Tag Archives: insectageddon

Insectageddon, Ecological Armageddon, Global insect Apocalypse – why we need sustained long-term funding

“To him that countryside, largely unspoiled in his early days, was an inexhaustible source of delight and a subject of endless study and mediation…And as the years passed and the countryside faded away under the withering touch of mechanical transport, that knowledge grew more and more precious. Now, the dwindling remnants had to be sought and found with considered judgement and their scanty material eked out with detail from the stores of the remembered past”  R Austin Freeman The Jacob Street Mystery (1942)

The recent release of the IPBES report highlighting the significant global declines in biodiversity has prompted me to revisit the “Insectageddon” debate, some of the ramifications of which I wrote about earlier this year.

 

Summary from the IPBES report – note that even a well-known group like dragonflies is quite data deficient*.

Insects may be in decline, but papers about their decline have been around for almost twenty years and even more are appearing as we entomologists begin to hope that people may at last be beginning to listen to us.

A selection of some of the many papers that have documented insect declines over the last several years.

Using the now infamous search term “insect decline” in the Google Trends function I was not surprised to see the steep increase since 2016, as 2017 was the year in which the paper reporting  the 75% decline in flying insect biomass appeared (Hallmann et al., 2017), but I was intrigued by what appeared to have been a peak in mentions since 2004.

Google Trends using the phrase insect decline – last data point is 2019 at the time of writing

I wondered what caused the peak in 2004, so using the same key words as Sánchez-Bayo & Wyckhuys (2019), checked Google Scholar and Web of Science to see if I could track down a paper that might have caused a media splash at the time.  I also checked 2003, in case there was a delay in reporting. To my surprise I couldn’t find anything relevant in 2004, but 2003 threw up three papers (Hopkins & Freckleton, 2002; Kotze & O’Hara, 2003; Shreeve & Dennis, 2003).  The first was about the decline of taxonomists, which although a serious problem is unlikely to have generated that much attention, the other two were about long-term declines in Carabid beetles (Kotze & O’Hara, 2003) and the third about the decline of French butterflies (Shreeve & Dennis, 2003) which again, I suspect were probably not high enough profile to generate a big splash.  I was puzzled but then I thought, why not just put it into Google with the date 2004, and sure enough it directed me to a Nature News item with the headline Insect deaths add to extinction fears, which in turn led me to Thomas et al., (2004) which I am pretty certain generated the peak in interest and also highlights the fact that ecologists and entomologists have been worrying about this problem for some time.

Since the appearance of the, now, infamous paper, that sparked the most recent round of Armageddon stories (Sánchez-Bayo & Wyckhuys, 2019), a lot has been, quite justifiably, written about the short-comings of the study both in scientific journals (e.g. Komonen et al., 2019, Simmons et al., 2019; Thomas et al, 2019, Wagner, 2019) and in blog posts, such as this thoughtful piece from Manu Saunders.

What does need to be stressed, is that although these commentators recognise the shortcomings of the paper, none of them, including the most scathing of commentators (Mupepele et al., 2019) dispute the fact, that insects, in general, are in decline. Unfortunately, the climate change deniers and their ilk, have, of course, used the criticisms to try and spread a message of “nothing to fear folks”.

Hopefully a failed attempt at downplaying the insect decline stories, but a great example of how climate change deniers are keen to muddy the waters

For humans with our relatively short lifespans, shifting baselines can be a problem (Leather & Quicke, 2010; Tree, 2018), in that people accept what they have known in their childhoods as the natural state of nature.  It can of course work the other way. I can remember the late great Miriam Rothschild telling me in the early 1990s, how as a “gel” in the 1920s a particular butterfly species that was currently at very low numbers compared with the 1970s which was what I and similar aged colleagues were remarking upon, was 50 years before that, also very low, her message being “populations cycle”.  It is because of this propensity, which is nicely illustrated by some of my 20-year data sets, all from the same 52 trees, that we need access to long-term funding to monitor insect populations.  Chop my data sets into three-year concurrent periods, the time-span of a typical PhD study or research grant, and you end up with some very different pictures of the populations of three common insect species.

The Silwood Park Winter moth, Operophtera brumata – dramatic shifts in population levels

Twenty years of the Sycamore aphid, Drepanosiphum platanoidis, at Silwood Park.  First five years versus last five years – what happened? Does this fit with the recent paper by Stephen Heard and colleagues that species chosen for study because they are common or easy to find, are almost certainly to show declines over the long-term?

 

The Maple aphid, Periphyllus testudinaceus – twenty-year data run from Silwood Park

Given the above, and the fact that most of the evidence for insect declines is largely based on studies from Europe, the UK heading the list (Wagner, 2019) and on top of that, the evidence from tropical locations is open to different interpretations (e.g.  Willig et al, 2019), there is an urgent need for something to be done.  So, what do we need to do?  I think there are three things that need addressing, sooner, rather than later.

Monitoring

First, we need to build on the work that has been done in Germany (Hallmann et al., 2017) and the UK via the Rothamsted Insect Survey (Bell et al., 2015) and establish active insect monitoring networks using repeatable sampling methods, but on a global scale. New monitoring programs will not help establish past baselines, but they can help us determine trends from this point forward. We can make this truly global by engaging the public through community science. These programs will need to use standardized methods, such as Malaise traps, pitfall traps, light traps, and effort-based counts, with species diversity, abundance and biomass being primary measures. Although biomass is an imperfect estimator because it can be sensitive to changes in abundances of large species, it is still a valuable metric from the ecosystem perspective. Determining biomass trends also does not require fine-scale taxonomic knowledge, which is often lacking in citizen science initiatives. It would, even if it were possible, be incredibly expensive, to try to monitor all insect species from any community with appreciable diversity.  A much better option, and one that will certainly appeal to a wide range of citizen scientists would be to monitor taxa like butterflies, macro-moths, dragonflies, bees, and some beetle groups.  All these can serve as indicator species for other insect groups and, tongue in cheek, many can be observed using binoculars, thus encouraging ornithologists and mammalologists to join in 😊

Innovative use of past data

At national levels, a few long-term monitoring schemes already exist, for example, the UK Environmental Change Network (http://www.ecn.ac.uk/ ) collects biotic and abiotic data, including many insect groups, from 57 different sites across the UK using identical protocols (Rennie, 2016).   Multiple Long-Term Ecological Research projects track different facets of ecosystems in different ways (Magurran et al., 2010). In fact, the LTER network, if expanded to a global scale, could be the natural framework to make a global network proposal feasible, possibly through a targeted step change in funding (Thomas et al., 2019).  This is great for the future, but unfortunately, all the active long-term monitoring schemes are younger than modern agricultural intensification.  A way forward would be to use museum collections and to construct data sets by going through back numbers of those entomological journals that pre-date the 1940s.  There are some long-term historical long-term data that are already accessible, for example the 150 year record pine beauty moth infestations in Germany dating from 1810 (Klimetzek, 1972) and I am sure that others must exist.

Funding

Whatever we do, it will need long-term funding. There needs to be a recognition by state research funding agencies that entomological survey and monitoring work, although appearing mundane, should receive a step-change in funding, even if it is at the expense of other taxa  Funding should reflect the diversity and abundance of taxa, not their perceived charisma (Clark & May, 2002; Leather, 2013).  Crowd-funding may draw in some funding, but what is required is stable, substantial and sustained funding that will allow existing and future international collaborations to flourish.  For this to happen and failing sustained state funding, we need to convince philanthropic donors such as the Gates Foundation to turn their attention from insect eradication to insect conservation.

We do, however, need to act quickly, stop talking to just our peers, meet the public, and, if needs be, personally, or via our learned societies, lobby governments; there is no Planet B.

 

References

Bell, J.R., Alderson, L., Izera, D., Kruger, T., Parker, S., Pickup, J., Shortal, C.R., Taylor, M.S., Verier, 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.

Cordoso, P. & Leather, S.R. (2019) Predicting a global insect apocalypseInsect Conservation & Diversity, 12, 263-267.

Dennis, R.H.L. & Shreeve, T.G. (2003) Gains and losses of French butterflies: tests of predictions, under-recording and regional extinction from data in a new atlas. Biological Conservation, 110, 131-139.

Hallmann, C.A., Sorg, M., Jongejans, E., Siepel, H., Hoflan, N., Schwan, H., Stenmans, W., Muller, A., Sumser, H., Horren, T., Goulson, D., & De Kroon, H. (2017) More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoSONE, 12(10), :e0185809.

Hopkins, G.W. & Freckleton, R.P. (2002) Declines in the numbers of amateur and professional taxonomists: implications for conservation. Animal Conservation, 5, 245-249.

Klimetzek, D. (1972) Die Zeitfolge von Ubervermehrungen nadelfressender kiefernraupen in derPfalz seit 1810 und die Ursachen ihres Ruckanges in neuerer Zeit. Zeitschrift fur Angewandte Entomologie, 71, 414-428.

Kotze, D.J. & O’Hara, R.B. (2003) Species decline – but why?  Explanations of Carabid beetle (Coleoptera, Carabidae) declines in Europe. Oecologia, 135, 138-148.

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

Magurran, A.E., Baillie, S.R., Buckland, S.T., Dick, J.M., Elston, D.A., Scott, M., Smith, R.I., Somerfiled, P.J. & Watt, A.D. (2010) Long-term datasets in biodiversity research and monitoring: assessing change in ecological communities through time. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 25, 574-582.

Møller, A.P. (2019) Parallel declines in abundance of insects and insectivorous birds in Denmark over 22 years. Ecology & Evolution, 9, 6581-6587.

Mupepele, A.C., Bruelheide, H., Dauber, J., Krüß, A., Potthast, T., Wägele, W. & Klein, A.M. (2019). Insect decline and its drivers: Unsupported conclusions in a poorly performed meta-analysis on trends—A critique of Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys (2019).  Basic & Applied Ecology, 37, 20-23.

Rennie, S.C. (2016) Providing information on environmental change: Data management, discovery and access in the UK Environmental Change Network data.  Ecological Indicators, 68, 13-20.

Sánchez-Bayo, F. & Wyckhuys, K.A.G. (2019) Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers. Biological Conservation, 232, 8-27.

Thomas, C.D., Jones, T.H. & Hartley, S.E. (2019) “Insectageddon”: a call for more robust data and rigorous analyses. Global Change Biology, 6, 1891-1892.

Thomas, J.A., Telfer, M.G., Roy, D.B., Preston, C.D., Greenwood, J.J.D., Asher, J., Fox, R., Clarke, R.T. & Lawton, J.H. (2004) Comparative losses of British butterflies, birds, and plants and the global extinction crisis. Science, 303, 1879-1881.

Tree, I. (2018) Wilding, Picador, Pan Macmillan.

Wagner, D.L. (2019) Global insect decline: comments on Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys (2019). Biological Conservation, 233, 332-333.

Willig, M.R., Woolbright, L., Presley, S.J., Schowalter, T.D., Waide, R.B., Heartsill Scalley, T., Zimmerman, J.K.,  González, G. & Lugo, A.E. (2019) Populations are not declining and food webs are not collapsing at the Luquillo Experimental Forest. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116, 12143-12144.

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“Insectageddon” – bigger headlines, more hype, but where’s the funding?

Unless you have been hibernating in a deep, dark cave or on another planet, you can hardly have missed the ‘insectageddon’ media frenzy that hit the UK (and elsewhere) on Monday (11th February).

This time the stimulus was a review paper outlining the dramatic decline in insect numbers, from two Australian authors (Sánchez-Bayo & Wyckhus, 2019).  Their paper, based on 73 published studies on insect decline showed that globally, 41% of insect species are in decline, which is more than twice that reported for vertebrates.  They also highlighted that a third of all insect species in the countries studied are threatened with extinction.  Almost identical figures were reported some five years ago (Dirzo et al., 2014), but somehow escaped the attention of the media.

I’m guessing that a clever press release by either the authors’ university or from the publisher of Biological Conservation set the ball rolling and the appearance of the story in The Guardian newspaper on Monday morning got the rest of the media in on the act.

The headline that lit the fuse – The Guardian February 11th  2019

The inside pages

A flurry of urgent phone calls and emails from newspapers, radio stations and TV companies resulted as the various news outlets tried to track down and convince entomologists to put their heads above the parapet and comment on the story and its implications for mankind.  I was hunted down mid-morning by the BBC, and despite not being in London and recovering from a bad cold, was persuaded to appear live via a Skype call.  A most disconcerting experience as although I was visible to the audience and interviewer, I was facing a blank screen, so no visual cues to respond to.  According to those who saw it, it was not a disaster 🙂  Entomologists from all over the country, including at least three of my former students, were lured into TV and radio studios and put through their entomological paces.

Me, former student Tom Oliver (University of Reading), Blanca Huertas (NHM) and former student Andy Salisbury (RHS Wisley), getting our less than fifteen minutes of fame 🙂

As far as I know, we all survived relatively unscathed and the importance of insects (and entomologists) for world survival was firmly established; well for a few minutes anyway 🙂

It is the ephemeral nature of the media buzz that I want to discuss first.  Looking at the day’s events you would be forgiven that the idea of an ecological Armageddon brought about by the demise of the world’s insects was something totally new.   If only that were so.

Three years of insect decline in the media

The three years before the current outbreak of media hype have all seen similar stories provoking similar reactions, a brief flurry of media attention and expressions of concern from some members of the public and conservation bodies and then a deafening silence. Most worrying of all, there has been no apparent reaction from the funding bodies or the government, in marked contrast to the furore caused, by what was, on a global scale, a relatively minor event, Ash Die Back.  Like now, I responded to each outcry by writing a blog post, so one in 2016, one in 2017 and another last year.

So, will things be different this time, will we see governments around the world, after all this is a global problem, setting up urgent expert task forces and siphoning research funding into entomology? Will we see universities advertising lots of entomologically focused PhD positions?  I am not hopeful. Despite three years of insectageddon stories, the majority of ecology and conservation-based PhDs advertised by British universities this autumn, were concerned with vertebrates, many based in exotic locations, continuing the pattern noted many years ago. In terms of conservation and ecology it seems that funding is not needs driven but heavily influenced by glamorous fur and feathers coupled with exotic field sites (Clarke & May, 2002).

The paper that caused the current media outbreak (Sánchez-Bayo & Wyckhus, 2019) although hailed by the media as new research, was actually a review of 73 papers published over the last several years.  It is not perfect, for one thing the search terms used to find the papers used in the review included the term decline, which means that any papers that did not show evidence of a decline over the last forty years were not included e.g. Shortall et al. (2009; Ewald et al. (2015), both of  which showed that in some insects and locations, populations were not declining, especially if the habitats that they favoured were increasing, e.g. forests, a point I raised in my 2018 post.  Another point of criticism is that the geographic range of the studies was rather limited, almost entirely confined to the northern hemisphere (Figure 1). Some commentators have also criticised the analysis, pointing out that it was

Figure 1. Countries from which data were sourced (Sánchez-Bayo & Wyckhus, 2019).

not, as stated by the authors, a true meta-analysis but an Analysis of Variance.  Limitations there may be, but the take home message that should not be ignored, is that there are many insect species, especially those associated with fresh water, that are in steep decline.  The 2017 paper showing a 75% reduction in the biomass of flying insects in Germany (Hallmann et al., 2017), also attracted some criticism, mainly because although the data covered forty years, not all the same sites were sampled every year.  I reiterate, despite the shortcomings of both these papers, there are lots of studies that show large declines in insect abundance and they should not be taken lightly, or as some are doing on Twitter, dismissing them as hysterical outpourings with little basis in fact.

https://www.itv.com/news/2019-02-11/insect-mass-extinction-headlines-do-not-tell-whole-story-and-risk-undermining-threat-of-declining-numbers/

It is extremely difficult, especially with the lack of funding available to entomologists to get more robust data.  The Twitter thread below from Alex Wild, explains the problems facing entomologists much more clearly and lucidly than I could.  Please read it carefully.

Masterly thread by Alex Wild – millions of insects, millions of ways to make a living and far too few entomologists

I am confident that I speak for most entomologists, when I say how frustrated we feel about the way ecological funding is directed.  Entomologists do get funding, but a lot of it is directed at crop protection. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good thing, and something I have benefited from throughout my career.  Modern crop protection aims to reduce pesticide use by ecological means, but we desperately need to train more entomologist of all hues and to persuade governments and grant bodies to fund entomological research across the board, not just bees, butterflies and dragonflies, but also the small, the overlooked and the non-charismatic ones  (Leather & Quicke, 2010).  A positive response by governments across the world is urgently needed.  Unfortunately what causes a government to take action is hard to understand as shown by how swiftly the UK government responded to the globally trivial impact of Ash Die Back but continues to ignore the call for a greater understanding of the significance of and importance of insects, insectageddon notwithstanding.

I put the blame for lack of entomological funding in the UK on the way that universities have been assessed in the UK over the last twenty years or so (Leather, 2013). The Research Excellence Framework and the way university senior management responded to it has had a significant negative effect on the recruitment of entomologists to academic posts and this has of course meant that entomological teaching and awareness of the importance of  insects to global health has decreased correspondingly.

I very much hope that this current outbreak of media hype will go some way to curing the acute case of entomyopia that most non-entomologists suffer from. I  fear however, that unless the way we teach biology in primary and secondary schools changes, people will continue to focus on the largely irrelevant charismatic mega-fauna and not the “little things that run the world”

Perhaps if publicly supported conservation organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature concentrated on invertebrates a bit more that would help.  A good start would be to remove the panda, an animal that many of us consider ecologically irrelevant from their logo, and replace it with an insect. Unlikely I know, but if they must have a mammal as their flagship species, how about sloths, at least they have some ‘endemic’ insect species associated with them 🙂

References

Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P.R. & Dirzo, R. (2017) Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signalled by vertebrate population losses and declines. Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, 114, E6089-E6096.

Clark, J.A. & May, R.M. (2002) Taxonomic bias in conservation research. Science, 297, 191-192.

Dirzo, R., Young, H.S., Galetti, M., Ceballos, G., Isaac, N.J.B., & Collen, B. (2014) Defaunation in the anthropocene. Science, 345, 401-406.

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.

Hallmann, C.A., Sorg, M., Jongejans, E., Siepel, H., Hofland, N., Schwan, H., Stenmans, W., Müller, A., Sumser, H., Hörren, T., Goulson, D. & de Kroon, H. (2017) More than 75% decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS ONE. 12 (10):eo185809.

Leather, S.R. (2013) Institutional vertebratism hampers insect conservation generally; not just saproxylic beetle conservation. Animal Conservation, 16, 379-380.

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

Sánchez-Bayo, F. & Wyckhus, K.A.G. (2019) Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers. Biological Conservation, 232, 8-27.

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.

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