do not harm bees.
Its chief executive Matt Shardlow, commenting on the study, said: “It is gravely sobering to see this collation of evidence that demonstrates the pitiful state of the world’s insect populations.
“It’s not just about bees, or even about pollination and feeding ourselves, the declines also include dung beetles that recycle waste and insects like dragonflies that start life in rivers and ponds.
“It is becoming increasingly obvious our planet’s ecology is breaking and there is a need for an intense and global effort to halt and reverse these dreadful trends – allowing the slow eradication of insect life to continue is not a rational option.
“Insects make up over half the species on Earth, the planet’s health depends on them, so it is very worrying that insect life is disappearing much faster than the more obvious birds and mammals – the local extinction rate for insects is eight times higher.
“There is not a single cause, but the evidence is clear, to halt this crisis we must urgently reverse habitat fragmentation, prevent and mitigate climate change, clean-up polluted waters and replace pesticide dependency with more sustainable, ecologically-sensitive farming.”