It has been claimed, but unsubstantiated, that Albert Einstein once stated “If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.” OK, that might be a rather bold claim as bees are not the only pollinator working hard to provide the wide and varied ecology that humans need to exist, but what if the wider insect populations were at threat and not just bees?
For those of us of a certain generation we can remember returning from a short car journey during the summer months with a windscreen decorated with a splatter of hundreds of insects varying in size and colour. Only the shape was the same, having been hit by an invisible windscreen moving relatively fast, and turned into a splayed pancake shape stuck to the glass. Getting them off was no job for the windscreen wipers but rather sponge and chamois and some elbow grease. Garages would often have a bucket of [not so] soapy water available to conduct this repetitive task. Somehow today that doesn’t seem to be the case. Occasionally I’ll have some insect life adorning the front of my car but nothing needing emergency attention to enable me to see. It’s been a gradual decline resulting in most of us not even realising that it has happened. But happened it has, and the impact of it could indeed be far more serious than most would anticipate. Interestingly, the UK Government's move to provide greater protection for animals (with its sentience bill) doesn’t include insects. This may simply be due to the sentience issue, but protecting those animals further up the food chain must infer a protection of the food sources those animals require to exist.
There is a very informative report written by Professor Dave Goulson, FRES, (https://www.kentwildlifetrust.org.uk/sites/default/files/2020-01/Actions%20for%20Insects%20-%20Insect%20declines%20and%20why%20they%20matter.pdf) which identifies a number of causes of the decline. Sadly, many are not new or unknown, such as the use of pesticides, increasing habitat loss and climate change. It never ceases to amaze me that apparently educated human beings so often think they understand nature to such an extent that they can control actually it. Any sensible person understands the concept of cause and effect - mess with one thing and something will happen somewhere else as a result. Therefore, if you use pesticides to kill ‘pests’ to support a crop, then everything feeding off that pest will also suffer. Our rivers require water that runs off the fields to provide food for the fish. If you kill off that food source then there is less for the fish to eat so their populations decrease. At the same time, hunters use ‘management’ to justify the shooting of pigeons and crows to protect crop growth, but the fundamental difference is that a pigeon shooter won’t kill all of the pigeons. Unfortunately pesticides, poorly used, will be indiscriminate in both type or number of pests killed.
A snippet of the summary observations from Professor Goulson’s report identify:
- The abundance of insects in the UK has halved since the 1970s
- Half of the UK bee species have shown marked range contractions of over 50% - this is often a pre-cursor to extinction of that species.
- 23 species of bee and flower-visiting wasps have gone extinct in the UK since 1850.
- The UK has lost 150,000 miles of hedgerow, 50% of downland, 98% of wildflower meadows, and 50% of ancient woodland since 1950.
- In the UK, populations of the spotted flycatcher fell by 93% between 1967 and 2016
As one would expect, the loss of insect life has already impacted bird and mammal species, some of which are well known to those engaged in rural pursuits. In the past 50 years we have seen near extinction level reductions in grey partridge, nightingales and cuckoos.
All is not lost however, but a recovery may only really be achievable if laws support the actions required. Voluntary replanting of hedgerows, reduction of the use of pesticides, and other private initiatives are unlikely to be enough. Whilst we all get tired of hearing how the government should 'do this and do that' by people wanting to absolve themselves of any personal responsibility, I believe that in this case we need both. We need a culture shift in how people regard the countryside and more importantly understand the very sensitive relationships forged in the food chain. If we want to be able to eat foods that we currently accept as commonplace and that form part of our staple diet well into even the midterm future then we need to start respecting where it comes from. It doesn’t matter if you live in a city or the countryside, the impacts of continued exploitation of our rich and healthy landscapes will be felt everywhere.
These miniature lifeforms are in fact giants in our model of bio-diversity. Ignoring them in favour of more eye catching champions of conservation such as gorillas, whales, and birds of prey is pure ignorance. Without these mighty miniatures there won’t be any headline catching heavyweights to protect. Its time we realised eating from local produce, when it’s in season, ethically sourced and from sustainable populations is a good starting point, but we need to enforce the replanting and protection of our countryside to help complete the circle of life.