How these pesky creatures are friends, not foe

By: Becky Dong

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Insect populations are rapidly declining. This sounds absurd to anyone who spent the
past summer swatting away endless swarms of mosquitoes and slathering on copious
amounts of DEET, but the data show that insect abundance has decreased in the past
few decades. A 2020 study investigating insect declines in the past few decades in
Europe found a 47% reduction in insect abundances from 1951-1977 to 1998-2018, with
land conversion being a primary factor for this decline. As our population increases by
0.88% per year, more resources are needed to sustain this growth, causing the
conversion of natural habitat for land use to skyrocket. This has led to mass
deforestation and intensive agricultural practices that have decimated our wildlands.
So, the research clearly shows that we’re responsible for the rapid decline of insects, but
why exactly should we care? The fact of the matter is that this affects much more than
just nature conservation, and while a summer without mosquito bites sounds rather
heavenly, it could also be the catalyst for an apocalypse. Insects make up 80% of animal
life on Earth, so what does a world without insects look like?

A world of famine
Discussions regarding insects these past few years have centered around the decline in
honeybee populations. They’re our star pollinators and the reason we have crops such as
apples, soybeans, and carrots. However, climate change, land conversion, and pesticide
use has resulted in the dwindling of their numbers. Many crops would fail to grow
without pollination, which would completely disrupt our agricultural supply chain and
increase food scarcity– a major problem that has already begun to impact our produce
aisles. Parts of the world are coping with this exodus by hand pollinating crops such as
apple and pear trees, a tedious and highly inefficient process, with some farmers turning
to the tech industry for solutions. This has led to the invention of robotic bees and cross-
pollination devices that are costly and labour-intensive whilst being incomparable to
their natural counterparts.

A trophic system in shambles
Over the summer, I researched insects and Anolis lizards in the Dominican Republic
and found a pretty clear correlation between the insect abundance in a habitat and the
body condition of lizards– more food in the environment led to fatter, healthier lizards.
Insects are the main food source for insectivorous birds, amphibians, and certain
mammals, and they follow the same trend as the anoles: more food leads to higher
fitness– but what happens when there isn’t enough food? Species populations will start
to dwindle, and predators running out of prey will need to find alternate food sources,
increasing competition between species and inducing a cacophony of interactions that
will destabilize and potentially lead to the collapse of multiple ecosystems.

A rotten world
An underrated and crucial component of the trophic system are the decomposers
responsible for breaking down dead foliage and carcasses and recycling nutrients. Not
only do insects clear the roads of organic waste, but they’re also responsible for the
cycling of nutrients that continue the progression of life. They do this by feeding the
plants that feed us by creating the recycled nutrients needed for growth. Without
insects, not only would plants that require pollination not thrive, but the disruption of
the nutrient recycling process would also stunt the growth of all plants.
Robotic bees, forests without lizards, and rotting animal carcasses: it’s a bleak image,
but it doesn’t have to become our reality. The insect decline can be remedied if we
increase our conservation efforts by pushing for more environmentally friendly policies,
decreasing pesticide use, and maintaining natural habitats. So next time you’re swatting
away a swarm of mosquitos, just think about their contributions to the environment and
how catastrophic it would be if we didn’t have them around.

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