Understanding UK Insect Decline and Extinctions: A Government Briefing

Hopefully we’ve largely moved past the kneejerk reaction to insects that were common not that long ago – “Ugh” and “Kill it” – and now understand that insects are a critical part of all ecosystems. They are not only beautifully evolved, fascinating animals, but they are – in the words of the charity Buglife – the ‘small things that run the planet‘. They pollinate, break down waste and recycle it, feed a huge number of other insects and a huge number of other animals (from birds and amphibians to fish and mammals). While the rest of life on this planet – as our current lockdown has proved – would get along fine without us, it would quickly fall apart without insects.

How close are we to reaching that point though? Reports on insect numbers and population trends appear to be fairly depressing, but while existing data does suggest that many insects are in long-term decline (while a few species are showing stable or increasing trends), scientists acknowledge that with so few insect species studied in the field the trends are uncertain and may be over- or underestimated. And understanding the drivers of those trends is not as simple as many of us (myself included) would like it to be: black-and-white issues can be solved with black-and-white answers, but as the abstract to the briefing notes, “Fully understanding the data on the drivers of insect decline is complex as there is limited evidence on how drivers influence each other, and which drivers are having the greatest impact“.

A recent note on the UK Parliament Post, ‘Understanding insect decline: data and drivers‘, has brought together a large number of expert reports and data (eight pages of the 34-page report are given over to references) to summarise the evidence for insect declines in the UK, what is driving trends (up or down), and which wider interventions are needed to support the recovery of insect populations (insects can respond to interventions – restoring habitat, switching to organic food production, allowing even small areas in our gardens to ‘go wild’ for example – relatively quickly).

Now while that may sound a little dry, it’s well worth reading. If you’re short of time – and who isn’t with so much information on Covid-19 to scoop up, churm over, and digest or discard? – the core of the briefing, which is titled “Drivers of Insect Decline”, covers the salient points that most of us inexpert but interested laypeople might want to mull over our morning cuppa. The first paragraph ends with a warning for all of us incidentally as we consider whether a rush to ‘normality’ (the shorthand for ‘getting straight back to our destructive ways’ that the media talks about all the time) is the right way to go when lockdown restrictions are eased: “Climate change is likely to interact with multiple stressors, such as increased invasive species and reduced habitat availability“.

Ten ‘Drivers’ are listed and summarised (usually in just a few paragraphs – this is a briefing after all, intended to prompt further questions and reading). It might be an interesting challenge (before skim-reading ahead) to see how many of the ten you can name? I would guess that most of us would quickly reel off Habitat Loss and Fragmentation, Urbanisation, Pesticide Use, and Climate Change. If you can resist peeking, maybe Invasive Species and Genetically modified and edited crops might make the list. How many of us might have wondered about Artificial Light or (and this will be grist to the mill for the more extreme Covid-19 conspiracists) Electromagnetic Radiation though?

Perhaps what is most interesting (assuming that any of this is interesting to you in the first place) is just how many of these drivers do overlap with each other as referred to above, even if how these drivers impact on or work hand-in-glove with each other is not yet understood. One sentence, under “Invasive Species”, sums up the situation nicely: “Other drivers of insect decline (land-use change, habitat loss, pathogens) may have a greater impact on insect declines, but with limited knowledge, the risks could be overlooked and understudied”.

I suppose you have to ask what notice the government will take given the current circumstances, or what action it might propose to sort out this lack of clear understanding, but it needs to do something (and as we the people voted them in to make the world a better place, so do we if these warnings go unheeded). We may not be emerging into a post-pandemic Armageddon this time around, but our ongoing destruction of the natural processes that support all life on earth will have consequences that will change absolutely everything. And in all seriousness that would make lockdown look like a picnic in the park…