In the UK the populations of our more common butterflies have fallen by 46% in the last 50 years while the rarer species have declined by 77%. We have lost 60% of our flying insects in just 20 years. We have entirely lost 13 species of our native bees since the 1970s and fully expect more to follow.
Small tortoiseshell; redheaded cardinal beetle; tawny mining bee: all inhabitants of the reserve, all species suffering falling numbers.
All the data is pointing to a rapid, ongoing collapse of insect populations around the world. This has happened in our lifetimes, on our watch! Our neatly edged world, soused in chemicals, has become a hostile environment for all but the toughest, most adaptable of insects: cockroaches, mosquitoes, houseflies. And we seem to be unable to take the simple steps that will halt, or even reverse, this frightening decline.
The earliest insect fossils we have ever found are arthropods: 415 million years old precursors to centipedes and spiders, which were then, and still are, predators. Predators don’t join an ecosystem until there is something in it to prey upon. So already, more than 415 million years ago, complex ecosystems were sufficiently evolved to support insect predators.
Insects, then as now, were the recyclers, the munchers and chewers, the soil manufacturers, the vehicles for plant reproduction, the often airborne movers and shakers. All terrestrial ecosystems have developed hand in hand with insects right from the beginning. Imagine the complexity of almost half a billion years of interdependent evolution; no wonder we have failed so spectacularly to understand the vital roles that insects play in our beleaguered environment.
Since those first invertebrates left the oceans, insects have diversified into the million species we have already identified and the estimated 5 million more yet to be described. But it is beginning to look as if many of those as yet unknown species will be extinct before we even give them names.
We are in danger of tidying away the essential bottom layer of the processes that feed us, that make the air we breathe. In the UK, farmers apply 17,000 tons of pesticides to the countryside every year, doing terrible damage to the soil and to the creatures that maintain its health. Two thousand tons of Roundup, a herbicide popular with gardeners, are sold in Britain every year.
Overly tidy gardening; monoculture treated with herbicides and pesticides.
We can do better than this. We are part of that thing called public opinion, and public opinion is what sways politicians, political parties, whole governments and world wide movements. We have to make our concerned and anxious voices heard in the places where decisions are made. Write to your MP or your county councillor; vote at every single opportunity; add your name to polls and petitions and, if nothing else seems to be working, go and stand in the street with a placard and shout. There is more at risk here than the butterflies in your flower beds.
Header picture: Golden-bloomed longhorn beetle photographed in the reserve by Simon Knight