I have been musing about extinctions and shifting baselines for a while now; BREXIT and an article by Simon Barnes in the Sunday Times magazine (3rd September 2016) finally prompted me to actually put fingers to keyboard. I fear that BREXIT will result in even more environmental damage than our successive governments have caused already. They have done a pretty good job of ignoring environmental issues and scientific advice (badgers) even when ‘hindered’ by what they have considered restrictive European legislation and now that we head into BREXIT with a government not renowned for its care for the environment I become increasing fearful for the environment. Remember who it was who restructured English Nature into the now fairly toothless Natural England, because they didn’t like the advice they were being given and whose government was it who, rather than keep beaches up to Blue Flag standard decided to reclassify long-established resort beaches as not officially designated swimming beaches? And, just to add this list of atrocities against the environment, we now see our precious ‘green belt’ being attacked.
My generation is liable to wax lyrical about the clouds of butterflies that surrounded us as we played very non PC cowboys and Indians outside with our friends in the glorious sunshine. We can also fondly reminisce about the hordes of moths that used to commit suicide in the lamp fittings or beat fruitlessly against the sitting room windows at night. The emptying of the lamp bowl was a weekly ceremony in our house. We also remember, less fondly, having to earn our pocket-money by cleaning our father’s cars, laboriously scraping the smeared bodies of small flies from windscreens, headlamps and radiator grilles on a Saturday morning. A few years later as students, those of us lucky enough to own a car, remember the hard to wash away red smears left by the eyes of countless Bibionid (St Mark’s) flies, as they crashed into our windscreens.
Typical Bibionid – note the red eyes; designed specially to make a mess on your windscreen 🙂 https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/GBgoGHhRbj-eUUF9SxZ4s9MTjNZETYmyPJy0liipFm0?feat=embedwebsite
Are these memories real or are we looking back at the past through those rose-tinted glasses that only show the sunny days when we lounged on grassy banks listening to In the Summertime and blank out the days we were confined to the sitting room table playing board games?
We have reliable and robust long-term data sets showing the declines of butterflies and moths over the last half-century or so (Thomas, 2005; Fox, 2013) and stories about this worrying trend attract a lot of media attention. On a less scientific note, I certainly do not find myself sweeping up piles of dead moths from around bedside lamps or extricating them from the many spider webs that decorate our house. Other charismatic groups, such as the dragonflies and damselflies are also in decline (Clausnitzer et al., 2009) as are the ubiquitous, and equally charismatic ground beetles (carabids) (Brooks et al., 2012). But what about other insects, are they too on the way out? A remarkable 42-year data set looking at the invertebrates found in cereal fields in southern England (Ewald et al., 2015) found that of the 26 invertebrate taxa studied less than half showed a decrease in abundance; e.g. spiders, Braconid parasitic wasps, carabid beetles, Tachyporus beetles, Enicmus (scavenger beetles), Cryptophagid fungus beetles, leaf mining flies (Agromyzids), Drosophila, Lonchopteridae (pointed wing flies), and surprisingly, or perhaps not, aphids. The others showed no consistent patterns although bugs, excluding aphids, increased over the study period. Cereal fields are of course not a natural habitat and are intensely managed, with various pesticides being applied, so are perhaps not likely to be the most biodiverse or representative habitats to be found in the UK.
But what about the car-smearing insects, the flies, aphids and other flying insects? Have they declined as dramatically? My first thought was that I certainly don’t ‘collect’ as many insects on my car as I used to, but is there any concrete evidence to support the idea of a decline in their abundance. After all, there has been a big change in the shape of cars since the 1970s.
Top row – cars from 1970, including the classic Morris 1000 Traveller that my Dad owned and I had to wash on Saturdays.
Bottom row the cars of today, sleek rounded and all looking the same.
Cars were much more angular then, than they are now, so perhaps the aerodynamics of today’s cars filter the insects away from the windscreen to safety? But how do you test that? Then I remembered that the RSPB had once run a survey to address this very point. Sure enough I found it on the internet, the Big Bug Count 2004, organised by the RSPB. I was very surprised to find that it happened more than a decade ago, I hadn’t thought it was that long ago, but that is what age does to you 🙂
The “Splatometer” as designed by the RSPB
The idea, which was quite cool, was to get standardised counts of insect impacts on car number plates. The results were thought to be very low as the quote below shows, but on what evidence was this based?
“Using a cardboard counting-grid dubbed the “splatometer”, they recorded 324,814 “splats”, an average of only one squashed insect every five miles. In the summers of 30-odd years ago, car bonnets and windscreens would quickly become encrusted with tiny bodies.” “Many people were astonished by how few insects they splatted,” the survey’s co-ordinator Richard Bashford, said.
Unfortunately despite the wide reporting in the press at the time, the RSPB did not repeat the exercise. A great shame, as their Big Garden Birdwatch is very successful and gathers useful data. So what scientific evidence do we have for a decline in these less charismatic insects? Almost a hundred years ago, Bibionid flies were regarded as a major pest (Morris, 1921) and forty years ago it was possible to catch almost 70 000 adults in a four week period from one field in southern England (Darcy-Burt & Blackshaw, 1987). Both these observations suggest that in the past Bibionids were very common. It is still possible to pluck adult Bibionids out of the air (they are very slow, clumsy fliers) in Spring, but if asked I would definitely say that they are not as common as they were when I was a student. But as Deming once said, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” In the UK we are fortunate that a long-term source of insect data exists, courtesy of Rothamsted Research, the longest running agricultural research station in the world. Data have been collected from a nationwide network of suction and light traps for more than 50 years (Storkey et al., 2016). Most of the publications arising from the survey have tended to focus on aphids (Bell et al., 2015) and moths (Conrad et al., 2004), although the traps, do of course, catch many other types of insect (Knowler et al., 2016). Fortuitously, since I was interested in the Bibionids I came across a paper that dealt with them, and other insects likely to make an impact on cars and splatometers (Shortall et al., 2009). The only downside of their paper was that they only looked at data from four of the Rothamsted Suction Traps, all from the southern part of the UK, which was a little disappointing.
Location and results of the suction traps analysed by Shortall et al. (2009).
Only three of the trap showed downward trends in insect biomass over the 30 years (1973-2002) analysed of which only the Hereford trap showed a significant decline. So we are really none the wiser; the two studies that focus on a wider range of insect groups (Shortall et al., 2009; Ewald et al., 2015) do not give us a clear indication of insect decline. On the other hand, both studies are limited in their geographic coverage; we do not know how representative the results are of the whole country.
What a shame the RSPB stopped collecting ‘splatometer’ data, we would now have a half-decent time series on which to back-up or contradict our memories of those buzzing summers of the past.
After posting this I came across this paper based on Canadian research which shows that many pollinators, possibly billions are killed by vehicles every year.
Bell, J.R., Alderson, L., Izera, D., Kruger, T., Parker, S., Pickup, J., Shortall, C.R., Taylor, M.S., Verrier, P. & Harrington, R. (2015) Long-term phenological trends, species accumulation rates, aphid traits and climate: five decades of change in migrating aphids. Journal of Animal Ecology, 84, 21-34.
Brooks, D.R., Bater, J.E., Clark, S.J., Montoth, D.J., 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 of insect biodiversity. Journal of Applied Ecology, 49, 1009-1019.
Clausnitzer, V., Kalkman, V.J., Ram, M., Collen, B., Baillie, J.E.M., Bedjanic, M., Darwall, W.R.T., Dijkstra, K.D.B., Dow, R., Hawking, J., Karube, H., Malikova, E., Paulson, D., Schutte, K., Suhling, F., Villaneuva, R.J., von Ellenrieder, N. & Wilson, K. (2009) Odonata enter the biodiversity crisis debate: the first global assessment of an insect group. Biological Conservation, 142, 1864-1869.
Conrad, K.F., Woiwod, I.P., Parsons, M., Fox, R. & Warren, M.S. (2004) Long-term population trends in widespread British moths. Journal of Insect Conservation, 8, 119-136.
Darcy-Burt, S. & Blackshaw, R.P. (1987) Effects of trap design on catches of grassland Bibionidae (Diptera: Nematocera). Bulletin of Entomological Research, 77, 309-315.
Ewald, J., Wheatley, C.J., Aebsicher, N.J., Moreby, S.J., Duffield, S.J., Crick, H.Q.P., & Morecroft, M.B. (2015) Influences of extreme weather, climate and pesticide use on invertebrates in cereal fields over 42 years. Global Change Biology, 21, 3931-3950.
Fox, R. (2013) The decline of moths in Great Britain: a review of possible causes. Insect Conservation & Diversity, 6, 5-19.
Knowler, J.T., Flint, P.W.H., & Flint, S. (2016) Trichoptera (Caddisflies) caught by the Rothamsted Light Trap at Rowardennan, Loch Lomondside throughout 2009. The Glasgow Naturalist, 26, 35-42.
Morris, H.M. (1921) The larval and pupal stages of the Bibionidae. Bulletin of Entomological Research, 12, 221-232.
Shortall, C.R., Moore, A., Smith, E., Hall, M.J. Woiwod, I.P. & Harrington, R. (2009) Long-term changes in the abundance of flying insects. Insect Conservation & Diversity, 2, 251-260.
Storkey, J., MacDonald, A.J., Bell, J.R., Clark, I.M., Gregory, A.S., Hawkins, N. J., Hirsch, P.R., Todman, L.C. & Whitmore, A.P. (2016) Chapter One – the unique contribution of Rothamsted to ecological research at large temporal scales Advances in Ecological Research, 55, 3-42.
Thomas, J.A. (2005) Monitoring change in the abundance and distribution of insects using butterflies and other indicator groups. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 360, 339-357