Conservationist Warns 'Unnoticed Apocalypse' of Insects 'Should Set Alarms Ringing'

Conservationists on Wednesday called for immediate action by governments, industries, and the public to address a decades-long, human-caused insect “apocalypse” detailed in a new report and warned of the sweeping, serious consequences of inaction.

“If we don’t stop the decline of our insects, there will be profound consequences for all life on Earth.”
—Dave Goulson, ecologist

Insect Declines and Why They Matter (pdf) was commissioned by an alliance of The Wildlife Trusts in the United Kingdom and authored by University of Sussex biology professor Dave Goulson, described by The Guardian as “one of the U.K.’s leading ecologists.”

“Insects make up the bulk of known species on Earth and are integral to the functioning of terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, performing vital roles such as pollination, seed dispersal, and nutrient cycling. They are also food for numerous larger animals, including birds, bats, fish, amphibians, and lizards,” Goulson said in a statement Wednesday. “If we don’t stop the decline of our insects, there will be profound consequences for all life on Earth.”

The report’s executive summary says that over that past 50 years, “we have reduced the abundance of wildlife on Earth dramatically.” Although “much attention focuses on declines of large, charismatic animals,” the report continues, “recent evidence suggests that abundance of insects may have fallen by 50% or more since 1970.”

Recent findings on insect declines driven by habitat loss and pesticide use are “troubling” because “if insect declines are not halted, terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems will collapse,” the report explains. Underscoring the need for action, the report warns that 41% of the planet’s five million insect species are “threatened with extinction.”

“The good news is that it is not too late,” the report emphasizes. “We urgently need to stop all routine and unnecessary use of pesticides and start to build a Nature Recovery Network by creating more and better connected, insect friendly habitat in our gardens, towns, cities, and countryside.”

Insect Declines and Why They Matter outlines the emerging evidence of what it calls “the unnoticed apocalypse,” highlighting key takeaways from various studies:

  • 23 bee and flower-visiting wasp species have gone extinct in the U.K. since 1850;
  • Approximately two-thirds of the crop types grown by humans require pollination by insects;
  • U.K. “wider countryside” butterflies declined 46% and habitat specialists by 77% between 1976 and 2017;
  • [The] number of pesticide applications has approximately doubled over the last 25 years;
  • A survey of honey samples from around the world reveals that 75% contain neonicotinoid insecticides;
  • U.K. populations of the spotted flycatcher fell by 93% between 1967 and 2016;
  • Other once-common insectivorous birds have suffered similarly, including the grey partridge (92%), nightingale (93%), [and] cuckoo (77%); and
  • The red-backed shrike, a specialist predator of large insects, went extinct in the U.K. in the 1990s.

“This unnoticed apocalypse should set alarms ringing,” Wiltshire Wildlife Trust chief executive Gary Mantle declared in response to the report.