Emily Kimison, Kylee Jones and Cassandra Ray
We need your help now more than ever. The world around us is constantly changing. What was once roaming fields full of flora and fauna are now parking lots and buildings. Not only is our landscape changing, but so are the animals within the ecosystem. This is a threat to biodiversity. Biodiversity is the diversity of living species (fungi, plants, animals and bacteria) within a given region. With more biodiversity, there are more niches available (the roles an organism can play), which stabilizes the ecosystem.
The ecosystem consists of a delicate balance between all living organisms. Differences that may seem miniscule to us can have enormous impacts on the environment. Take the disappearance of insects. “In 2019, Biological Conservation reported that 40% of all insect species are declining globally and that a third of them are currently endangered” (Hance 2019). When you consider that there are over 900,000 individual insect species known, that is a lot of biodiversity on the line.
Insects are a fundamental part of the food web. They are eaten by many different animals and plants and make up a large portion of that diet. If you take away a fundamental and highly interconnected piece of the food web, it will have dramatic effects on all other living things within it. For example, the Canada Goose will eat small insects, and is in turn eaten by coyotes. Insect populations decreasing will provide less food for geese, which in turn can affect the number of geese available for coyotes to consume.
But why are insects so important really? Insects also directly impact environmental processes and human activity, which are altered by decline as well. Both birds (animals that heavily rely on insects as a food source) and insects aid directly with pest control, public health, seed dispersal, ecotourism and environmental monitoring (Audubon 2016).
Insects are a large component of the food web as prey for many other animals and even plants like the Venus Flytrap. Many kinds of insects, such as bees, flies, moths and beetles, are also pollinators. Pollination is a very important for creating offspring in plants. About 90% of all the wild flowering plants in the world and about 75% of all the world’s crops rely on insects for pollination. Without pollination, there wouldn’t be many important crops like cotton and cacao for human use, and the biodiversity of plants on Earth would rapidly decline due to them being unable to reproduce. Insects are also decomposers and detritivores, which means that they break down dead organisms and plant material. This allows nutrients to be reused by other organisms in the food web. Insects provide pest control too. For example, larval Syrphid Flies prey on aphids, which are plant pests that often decimate crops. Surprisingly, many insects, like ants, also help plants disperse seeds by carrying them to new places. A really important aspect of insects is their contribution to ecotourism. They provide food for many ecosystems that people travel to visit, and also have attractions on their own. One example is the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, where millions of Monarch Butterflies spend the winter after migration that people travel to see, which has a large economic impact on the region. All this is to say that the massive reduction in the insect population will have a massively disproportionate effect on ecosystems as a whole
So why exactly is this great insect die-off happening? A large part of it are human-driven changes to the natural world. According to Oliver Milman, the three main reasons why the great insect die off is occurring is due to habitat loss, pesticides and climate change. In summary, humans are the major factor contributing to the extinction of insect species. Despite our species being the acceleration of an extinction event, there are steps that we can take to try to fix the problem.
Something we have long neglected is paying attention to what species we introduce to the environment. We need to make sure that we are only releasing native species into the environment so that they do not outcompete pre-existing organisms. On the flip side, currently established pollinator-friendly plants should be left to grow (or at least left for a longer period of time). This could include dandelions which are one of the first food sources for bees after a long winter. There are also many internet lists of pollinator friendly and non-invasive species that you can plant to help make an area more suitable. While on the subject of gardening, we can reduce our use of pesticides and insecticides. Instead, we should invest in biopesticides that target specific larvae or genetically modified plants that are already resistant. For soil, we can be more mindful in what we throw away and make compost for insects that take part in nutrient cycling. Finally, one of the simplest ways we can help insects is by catch and release. The next time you see an insect in your home and think about squishing it: take a deep breath, catch it in a container, and release them back outdoors.
- “10 Reasons to Be Thankful for Birds.” Audubon, Audubon, 13 Apr. 2016. https://www.audubon.org/news/10-reasons-be-thankful-birds
- Hance, Jeremy. “The Great Insect Dying: How to Save Insects and Ourselves.” Mongabay, Mongabay News, 13 June 2019. https://news.mongabay.com/2019/06/the-great-insect-dying-how-to-save-insects-and-ourselves/
- Hood, Marlowe. “World Seeing ‘Catastrophic Collapse’ of Insects: Study.” Phys.org, Phys.org, 11 Feb. 2019. https://phys.org/news/2019-02-world-catastrophic-collapse-insects.html
- Mayer, Peter, and Sarah Banda-Genchev. “Pollinators Vital to Our Food Supply under Threat.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2022. https://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/384726/icode/
- Milman, Oliver. “The World’s Insect Population Is in Decline – and That’s Bad News for Humans.” NPR, NPR, 24 Feb. 2022. https://www.npr.org/transcripts/1082752634
- Sánchez-Bayo, Francisco, and Kris A.G. Wyckhuys. “Worldwide Decline of the Entomofauna: A Review of Its Drivers.” Biological Conservation, vol. 232, 2019, pp. 8–27. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2019.01.020
- Schuh, Marissa. “Syrphid Flies.” UMN Extension, University of Minnesota, 2022. https://extension.umn.edu/beneficial-insects/syrphid-flies
- Wambugu, Daniel Maina. “How Many Species of Insects Are There?” WorldAtlas, WorldAtlas, 27 Nov. 2018. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/how-many-species-of-insects-are-there.html