Global wildlife populations have plummeted by 69% on average since 1970.
Flying insects numbers have plunged 64% since 2004.
‘A landmark United Nations finding in 2019 outlined how 1 million species across the animal kingdom are facing extinction in the coming decades. Half of these lost species will be insects.’
Our apathy to these headline figures lies at the heart of ‘The Insect Crisis’ by Guardian journalist Oliver Milman. And although the book came out in early 2022 and was shocking then, more information on global species decline continues as 2022 comes to an end. With COP15- the biodiversity conference being held in Montreal- finishing with no real progress from targets set almost a decade ago, Milman’s message deserves to be repeated.
‘The next few days couldn’t be more significant in laying the foundations to avoid what is potentially a mass extinction event.’ Was the warning from the Chair of Natural England, Tony Juniper, who emphasised the critical nature of the once in a decade opportunity to set global ambitious targets at COP15 to protect and potentially reverse the catastrophic and relentless attack on nature.
Milman makes the point early in ‘The Insect Crisis’ that, ‘The public’s awakening to the insect crisis has come in waves and is far from complete’ and acknowledges that ‘The alarm over insect declines has rung intermittently for some time, if not quite so loudly as now.’ The interconnected web between human survival and insect life thriving on Earth is repeatedly made by Milman, with the argument made that insect loss, although drastic, would not wipe out insects, but instead be more of a human emergency. Humans are not innocent bystanders- we are the guilty parties in our own demise. ‘Through the destruction of insects’ habitats, the spraying of toxic chemicals, and increasingly, the heating up of the planet, we have unwittingly crafted a sort of hellscape for many insects, emperiling all we rely upon them for.’
Milman also highlights the global inequalities of the biodiversity crisis that are similar to the global inequalities of the climate crisis and points out that hundreds of millions of people who are already malnourished before the crisis and which are already being felt. ‘But for the majority of humanity, the loss of insects would be an agonizing ordeal eclipsing any war and even rivalling the looming ravages of climate breakdown.’ He continues, ‘The question of how long human civilization would withstand the loss of insects is both hideous and unfathomable.’
Milman closes a hard-hitting first chapter by highlighting the level of inaction and indifference regarding the biodiversity crisis and quotes Brad Lister. ‘We are looking at a global collapse of insects and we have yet to sense the urgency of what that means for us.’
‘A sense of disquiet’
Milman continues in Chapter 2 to emphasis the consequences of a world without insects by quoting several scientific experts. “The consequences are clear; if insect declines are not halted, terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems will collapse, with profound consequences for human wellbeing”- Dave Goulson. “I can’t imagine how a world without many insects would look like but I don’t want to see it”- Sebastian Seibold.
He uses academic papers to demonstrate that ‘Insects that pollinate crops are vital to our food security, yet “substantial concern exists over their current and future conservation status”’. Though there do exist issues with the scientific approach, as Milman chronicles the dangers of scientific rectitude, where messaging and a narrative compared with actual events can make the public feel that the issue is less important. ‘If we are primed to brace ourselves for a certain adverse impact, a lesser blow can feel like an acceptable rate.’ He warns that the shifting baseline syndrome, with its gradual shift of accepted norms, can make comparisons between decades and years difficult. Despite this, the public unconsciously realise that all is not as it was, through anecdotal evidence of insects on windshields. ‘There are still sparks of understanding, a sense of disquiet that windshields are clearer now, that outdoor lights aren’t swarmed as often, that those skimmed headlines about bees probably don’t bode well.’
This sense of disquiet is matched with the research indicating that, ‘British butterfly numbers have nearly halved in the past fifty years.’ And that in other locations such as the US, ‘the abundance of four species of bumblebee has plummeted by as much as 96 percent in recent decades, with the bees’ geographic ranges shrinking by nearly 80 percent.’
The Windshield test- “Zero Insect Days”
We know there is a problem with insect decline, but we didn’t have the visual imagery to connect with biodiversity loss until the evidence completed by Anders Pape Møller, revealing that the number of insects on windshields, represented ‘dramatic declines.’ ‘The lack of bugs on cars windshields is becoming the accessible emblem of insect decline, much the way dejected polar bears are now a sort of shorthand for the climate crisis.’ 2022 was the year when repeated news stories on fewer dead insects on windshield began to cut through with the public, as anecdotally, they could observe this for themselves. Milman also points out that eco-systems are fragile inter-connected systems, where food chains are more precariously balanced than humans choose to acknowledge. ‘In other words, as the insects vanished, so did the birds, probably due to a lack of food. The local eco-system had been hollowed out, from its base upward.’
The cause of the crisis
In a word- humans. But oddly, humans can also be the saviours of the situation and their own endangerment. Milman reveals that, ‘Insects have been devasted by the way we’ve altered the world around us, physically but also chemically. The battery of pesticides now routinely applied to our landscapes has created a toxic miasma for insects that scientists have only recently begun to quantify.’ Big agriculture and the chemical industry come under scrutiny from Milman, as he delves into the ‘peak of the pesticide’ and the narrative that has been created that insects are pests and are there simply to be eliminated, with neonicotinoids being especially harmful. ‘Over the past century, however it has been the chemical industry that has shaped a whole new arsenal of deadly weapons against invaders that nibble away or choke crops.’ He draws on Brazil where, ‘around 500 million bees died in just a few months, the piles of dead bodies riddled with fipronil, an insecticide banned by the European Union’.
He further notes that habitat spaces have been destroyed, leaving insects with ‘nowhere to go’, where ‘half of all hedgerows, key habitats for pollinators and insect predators of crop pests, have disappeared in just a few generations.’
‘More than a billion animals perished in the fires’
MIlman then draws the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis together, explaining that rising temperatures impact the delicate eco-systems where insects thrive. as ‘Rising temperatures are pummeling monarchs everywhere.’ The climate crisis then acts as a threat multiplier for insects.
He acknowledges with sadness the horrific loss of animal life in the recent Australian fires- fires which have been largely forgotten by western Europe. The scale of insect life means that it can be difficult for humans to grasp the numbers involved as Milman explains, ‘Insects’ huge numbers make them appear both inconspicuous yet omnipresent.’ He also draws out the significant global impact of the loss of insect life and makes the comparison that although the loss of one endangered species, like the rhinoceros may be tragic, this is dwarfed by the growing silence from the insect world. ‘In terms of impact, the insect crisis drowns out any other alarm bells in the domain of animals.’
Despite all of this, Milman is at pains to offer hope and practical solutions. He argues, in tandem with the experts, that allowing nature a chance, as observed during the global pandemic, can create the gaps, for biodiversity to bounce back. ‘Butterflies, like other insects, are being assailed by a barrage of threats. But if we give them just a few gasps of breathing space, even those most delicate, fragile-seeming species can find a way to make it.’
Bees and Butterflies
Milman then heads into his conclusion with a detailed and forensic analysis of the loss of two of the most recognisable symbols of biodiversity loss- bees and butterflies. He quotes Henri Clement, “If we lose the bees, we lose fruits, vegetables, even grains. And without those, we begin to lose birds, mammals and so on. Bees are a cornerstone of diversity.” And highlights the colony losses, especially in the US in the season 2018-2019 where ‘around 50 billion bees were wiped out in just a few chilly months.’ The point is made that multiple simultaneous threats are narrowing the chances for insects to recover. ‘There are so many intertwined threats facing insects that there is no simple escape for them.’
A human emergency
How to finish a detailed book on the demise of many insect species and biodiversity was always going to be a difficult task, especially with new reports emerging regularly noting the loss of yet more species and a future world filled not with the hum of bees and the noise of insects, but with an empty silence. Milman makes final pleas to his readers that attention must be brought to this topic and urgent action taken- ‘We need them far more than they need us. The insect crisis is, from our self-interested point of view, a human emergency.’ He urges that we can take actions to mitigate and potentially rebuild insect colonies and the natural world, while warning that this is a problem of our own making- that we have been the actors in our threatened environment. ‘By flattening and poisoning our landscapes, altering the chemical composition of our atmosphere, and creating biological deserts in the pursuit of progress and aestheticism, we are conducting a high-stakes experiment with hideous risks.’
Although, this book is almost a year old now, the media silence surrounding the recent COP15 is thunderous. Without information about biodiversity loss being a dominant news story, the public cannot be fully informed about the size of the issue, nor about what actions they can take to make their lives more connected with nature. At the same time, the information is available for people who search for it. To quote the legal sector, ‘Ignorance is not a defence.’ As we witness the lacklustre response to the clear and present danger of the climate crisis, I for one, am not convinced, yet, that the public have recognised the urgency or pressing nature of the crisis.
If we wait until the skies become silent, it will be too late.
“We are at the beginning of a major extinction level event. Things are just going to get worse if humanity chooses to do nothing differently.”