Monday 4 June 2012

Mass Insect Extinction; the Elephant in the Room?

Life on planet earth has evolved over billions of years and has, to date, endured five major mass extinctions

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 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

Join Buglife

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.

B x


  1. i cannot believe how the powers that be continually close their eyes to this :(

  2. I so agree Laoi gaul~williams and a most interesting blog 'B', you explain so well....thank you....binnie xXx

  3. Another poignent article - thanks. I knew that humans are doing a lot of bad stuff to the environment as a whole, but had no idea that insects, and specifically keystone species were being affected - do you have any figures on the decline in terms of species and numbers?

    I pleased you've also stood up to the 'jobs, jobs, jobs' trump everything card! We are killing ourselves for the sake of what? We can all have the best jobs in the world, but if there is no world...

    The BIG problem I have though is what to do. My current thinking is that small actions are no good - we are past the point where we can tweak things here and change a few things there. We need completely new ways of living which don't put profit above everything, but I can't really see that happening 'en-masse' until it's too late. Sorry to be so depressing, but I struggle to see hope sometimes. I myself want to make radical changes to my life, but I am limited within the system we operate in - the drive for profit means land prices are high and if I want to build an 'eco building' you have to jump through hoops because it's not the norm. Tough times. x

  4. It's petrol, not just pesticides.

  5. This attitude of we don't know what to do and I don't think it will make a difference anyway so I will do nothing is half the problem. Get onto your local council and county councils about the way they manage OUR open spaces, fields and road verges make a real fuss and get everyone you know to do the same, the way they cut down plants and flowers with the enormous loss in life and habitat to our wildlife in their constant effort to "tidy" is disgracful
    and they need to be told by a LOT of people. If enough people make a noise then things might start to change. Councils do want to be popular with the majority. Secondly much of Britain is now urban, therefor our gardens are a vital habitat for birds and insects but sadly an increasingly large number of gardens offer very little or nothing to our wildlife. The old cottage garden with it's nectar rich plants for our insects is a thing of the past in favour of patios, neatly cut lawns and showy ornamental flowers. If we all make sure we have plenty of good nectar giving flowers and bushes, if you can stomach a little untidiness perhaps a little wild patch in your garden with a few nettles or bramble and again encourage friends, family and neighbours to do the same then we can make a difference . I know it's only a start but at least it is a start ! Thanks again for a fantastic article Bee :-) keep up the good work

  6. 50 years since "Silent Spring" and we still haven't learned...

  7. Elemental Child11 June 2012 at 17:13

    There are a number of studies which point to Mobile Phone Towers/DECT phones and Electrosmog causing bee colony collapse.
    Scroll down to see chart on damage on bees

  8. My 'gateway' to living a low carbon, 'one planet' sustainable lifestyle was a love of insects. Or, maybe it was because I kept lizards and toads, and fed them assorted small crunchy prey... and this stimulated my teen wonderment of stick insects, praying mantises, moths, crickets, cockroaches, beetles and more. I used to leave my window open at night and light on, to draw moths in to feed to my Bufo marinus toads and Anolis lizards. I had 'pet' orb web spiders which spun HUGE webs which I enjoyed throwing butterflies and other insects into. I started a pinned insect collection.

    However, in my late teens I had an epiphany, mediated by mushrooms (another area of passion for my is fungi) and I ceased the captive animal, killing lifestyle, became a vegetarian and started a life of trying to live more and more in harmony with our 'natural' environment.

    This has condensed, now, 25+ years on, into my becoming a compost expert.... which of course means I meet up with Staphylinid beetles, springtails (used to be thought of as insects!) flies (my favourite is the Drone Fly, mimicking a bee, but with a wonderful larva called a 'rat-tailed maggot'), and many many other fantastic invertebrates. I'm always visited by birds, mainly Robins, which fulfill the function I enjoy watching of predator; they particularly like centipedes.

    My heating the house with 2 woodstoves means I have piles of logs around... I love it when tiny Ichneumon wasps with ovipositors twice as long as their bodies dance around, sensing where wood-boring beetle larvae are munching through the wood. And I still get excited when I find Lesser Stag Beetles in the garden, the results of larvae which 'got away' from those tiny wasps.

    If we lose insects, our lives will be far less rich and interesting, we'll lose probably the most important Class of animals, and, to be honest, our lives will be doomed. Quite simply, insects do so much in this world that there is no way we could go on as we are without them.

  9. Hi Bee, I read the excellent 'A World Without Bees' several years ago and wrote to my MP asking what the govt was doing. The response was typical of a politician. Now we have the hypocritical situation where farmers are being paid to put in field margins and wildflower areas and yet these spaces surround fields of crops, such as rape, which have been treated with neonictinoids. I attended a beekeeping course last Friday at Kate Humble's Farm hosted by 2 great ladies from Bees for Development. Seeing the bees in the hives for the first time was a fascinating experience. There's a competition on my blog Wellywoman to win a day at the farm with the chance to do a beekeeping course. I thought your followers may be interested in this. Will retweet your bee post. Hopefully pressure will build to get these chemicals banned.

    1. Thank you for the comment wellywoman.

      I love the Bees for Development charity....I'll be running a one day workshop for them on Wild Bees sometime later this year. I'm also attending one of their weekend courses in September at Ragmans Lane Farm.

      I've just posted a link to your blog on facebook.

      Also read you hedgerow blog and thought you may be interested in this link if you haven't come across it before -

      B x

  10. Great passionate blog - working with soil it scares me how much soil detritivores & soil organisms are quite simply ignored in the main. Do the larger NGOs who now dominate the UK nature conservation scene and concentrate on 'public friendly' species do so at the risk of destroying foundation species of biodiversity through overdue attention on such species?

    Pip Howard

  11. Brigit,

    I love the passion from across the Atlantic. It is a toss up between slow and steady wins the race and a greenpeace approach.

    My company's plan( is to educate the backyard gardener in an accelerated path through facebook, twitter, pinterest, and whatever means we can find.

    We are all preaching to the choir. Our purpose needs to be to educate the people that are unaware of the chemical corporatacracy occurring worldwide. When these companies began buying the bee research firms, we knew there was a battle going on. Still, what can we do other than educate the masses?

    The path that we're pushing hard on is for backyard gardeners to learn to raise solitary bees. Not just drill holes in blocks of wood and let them survive or not, but learning to care for them. As we teach this, we'll be asking for their excess bees to be used the following year in nearby orchards.

    Through people learning about insects and how easy it is to kill them with chemicals, we intend to help people and their neighbors stop using them. It will be slow, but hopefully this practice is a proactive approach that will gain traction.

    We've recently added our European Bee-Mail that comes out monthly. (Written by a Netherlands native bee expert.)

    I'm rooting for all you're trying to do Brigit. It's not too late. The mistake that we are making is working independently. Reach out to me please.

  12. It is astounding just how little we do about this and how important it is. I always thought that wild food may at least provide a check against reductions in conventional food production through effects of climate change. Thought wild foods more resistant, can handle a flood or drought, no need for pestisides or fertilizer, or even husbandry. Then 2012 came along and the bees were drowned or starved and I could barely find a handfull of food from the wild in what should be a period of plenty. I can only hope they recover and that the governments of the world grow up pronto.

  13. People who get to the top of society are generally the most ruthless and greedy. Those appear to be the traits required to get there. You need to be able to turn a blind eye to suffering and crush anyone who gets in your way, under foot. So we have those people at the top, a poorly educated and apathetic core within the masses and then there are the thinkers, the dreamers, artisans and environmentalists. The few who really give a hoot. Until this changes and we learn to reject greedy, corrupt leaders, there is not a lot we can do to heal the world. Sadly I don't believe that it can be done peacefully.

  14. As many have said, it's all about education. Unfortunately, the ones who listen are the ones who already understand! I keep plugging away though.
    If everyone does a little, we'll achieve lots of little! If everyone does a lot....... :-)

  15. Plenty to think about here. Have surveys of changes in earthworm abundance over the last 50 years been carried out? It seems it's all about soil organic matter. I live in East Anglia where mixed farming and manuring have declined substantially in favour of NPK dressings. However I have lately seen splendid trails of gulls following the plough, and if I do so again I will photograph the sight and send it to you as a heartwarmer.

    Robinson, RA and Sutherland, WJ (2002): Post-war changes in arable farming and biodiversity in Great Britain; Journ Applied Ecol 36 -

    "Organic matter build-up can occur on a conventional farm if the farmer has access to animal manures and they are applied regularly (in accordance with codes of practice). The benefit here may be greater than on an organic stockless farm with limited or no access to manures."
    Shepherd, M et al (2003): An assessment of the environmental impacts of organic farming; Review for Defra-funded project OF0405 -

    Hole DG et al. (2005): Does organic farming benefit biodiversity? Biol Cons 122 -

    "The role of soils in determining abundance patterns and population declines of other farmland species may have been overlooked in previous studies."
    Gilroy, JJ 2008: Could soil degradation contribute to farmland bird declines? Links between soil penetrability and the abundance of yellow wagtails Motacilla flava in arable fields; Biol Cons 141.12 -

    "The highest number of earthworms was recorded in the treatment with the largest dose of nitrogen fertilizer" - Iordache, M and Borza, I (2010): Relation between chemical indices of soil and earthworm abundance under chemical fertilization; PLANT SOIL ENVIRON., 56 -

    Chan, KY (2001): An overview of some tillage impacts on earthworm population abundance and diversity — implications for functioning in soils; Soil Tillage and Research 57.4 -

    1. Hi Tim,

      Thank you so much for your feedback and for these very interesting links (which I have bookmarked to read over the weekend)

      It is most encouraging to know that you still see trails of gulls following tractors as they plough in East Anglia.

  16. Bridget, after listening to your fascinating talk on wild bees yesterday, when I arrived home I logged into your blog and after researching a few links I was blown away to find you were such a celebrity. I don't have TV anymore so missed your series on TV but will take a look at them on YouTube (if I had a TV this is one programme I would have watched).

    Seeing what you have done to spread the word and influence others has certainly been enlightening to say the least.I have felt for a while there is something missing in my life, only recently I am beginning to realise what it is. I like the way you have got out there amongst the public to spread the word (I only realised about two years ago I had mild aspergers so don't think I could stand in front of an audience like you do, although over the years I have learn't to overcome it, even if I didn't know what it was that was affecting me). These days so many people are living within a bubble, influenced by TV, and the media, games music etc.all controlled by the powers that be without people realising.

    I am in my latter years and feel I would rather keep going right up to the end rather than just slowly fade away. I now belong to OBOD so I can connect with like thinking individuals who connect with the earth, sky and sea.

    Yes I feel I should be doing more with my life to spread the word to others, so many people are so detached from nature. Even if you go on a train journey , very few people look out of the windows to view all the nature that is around. Believe me you see some fascinating things some times, I feel like shouting out “look you just missed something I saw out of the window”. Just walking amongst nature on my own I get such a feeling of oneness, something you cannot describe only experience for yourself.

    I cannot help but feel emotional about what man is doing to the planet all for greed and power. The powers that be have little or no regard for life, animal, plant or human. Wars being deliberately influenced/started to fuel the military industrial complex.

    So many times I have laid in bed thinking, why are things so bad, they don't have to be this way. I get a mixture of sorrow, frustration and anger. Can things keep going on the way they have been?


  17. Good piece. It seems so difficult to get those who wield power to comprehend the interconnectivity of these things. They sometimes value what is easy to see, but seldom that which is unseen. Remind them whenever you can: there are no jobs, there is no economy on a dead planet.

  18. Very pertinent post.
    I shall share this via my own social-media links to help create a little more awareness.

  19. I was reading your article and wondered if you had creating an ebook on this subject. Your writing would sell it fast. You have a lot of writing talent.
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  20. Like Brigit I can remember the 1960s when I use to have to weekly wash my fathers car and as he spent a lot of time driving late in the evening on country lanes it was encrusted in splatted insects. Yet in 2003 when the RSPB tried to create a bug splat test using insects splattered on number plates, to create a baseline level of insect numbers, and got 40,000 responses, it had to be abandoned because so few insects were being recorded. Meaning that somewhere between the early 1970s and 2003 there had been a massive undocumented crash in rural insect numbers.

    This is it, no one has got a clue when it happened, the precise mechanisms. The reason for this is that it's practically very difficult to assay insect numbers i.e. biomass. Nearly all surveys are just the presence and absence of species. Therefore if a few of each species are left, even if there has been a dramatic crash in the population of that species, no one notices. It is not like birds, where long time bird ringing, and breeding bird survey's means populations can be accurately estimated.

    The problem which causes this obvious reality to be ignored is that we have shifted from seeing actuality as our primary reference point, to a world of abstract ideas. Some of these abstract ideas are about the actual world, ecosystems, biodiversity etc. But just as powerful are false ideas, or complete fantasy. Unfortunately, when your primary referent becomes abstract ideas, false ideas are as relevant as accurate ideas.

    One single idea can unlock our false perception of the world, the mistaking the map for the territory logical fallacy, where the idea becomes more important than what it refers to. It is this which has led to the false perception the economics is more important than ecology, where economic growth trumps everything, including the reality described by our best science. Our best science tells us that in fact we are entirely reliant on the Earth's biodiversity and natural ecosystems. Yet fanciful ideas that we are a god like species destined to rule the universe overrides the reality that we are not, and are just one small part of life.

    If everyone learns what the map territory relationship is about, and that the true reality we should be using as a referent is the natural world and our place in it, this false perception can be undone. The scales will fall from our eyes. We will see that the false reality of fanciful thinking which clouds our judgement is a mirage. Knowledge about the natural world should be the most revered type of knowledge in our society, because this is the reality from where we emerged, and our survival depends on understanding this. We must see any idea, any story, no matter how persuasive, which does not incorporate the natural world as it's primary referent, as a false belief, a delusion.


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