The insect crisis
WW Norton & Co., $27.95
Imagine a world without insects. You might breathe a sigh of relief at the thought of mosquito-free summers, or you might worry about how pollinator-free agriculture will work. What you probably won’t imagine is trudging through a landscape littered with excrement and rotting corpses – what a world without maggots and dung beetles would look like.
This is just a snippet of the terrifying picture of a bug-free future that journalist Oliver Milman paints at the start of The insect crisis. “The loss of insects would be an excruciating ordeal eclipsing any war and even rivaling the impending ravages of climate breakdown,” he writes. And yet, the threat of an impending “insect apocalypse” doesn’t receive nearly the same level of attention as climate change.
Researchers have been observing declines in insect populations for decades. For example, a study of nearly 40 years of data from a protected rainforest in Puerto Rico found that insect biomass had declined by 98% on the ground and 80% in the canopy since the mid-1970s.
The threats insects face are many: light pollution, increasing use of pesticides, and climate change are just a few (SN: 08/31/21; SN: 08/17/16; SN: 09/07/15). And it’s not just rare species that are under threat, it’s also species that were once common around the world.
The reality of the crisis is not as ominous as Milman initially suggests. A world without insects is unlikely, he acknowledges. Studies have shown that while some species are in decline, others, such as freshwater insects, are doing well (SN: 04/23/20). Rather than viewing the insect crisis as all insect populations on a downward trending line on a graph, Milman suggests imagining many different lines – some steady, some sloping up or down. and others in zigzag. “Insects are moved to an unhappy state where there will be far more bed bugs and mosquitoes and far fewer bumblebees and monarch butterflies,” he wrote.
These changes in biodiversity have consequences. Farmers may have to fend off more pests that attack soybeans, for example, and insect-pollinated fruits and vegetables will become difficult to grow on a large scale. Some insectivorous animals will decline as their food runs out, which has happened to some birds before (SN: 7/11/14), or even disappear. Water and soil quality could also be threatened.
Milman investigates the crisis by sharing his own adventures with insects, as well as those of researchers, taking readers from the United States to Mexico, across the Atlantic to Europe and all the way to Australia. By sharing the stories of scientists, he personalizes the fate of insects. There’s a researcher in Denmark who spent 25 years studying bug populations by driving his old Ford Anglia down the same country roads and counting the number of bugs smashed against the windshield. In his early days, he had to regularly clean the insect guts of his car. But in recent years it has had many “zero bug days”. Reading this, I struggled to remember the last time I had to scrape dead bugs from my car. Another researcher remembers the joy of catching fireflies on his family ranch in Texas as a child. I felt a wave of sadness thinking about the fact that I didn’t see as many fireflies as when I was a child. With more streetlights and the switch to LED bulbs, it is becoming increasingly difficult for fireflies to spot potential mates.
Amid misfortune and sadness, the book still manages to spark awe and delight with fun insect facts. The wings of bumblebees, for example, vibrate so fast that they can produce gravitational forces of up to 50g, five times more than what fighter pilots experience. Milman also offers hope, sharing how some insects adapt to threats and how some people fight to protect the creatures through political campaigns and changing farming habits.
By the end of the book, readers can see that their attitude towards certain insects has changed from reluctance to love, or at the very least, to appreciation. (I, for one, never cared much about flies – until I learned that we wouldn’t have chocolate without them.) Milman makes it clear how much we benefit from insects and what we risk to lose without them. As one researcher put it, our deeply-woven addiction to bugs is like the internet: when parts of the network are taken down, the less internet there is, “until it eventually stops working.”
A world without the internet would be difficult but livable. The same cannot be said for a world without insects.
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