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How to avoid the insect apocalypse

It might not be easy, but it’s eminently possible.
February 12, 2020

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Even in a society not typically disposed to care much about bugs, news of plummeting insect populations has captured public attention to a remarkable degree. That the days could be numbered for creatures so innumerable is frightening its ecological implications. It also resonates with an early-21st century zeitgeist of imminent collapse—but the tide can still be reversed.

In a paper published in the journal Biological Conservation and titled, simply but powerfully, “Solutions for humanity on how to conserve insects,” ecologist Michael Samways of Stellenbosch University and 26 other conservation scientists argue that what’s needed is already known. It might not be easy, but it’s eminently possible. “Enough evidence is now available,” they write, “that multiple strategies work at local levels towards saving insects. We now need to expand these locally-crafted strategies globally.”

The researchers first call for better communication of just how valuable insects are to humanity—values that certainly transcend the economic and utilitarian, but those are inescapably enormous, from pollination to ecosystem support to diet to regulating pests of forestry and agriculture. “Instrumental value is the language of policy makers and environmentally responsible large corporate land holders who offer great opportunities for insect conservation,” write Samways and colleagues. It’s imperative to spread “the message that appreciation and conservation of insects is now essential for our future survival.”

This requires conveying what the researchers call “nonhuman charisma.” That might sound difficult given that “most insects are neither iconic nor even particularly visible,” and those who do attract notice are frequently described as creepy crawlies. Yet as seen with the plight of bees and, to a lesser extent, butterflies, the general public is capable of sympathizing with insects. Now conservationists need to make other, less-appreciated clades more visible.

Next comes more hands-on steps. Protecting intact forests tracts and forest fragments, especially in tropical areas, is an obvious measure already in step with mainstream conservation goals. The researchers also call for insect-friendly commercial forestry that mimics natural cycles of habitat patchiness and complexity. Even something as simple as how logs are stacked can help bugs.

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Grasslands and savanna need protection too, from large-scale areas to tiny forgotten patches: roadsides, utility corridors, golf course roughs, airports, railway embankments, and so on. In areas lacking the big wild herbivores who once maintained these low-growing ecosystems, well-timed livestock grazing can do the trick—or, if not them, then ecologically-minded mowing regimes.

The researchers then discuss freshwater ecosystems, home to roughly 6 percent of all insect species. In addition to the usual watershed protections, a suite of new management approaches are needed: restoring habitat engineers like beavers, or engineering habitats—stormwater ponds, urban riversides, and so on, all too often lined with concrete or turf grass—with insects in mind.

Keeping pesticides out of watersheds is also crucial. That leads to the issue of agriculture, which uses more land and fresh water than any other human activity. Overhauling conventional food production is a key part of insect protection, say the researchers—not just measures like planting field borders with native plants, although that’s certainly important, but managing agricultural landscapes for biodiversity as well as food.

The same mentality might guide the management of cities and towns. Lawns and gardens can be understood as potential insect habitat; infrastructure features like green roofs and bug-friendly lighting, or just the preservation of fallen trees and rubble piles, are quite helpful.

It’s a lot to confront all at once—but there are already dozens of studies describing successful small-scale invertebrate conservation. They just need to be scaled up and spread out. But the great challenge, write Samways and the other scientists, comes from a lack of “collective political will and concerted effort, as with climate change mitigation.” The steps forward are clear. Now people need to take them.

Source: Samways et al. “Solutions for humanity on how to conserve insects.” Biological Conservation, 2020.

Image: USFWS

About the author: Brandon Keim is a freelance journalist specializing in animals, nature and science. He is now writing Meet the Neighbors, a book about what animal personhood means for our relationships to animals and to nature. Connect with him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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