Insects are everywhere. We can find them in almost every habitat or ecosystem. With more than 1.5 million species of insects named, they are indeed the most common animals on our planet. This is three times the number of all other animals combined. While this seems like a lot, scientists said that there are still a lot of insect species waiting to be discovered. Unfortunately, insects are underappreciated.
Importance of Insects
Most people think of insects as pests that they should kill immediately when seen. The truth is, their role on our planet is so important that without them, we might all be dead. Author David MacNeal said that insects are “the lever pullers of the world” because they do everything from feeding humans to cleaning up waste to generating $57 billion for the US economy alone.
Previous studies revealed that humans would not have much of the produce we enjoy and rely on without the help of the insects. They pollinate many of our fruits, flowers, and vegetables, not to mention honey, beeswax, silk, and other useful products that insects provide. Insects are also important as primary or secondary decomposers because they help break down and dispose of waste. If not for them, dead animals and plants would accumulate in our environment and it would be messy.
Insects also play an integral role in the food web. They are the sole food source for many amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Even humans rely on them to feed themselves. Many people are fond of eating these little critters because they are a rich source of protein, vitamins, and minerals, and are prized as delicacies in many third-world countries. Some of the most popular include cicadas, locusts, mantises, grubs, caterpillars, crickets, ants, and wasps.
Insects Are Dying Off at an Alarming Rate
Just like any living organism, insect populations are also heavily affected by climate change. A 2019 study published in the journal Biological Conservation revealed that 41% of insect species have seen steep declines in the past decade and 40% of the 30 million or so insect species on Earth are now threatened with extinction. “There is reason to worry. If we don't stop it, entire ecosystems will collapse due to starvation,” lead author Francisco Sánchez-Bayo, a researcher at the University of Sydney in Australia, said.
According to National Geographic, an American pay television network and flagship channel that is owned by National Geographic Partners, the findings of the study showed that half of the moth and butterfly species studied are in decline, with one-third threatened with extinction. The numbers for beetles are almost exactly the same. It was also reported that nearly half of surveyed bees and ants are threatened. However, one of the most threatened insect species studied was caddisflies as 63% of them are threatened.
The study revealed that the rate of extinction of insect populations is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds, and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, suggesting they could vanish within a century. “The [insect] trends confirm that the sixth major extinction event is profoundly impacting [on] life forms on our planet. Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades. The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic, to say the least,” the authors said.
The researchers found out that the main driver of the declines is intensive agriculture followed by urbanization and climate change. Sánchez-Bayo explained that this is mainly due to the elimination of all trees and shrubs that normally surround the fields. According to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, new classes of insecticides introduced in the last 20 years, including neonicotinoids and fipronil, have been particularly damaging to insects. The decline of insects appears to have started at the dawn of the 20th century and accelerated during the 1950s and 1960s before reaching “alarming proportions” over the last two decades.
The impacts of this decline are already being felt. In Europe, for instance, bird populations have declined by 400 million over the past 30 years primarily because of the huge decline in flying insects. “There are hardly any insects left—that's the number one problem,” Vincent Bretagnolle, an ecologist at French National Centre for Scientific Research, said.
Many scientists have also agreed that it is becoming clear that insect losses are now a serious global problem. “The evidence all points in the same direction. It should be of huge concern to all of us, for insects are at the heart of every food web, they pollinate the large majority of plant species, keep the soil healthy, recycle nutrients, control pests, and much more. Love them or loathe them, we humans cannot survive without insects,” Prof. Dave Goulson at the University of Sussex in the UK said.
A recent study found out that half of the one million animal and plant species on Earth facing extinction are insects. Scientists suggest that their disappearance could be catastrophic for humankind. They said this as a "warning to humanity.” "The current insect extinction crisis is deeply worrying," lead author Pedro Cardoso, a biologist at the Finnish Museum of Natural History, said.
According to Science Alert, a leading scientific publisher dedicated to publishing peer-reviewed significant research work, delivering quality content, the massive decline of butterflies, beetles, ants, bees, wasps, flies, crickets and dragonflies has consequences far beyond their own demise. This is because we could lose many more species with their extinction. At the same time, they are vital providers of services that are irreplaceable which includes pollination, nutrient cycling, and pest control.
Fortunately, people can help in saving insect populations. According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, another recent study led by University of Huddersfield lecturer Dr. Matt Hill suggested practical steps that everyone can take to help halt the decline. This includes avoiding mowing the lawn frequently; planting native plants; avoiding pesticides; leaving old trees, stumps and dead leaves alone; building an insect hotel with small horizontal holes that can become their nests; reducing carbon footprint, and more.