It has been hard to escape media reports of plummeting insect populations over recent years (so-called ‘insect Armageddon’). Of course, the picture is far more uncertain and nuanced than newspaper headlines suggest (shocker!). Nonetheless, there is solid evidence of worrying long-term declines in insect numbers for some parts of the world. This is extremely concerning, not least because insects are the glue that holds the natural world together.
For biodiversity loss globally, conservation groups have traditionally recognised five key threats: habitat change (ranging from its complete removal through to more subtle degradation effects), species overexploitation (fishing, hunting), invasive species and diseases, climate change, and pollution (which usually refers to chemicals, including pesticides and fertiliser).
But as often turns out to be the case, reality can be more complicated (or even quite different) to long-held conventional wisdom. Some potential causes of wildlife declines appear to have been overlooked historically, or at least, their impacts have gone largely unstudied.
One of these neglected areas is undoubtedly the consequences of the surge in artificial lighting.
Widespread extinctions and rapidly diminishing populations are probably what comes to mind when most of us think about the nature of biodiversity change in the 21st century.
This is not surprising. The influence of modern humans on the planet is vast. The growing demand for food, timber, and fuel increasingly erodes and degrades once pristine habitats. Decades of greenhouse gas emissions are causing global temperatures to steadily rise. Catastrophic weather events that used to be once-in-a-generation are becoming the new norm. The magnitude and rate of these changes have even led some scientists to propose a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.
It is only to be expected that these accelerating impacts will be mirrored by plunging biodiversity trends. Some have estimated that species are being lost at more than one hundred times the natural rate. We may even be in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event.
But despite all this, the response of wildlife to human pressures is by no means universally negative.
This blog post is based on the introduction of an article I penned in September 2018for Atropos, an excellent magazine for British Lepidoptera and Odonata enthusiasts. It was published in issue 62 (2018).
Very hungry caterpillars
A caterpillar munching on a leaf is probably what comes to mind when most people picture the early life stages of butterflies and moths. But if Eric Carle’s classic is to be believed, caterpillars have a much more varied palette. It is certainly true that many species shun the conventional diet of leafy greens, even if lepidopterans that enjoy a diet of chocolate cake and Swiss cheese are confined to children’s storybooks.
Chimney Sweeper, Maiden’s Blush, Peach Blossom. British moths have some fantastic English names. There’s also the Drinker, the Conformist, the Sprawler, the Phoenix, and the Saxon.
Such enchanting names are at the root of the ever-growing popularity of moth trapping. They capture our imagination and stick in our minds. Who wouldn’t be fascinated by creatures with names like Brindled Beauty, Plumed Prominent, Feathered Footman, or Marbled Minor?
But not all are blessed with a common name. The majority of British Lepidoptera are known only by their scientific denomination. Many of these don’t exactly roll off the tongue (try Schrekensteinia festaliella or Ptycholomoides aeriferanus). Some are even longer than the insect itself. So why do so many species lack an English name? Is this something we should rush to rectify?
Why do we do it? It consumes countless hours of our lives. It must cost millions. Every hedge neatly trimmed, every verge carefully mown, every ‘weed’ meticulously eradicated. Obsessive Tidiness Disorder (OTD) is everywhere – and it’s choking our wildlife.
Serendipity plays a pretty important role in scientific advances. It was involved in the discovery of penicillin, microwaves and x-rays. And now, it seems a bunch of old moth scales can be added to that list.
Scientists drilling cores from lake sediments in Germany – hoping to learn about past ecosystems from ancient pollen grains – recently stumbled across a profusion of tiny scales from moth wings. This is significant as the sediments are a whopping 200 million years old, making it the earliest appearance of moths and butterflies in the fossil record.
Widely-reported research has led some to suggest we are “on course for ecological Armageddon”. Behind these headlines: an analysis of a German dataset spanning nearly three decades, which detected a 76 percent plummet in biomass of flying insects. So is now the time to build our apocalypse bunkers?
Insects play a unique role across terrestrial habitats. They are integral to most food chains and provide vital services, such as pollination. Their sensitivity to environmental change makes them the ‘canary in the coal mine’.
If the research findings from Germany are indicative of the health of insect populations globally, the implications for ecosystems and human wellbeing are likely to be catastrophic.
Phew! After a couple of days battling with PHP and trawling through CSS code, I have finally added a blog to my website. Please let me know if you spot any awry formatting or if something doesn’t work as it should!
I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to use this space yet but do check back – I’ll try to post something once every month or two.
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