Some months back a study was released that demonstrates just how damaging climate change is to insects, particularly those in tropical areas. Warming temperatures cause insects to die from overheating and dehydration, kills off their food sources, and lowers their fertility rates to dangerous levels. Moreover, changes in climate affect insect phenology, the timing of when they hatch, migrate, breed, and so forth.
And because insects are so small, they’re often disproportionately affected by many of these problems. As ectotherms, they rely on the air around them to regulate their body temperatures; their small mass means they lose heat faster than larger animals, and can be overloaded with heat much more quickly. Tropical insects are especially at risk from major fluctuations in temperature because they are adapted to a relatively narrow temperature range.
But the problem goes far beyond the tropics, and we are in the middle of an insect apocalypse. This problem often flies under the radar of those who are not already aware of invertebrate conservation. While a few insects, such as monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and domestic honey bees (Apis mellifera), find themselves in the press on a regular basis, most species don’t have large fan clubs. Some of my favorite insects include the white-tipped ctenucha moth (Ctenucha rubroscapus), the velvet snail-eating beetle (Scaphinotus velutinus), and the black-tailed bumblebee (Bombus melanopygus), none of which are insects you’re likely to find making the headlines.
To be fair, there are a lot of insect species out there, so it would be hard to feature every single one individually. But we already face the problem that many people simply just don’t see why we need to worry about fewer bugs around. Last year I wrote an article about how search engines tend to produce exterminator sites at the top of results for various insects, and while some of that is no doubt due to advertising-oriented algorithms, they do reflect a widespread demand for extermination services that isn’t matched by more positive attention to these little animals.
Much has been said among entomologists, ecologists, and other professionals about why we need to be concerned about the drastic drop in the numbers of many insect species, and I’ve written about it as well. I could reiterate what would happen if we lost our pollinators (and also how to save them!) or the crucial role insect detritivores play in reducing diseases and keeping the food web cycling along. And I am still a champion for mosquitoes and other unpopular insects.
But these things always bear repeating. It may be that nine out of every ten organisms on this planet is an insect. Insects play an incredible number of ecological roles, from ecosystem engineers to pollinators to food sources and much more. Without them, ecosystems around the planet would collapse entirely.
I could certainly take the self-interested route and emphasize that fully one-third of our food relies on insects and other pollinators. I might also point out that insect detritivores help nourish the soil needed for everything from food crops to timber. While terrestrial insects and other arthropods only make up about a fifth of the amount of global biomass as their marine counterparts, they still represent a natural sink that holds about 200 million tons of carbon at any given time.
But our anthropocentric worldview rarely considers the intrinsic value of insects simply for existing. We’re constantly weighing and measuring their worth based on our biases and values. We divide them into “good” or “bad” insects: good insects are those that do things we like, like pollination or looking pretty, while bad insects are the ones that chew on our homes and plants or which bite or sting us when threatened or seeking food. For a lot of people, any insect beyond maybe a butterfly is a reason to say “Ewww, gross!” I’ve even seen this widespread among self-professed nature lovers, whether they have a true entemophobia or not, though there may be an evolutionary reason for this seemingly disproportionate reaction.
So consider this yet another attempt to change opinions about insects. I can’t cure entemophobia, but I can at least get people thinking more critically about personal and societal attitudes toward insects. I hope to get people to realize that widespread use of pesticides and other garden/agricultural chemicals–which has increased fifty-fold in twenty-five years–is driving the loss of so many insects. I’ve mentioned before that habitat loss is the single biggest cause of species endangerment and extinction, and that goes for insects, too. And, of course, the study mentioned at the start of this article is just one highlighting the increasing impact climate change has on insects worldwide.
Let me wrap this up on a bright note: word is getting out. There is a lot more awareness than there was twenty years ago, and there’s more nuance than we had in the early “save the (domesticated European honey) bees” campaigns. More people are ditching pesticides and other garden chemicals unless absolutely needed, and regenerative agricultural practices that use fewer chemicals overall are gaining ground. And while numerous organizations are increasing awareness of insect conservation, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation–the oldest organization dedicated solely to invertebrates–is still going strong.
And you can help spread the word, too. Share this article with others, and some of the resources and organizations linked throughout. Consider your own relationship to the native insects in the world around you, and whether you might make their lives a little easier. And remember that sometimes it is the smallest of things that have the greatest importance in such a massive system as an entire living planet.