Global Insect Extinction – a never ending story

I have had an unexpectedly busy couple of weeks talking about declines in insect populations.  Back in November of last year I wrote a blog about the sudden media interest in “Insect Armageddon” and followed this up with a more formal Editorial in Annals of Applied Biology at the beginning of the year (Leather, 2018).  I mused at the time if this was yet another media ‘storm in a teacup’ but it seems that the subject is still attracting attention.  I appeared on television as part of TRT World’s Roundtable programme and was quoted quite extensively in The Observer newspaper on Sunday last talking about insect declines since my student days 🙂 At the same time, as befits something that has been billed as being global, a similar story, featuring another veteran entomologist appeared in the New Zealand press.

The TV discussion was quite interesting, the panel included Nick Rau from Friends of the Earth, Lutfi Radwan, an academic turned organic farmer, Manu Saunders from Ecology is Not a Dirty Word and me.  If they had hoped for a heated argument they were out of luck, we were all pretty much in agreement; yes insects did not seem to be as abundant as they had once been, and this was almost certainly a result of anthropogenic factors, intensive agriculture, urbanisation and to a lesser extent climate change.  Unlike some commentators who firmly point the finger at the use of pesticides as the major cause of the declines reported, we were more inclined to towards the idea of habitat degradation, fragmentation and loss.  We also agreed that a big problem is a lack of connection with Nature by large sections of the population, and not just those under twenty.  We also felt very strongly that governments should be investing much more into research in this area and that we desperately need more properly replicated and designed long-term studies to monitor the undeniable changes that are occurring.  I had, in my Editorial and an earlier blog post, mentioned this point and lamented the paucity of such information, so was pleasantly surprised, to receive a couple of papers from Sebastian Schuh documenting long-term declines in Hemiptera and Orthoptera in Germany (Schuh et al., 2012ab), although of course sad, to see yet more evidence for decreasing insect populations.

The idea that insects are in terminal decline has been rumbling on for some time; more than a decade ago Kelvin Conrad and colleagues highlighted a rapid decline in moth numbers (Conrad et al., 2006) and a few years later, Dave Brooks and colleagues using data from the UK  Environmental Change Network revealed a disturbing decline in the numbers of carabid beetles across the UK (Brooks et al., 2012).   In the same year (2012) I was asked to give a talk at a conference organised by the Society of Chemical Industry. Then, as now, I felt that pesticides were not the only factor causing the biodiversity crisis, but that agricultural intensification, habitat loss and habitat degradation were and are probably more to blame.  In response to this quote in the media at the time:

“British Insects in Decline

Scientists are warning of a potential ecological disaster following the discovery that Britain has lost around 7% of its indigenous insect species in just under 100 years.

A comparison with figures collected in 1904 have revealed that around 400 species are now extinct, including the black-veined white butterfly, not seen since 1912, the Essex emerald moth and the short-haired bumblebee. Many others are endangered, including the large garden bumblebee, the Fen Raft spider, which is only to be found in a reserve on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, and the once common scarlet malachite beetle, now restricted to just three sites.

Changes to the insects’ natural habitats have been responsible for this disastrous decline in numbers. From housing and industrial developments to single-crop farming methods, Britain’s countryside has become increasingly inhospitable to its native insects.”

I chose to talk about “Forest and woodland insects: Down and out or on the up?” I used data from that most valuable of data sets, the Rothamsted Insect Survey to illustrate my hypothesis that those insects associated with trees were either doing better or not declining, because of increased tree planting over the last fifty years.  As you can see from the slides from my talk, this does indeed seem to be the case with moths and aphids that feed on trees or live in their shade.  I also showed that the populations of the same species in northern Britain, where agriculture is less intensive and forests and woodlands more prevalent were definitely on the up, and this phenomenon was not just confined to moths and aphids.

Two tree aphids, one Drepanosiphum platanoidis lives on sycamore, the other Elatobium abietinum, lives on spruce trees; both are doing rather well.

Two more tree-dwelling aphids, one on European lime, the other on sycamore and maples, both doing very well.  For those of you unfamiliar with UK geography, East Craigs is in Scotland and Newcastle in the North East of England, Hereford in the middle and to the west, and Starcross in the South West, Sites 2, 1, 6 and 9 in the map in the preceding figure.

Two conifer feeding moth species showing no signs of decline.

On the up, two species, a beetle, Agrilus biguttatus perhaps due to climate change, and a butterfly, the Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria, due to habitat expansion and climate change?

It is important however, to remember that insect populations are not static, they vary from year to year, and the natural fluctuations in their populations can be large and, as in the case of the Orange ladybird, Halyzia sedecimguttata, take place over a several years, which is yet another reason that we need long-term data sets.

The Orange ladybird Halyzia sedecimguttata, a mildew feeder, especially on sycamore.

It is obvious, whether we believe that an ecological catastrophe is heading our way or not, that humans are having a marked effect on the biodiversity that keeps our planet in good working order and not just through our need to feed an ever-increasing population.  A number of recent studies have shown that our fixation with car ownership is killing billions of insects every year (Skórka et al., 2013; Baxter-Gilbert et al.,2015; Keilsohn et al., 2018) and that our fear of the dark is putting insects and the animals that feed on them at risk (Eccard et al.,  2018; Grubisic et al., 2018).  We have a lot to answer for and this is exacerbated by our growing disconnect from Nature and the insidious effect of “shifting baselines” which mean that succeeding generations tend to accept what they see as normal (Leather & Quicke, 2010, Soga & Gaston, 2018) and highlights the very real need for robust long-term data to counteract this dangerous and potentially lethal, World view (Schuh, 2012; Soga & Gaston, 2018).  Perhaps if research funding over the last thirty years or so had been targeted at the many million little things that run the World and not the handful of vertebrates that rely on them (Leather, 2009), we would not be in such a dangerous place?

I am, however, determined to remain hopeful.  As a result of the article in The Observer, I received an email from a gentleman called Glyn Brown, who uses art to hopefully, do something about shifting baselines.  This is his philosophy in his own words and pictures.



Baxter-Gilbert, J.H., Riley, J.L., Neufeld, C.J.H., Litzgus, J.D. & Lesbarrères, D.  (2015) Road mortality potentially responsible for billions of pollinating insect deaths annually. Journal of Insect Conservation, 19, 1029-1035.

Brooks, D.R., Bater J.E., Clark, S.J., Monteith, D.T., Andrews, C., Corbett, S.J., Beaumont, D.A. & Chapman, J.W. (2012)  Large carabid beetle declines in a United Kingdom monitoring network increases evidence for a widespread loss in insect biodiversity. Journal of Applied Ecology, 49, 1009-1019.

Conrad, K.F., Warren. M.S., Fox, R., Parsons, M.S. & Woiwod, I.P. (2006) Rapid declines of common, widespread British moths provide evidence of an insect biodiversity crisis. Biological Conservation, 132, 279-291.

Eccard, J.A., Scheffler, I., Franke, S. & Hoffmann, J. (2018) Off‐grid: solar powered LED illumination impacts epigeal arthropods. Insect Conservation & Diversity,

Estay, S.A., Lima, M., Labra, F.A. & Harrington, R. (2012) Increased outbreak frequency associated with changes in the dynamic behaviour of populations of two aphid species. Oikos, 121, 614-622.

Grubisic, M., van Grunsven, R.H.A.,  Kyba, C.C.M.,  Manfrin, A. & Hölker, F. (2018) Insect declines and agroecosystems: does light pollution matter? Annals of Applied Biology,

Keilsohn, W., Narango, D.L. & Tallamy, D.W. (2018) Roadside habitat impacts insect traffic mortality.  Journal of Insect Conservation, 22, 183-188.

Leather, S.R. (2009) Taxonomic chauvinism threatens the future of entomology. Biologist, 56, 10-13.

Leather, S.R. (2018) “Ecological Armageddon” –  more evidence for the drastic decline in insect numbers. Annals of Applied Biology, 172, 1-3.

Leather, S.R. & Quicke, D.J.L. (2010) Do shifting baselines in natural history knowledge therten the environment? The Environmentalist, 30, 1-2.

Schuh, S. (2012) Archives and conservation biology. Pacific Conservation Biology, 18, 223-224.

Schuh, S., Wesche, K. & Schaefer, M. (2012a) Long-term decline in the abundance of leafhoppers and planthoppers (Auchenorrhyncha) in Central Europe protected dry grasslands. Biological Conservation, 149, 75-83.

Schuh, S., Bock, J., Krause, B., Wesche, K. & Scgaefer, M. (2012b) Long-term population trends in three grassland insect groups: a comparative analysis of 1951 and 2009. Journal of Applied Entomology, 136, 321-331.

Skórka, P., Lenda, M., Moroń, D., Kalarus, K., & Tryjanowskia, P. (2013) Factors affecting road mortality and the suitability of road verges for butterflies. Biological Conservation, 159, 148-157.

Soga, M. & Gaston, K.J. (2018) Shifting baseline syndrome: causes, consequences and implications. Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment, 16, 222-230.




Filed under EntoNotes

6 responses to “Global Insect Extinction – a never ending story

  1. Humphrey Crick

    Hi Simon – really nice blog. Speaking as a humble vertebratologist, one aspect that bird folk have been concerned about for some time is the loss of large-bodied insects that used to occur much more abundantly – particularly on grassland – so-called “improved” grassland, comprising a monoculture, heavily fertilised – seems to have been associated with the declines in large grasshoppers etc – and we think this is linked to the loss of bird species (sorry to mention those!) such as Red-backed Shrike and even birds like Cirl Bunting, which relies on grasshoppers for feeding 2nd brood chicks. Also, I don’t know if you have seen a paper led by Tim Benton in which we analysed the Stirling suction trap data for loads of different taxa and related them to bird populations from CBC data and to a range of measures of agricultural intensification, to show a correlation between declines in all three in timing, consistent with a link. It was one the first studies to look at loads of other taxa (not just aphids and moths) from these traps and involved a huge amount of labour by some lucky students! (Benton, T.G., Bryant, D.M., Cole, L. & Crick, H.Q.P. Linking agricultural practice to insect and bird populations: a historical study over three decades. Journal of Applied Ecology 39: 673-687. )

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s fashionable to blame it all on insecticides, but I’m more inclined to think that habitat degradation, agricultural intensification, loss of weeds and over-management (cutting back!) are just as important, if not more so.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks Humph, i should also have mentioned the study just out in Ibis by Chloe Denerley and colleagues which shows that cuckoos are in decline in areas where moths are also in decline Denerley,C. et al., (2018) Breeding ground correlates of the distribution and decline of the Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus at two spatial scales


  4. Thank you for this. Good to know also you had the opportunity to talk about this in a more conclusive way than only blaming “pesticides”.
    I think that concentrating just on one factor of a problem (pesticide use in this case for insect declines), not only doesn’t solve the problem itself, but also is an additional risk. “Solving” this detail gives a false sense of security (banning neonics) and all the other elements of the problem are neglected.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks for a thoughtful summary of this important problem. It feels to me that humans need to make room for the insects to live here as well but I dont see much movement on this. Do you know what if anything is actually being done?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Mainly small scale stuff like green roofs and walls and some attempts at roundabout and verge management, so some signs of thinking about the problem.


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