Monday 4 June 2012
Mass Insect Extinction; the Elephant in the Room?
Billions of species of flora and fauna have been and gone, but one class of species has proved extremely resilient (so far) to whatever changes have occurred on the planet and - apart from losing a few of their orders and suffering a reduction in diversity during the end-Permian period - has been the only class species to have survived all these extinctions.
I am speaking of course about the class 'Insecta' - Insects to you and me.
Insects are amazing - in every sense of the word. There are currently over 900,000 known species in the world, each performing different roles within our eco-systems. Not only do they form essential ecological links as predators and parasites, but they are also responsible for the vital roles of decomposition, soil processing and, of course, pollination. Insects have also contributed to the evolution of many other species; the most notable being the relationship they have formed with the flowering plants with which they have co-evolved over the last 100 million years.
Many insects are 'keystone species'. This means a number of other species depend upon them for their existence. If you were to remove a keystone species from any given eco-system it would upset the balance and that eco-system would collapse. Nature is all about balance.
Given the fact that many of the planet's keystone species are insects, it's most fortunate that they have proved so resilient to change. So far.
Insects Facing Mass Extinction
Unfortunately, over a period of just 100 short years, things have changed so dramatically that this amazing class of species is now under threat. For the first time ever, insects are facing mass extinction
Let me ask you a question......
When did you last have to stop your car during a long journey to clean away dead insects from the windscreen?
When I was a child (back in the 60s) we used to travel up the A1 to Yorkshire to see my grandmother and I remember my father having to make regular stops to wash the windscreen - which was splattered with so many dead insects that the wipers alone couldn't keep it clean.
I also remember seeing huge flocks of birds following the farmer's ploughs in the fields alongside the road; all of them feeding on an abundance of worms and other invertebrates or micro organisms living beneath the surface of the soil that had just been exposed by the farmer's plough.
These days there are so few insects that our windscreens remain clear from Land's End to John O'Groats. And there are no longer flocks of birds following the tractors, because in many fields there's little, or no life left in the soil.
How can this have happened in such a short period of time? Simple. It is down, unequivocally, to Man's chemical poisoning of the land, the oceans and the biosphere. That, and our obsessive desire to tame, manage, degrade, fragment, destroy and 'mow to within an inch of it's life' the once rich and diverse habitats that used to support insects and other biodiversity.
I say this because it needs to be said. Again.
We were warned of this scenario in the 1960's by Rachel Carson in her book 'Silent Spring'. We are being warned again by Henk Tennekes author of 'A Disaster in the Making' and by organisations such as Pesticides Action Network who campaign tirelessly to raise awareness of the dangers of pesticides and other toxic substances.
But why is this issue not being addressed as a matter of urgency in the media? Why do I not see any evidence that mass insect extinction is being taken seriously by the powers that be? And why are the NFU, who you'd have thought would be championing the insects that pollinate our crops, so hell bent on persuading the government to lift the moratorium on neonicotinoids?
Excuses, excuses, excuses.....
Having raised this issue myself on numerous occasions with people from all walks of life, I am tired of hearing the same old arguments from those who advocate that we 'need' these toxic substances to survive.
The arguments range from "We can't feed the world without the use of pesticides" to "What about all the jobs dependent on the pesticides industry…. people can't afford to lose their jobs" - and many more arguments besides.
These arguments are unbelievably short sighted. Without insects (not to mention unpolluted soil, water and atmosphere) man will not survive anyway. Very little will survive. We are destroying our tomorrow for the sake of our today. And the craziest thing of all is that it doesn't need to be like this because small scale, organic and sustainable farming can and will feed the world.
Of course it's not just the agri-chemical and pharmaceutical industries doing the damage...insects need habitat to survive too. They need environments where they can forage, nest, breed and hibernate - and this is something we can all help to provide.
Do something about it....
It is time for us to face the facts, however uncomfortable they may be. We can only effect change if we know and understand that change needs to happen. Burying our heads in the sand isn't going to solve anything....it never has.
It's way past time for us to address our obsession with 'tidiness' and 'cheap food' - both from bottom up (you and me) and top down (governments and local authorities) we need a complete sea change.
Humans are amazing, resourceful beings. All we need to do is wake up to the reality of the damage we are causing, shift our mind sets a little and do something about it!
Ways you can help:
Leave wild areas in your garden for insects (not just bees and butterflies) to forage, breed and hibernate.... and resist the temptation to 'tidy up' your gardens and allotments over winter. Also, wherever you can, please try to source food that has not been grown with the use of harmful chemicals.
Make your garden a haven for pollinators The Pollinator Garden
Get involved with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust
Take part in surveys, such as the UK Ladybird Survey
Become a Bees, Wasps & Ants recorder
OR.... simply spend some time lying in the undergrowth getting to know your local insects. They are utterly mesmerising. Once you're hooked you'll wonder how you ever managed not to notice them before and you will be motivated to do everything you can to help them survive.