Precipitous insect decline: collapse of nature?

This week a Dutch cartoonist with beauty dramatized a horrifying new study warning of “the collapse of nature.”

Yes, that statement seems extreme, but the art contextualizes it as form of suicide. Or even worse, as a form of ecocide-suicide.

First our species exterminates the insects, and then their decline unravels nature.

The study, freely available from the Biological Conservation journal, warns that this decline “may lead to the extinction of 40% of the world’s insect species over the next few decades.”

The very first genus threatened with extinction, according to the study? “Butterflies.”

This brings to mind the monarch butterfly, perhaps the best-known of all butterflies, the insect with the most astonishing migration in all the world. No matter how many times you’ve heard the story, it’s astonishing. The monarch travels annually from Mexico all the way to the far north. It’s a journey that can at its extremes encompass four or even five generations.

But the news from California is not good. The western population of this spectacular, iconic, and evolutionarily brilliant creature is in freefall. It’s fallen, according to the Xerces Society. from an estimated 1.2 million twenty years ago to approximately 30,000 this year. That’s down about 86%.

For a magazine I’m attempting to localize this story, and I must say I’m getting pushback. A fifth-generation farmer I talked to said he hasn’t seen it in his work. A veteran science writer reports on a methodological complaint about the analysis.This analysis reached its estimate by looking at papers reporting on insect declines, but did not do an overall cross-section study on a location.

For The Atlantic, Ed Yong reports:

For those reasons, it’s hard to take the widely quoted numbers from Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys’s review as gospel. They say that 41 percent of insect species are declining and that global numbers are falling by 2.5 percent a year, but “they’re trying to quantify things that we really can’t quantify at this point,” says Michelle Trautwein from the California Academy of Sciences. “I understand the desire to put numbers to these things to facilitate the conversation, but I would say all of those are built on mountains of unknown facts.”

Still, “our approach shouldn’t be to downplay these findings to console ourselves,” Trautwein adds. “I don’t see real danger in overstating the possible severity of insect decline, but there is real danger in underestimating how bad things really are. These studies aren’t perfect, but we’d be wise to heed this warning now instead of waiting for cleaner studies.”

Hmmm. From a rudimentary windshield survey of driving in California friends and I would say that the sheer number of insects is vastly reduced.

Should we not be alarmed because the perfect study has yet to be published? Maybe I need to find someone in California who is attempting to look at this question.



Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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