Too often denigrated as “creepy crawlies,” insects are essential to life on Earth, supporting everything from pollination to the carbon cycle. Poisoned, starved, robbed of habitat, and hammered by climate change, 1 to 2% of insect species are now being lost each year.
Humans are driving this rapid and frightening loss with a perfect storm of industrialized agriculture, urbanization, and climate change, reports the Associated Press, citing a collection of 12 international papers recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.
In the papers, 56 scientists from around the world describe various aspects of what is being called “the insect apocalypse,” writes AP. The precise shape of this enormous and complex cataclysm remains unclear—an uncertainty that adds to the difficulty of getting bug-averse humans to pay attention.
But pay attention we must, said lead author and University of Connecticut entomologist David Wagner—because insects “are absolutely the fabric by which Mother Nature and the tree of life are built.”
Case in point, he added, are the honeybee and the monarch butterfly. The bees are “in dramatic decline because of disease, parasites, insecticides, herbicides, and lack of food.” The butterfly has been ravaged by the climate crisis, even as it struggles to survive the rapacious business model of American industrial agriculture.
While climate change-driven drought in the western U.S. has decimated the monarch’s only food source, the milkweed plant, bees are likewise going increasingly hungry as agribusiness clears out the weeds and wildflowers they need to survive.
“We’re creating a giant biological desert except for soybeans and corn in a giant area of the [U.S.] Midwest,” Wagner said.
Co-author May Berenbaum, meanwhile, compared today’s insect loss to the state of climate change 30 years ago, with scientists’ ability to accurately calculate the damage not yet meeting the task. Only one-fifth of the world’s insect species have been formally identified by science, and four million species—or more—remain to be discovered.
This knowledge gap is unlikely to be filled if business-as-usual practices continue to hold sway. University of Delaware entomologist Doug Tallamy told AP that the new papers are valuable in part because “they highlight how the world has ‘spent the last 30 years spending billions of dollars finding new ways to kill insects and mere pennies working to preserve them’.”