German Study has Ominous Insect Finding

October 23, 2017

It’ll be ok if we kill off animal life. We can still eat insects!

Wait. What?


The abundance of flying insects has plunged by three-quarters over the past 25 years, according to a new study that has shocked scientists.

Insects are an integral part of life on Earth as both pollinators and prey for other wildlife and it was known that some species such as butterflies were declining. But the newly revealed scale of the losses to all insects has prompted warnings that the world is “on course for ecological Armageddon”, with profound impacts on human society.

The new data was gathered in nature reserves across Germany but has implications for all landscapes dominated by agriculture, the researchers said.

The cause of the huge decline is as yet unclear, although the destruction of wild areas and widespread use of pesticides are the most likely factors and climate change may play a role. The scientists were able to rule out weather and changes to landscape in the reserves as causes, but data on pesticide levels has not been collected.

“The fact that the number of flying insects is decreasing at such a high rate in such a large area is an alarming discovery,” said Hans de Kroon, at Radboud University in the Netherlands and who led the new research.

“Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on Earth [but] there has been some kind of horrific decline,” said Prof Dave Goulson of Sussex University, UK, and part of the team behind the new study. “We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects then everything is going to collapse.”

The research, published in the journal Plos One, is based on the work of dozens of amateur entomologists across Germany who began using strictly standardised ways of collecting insects in 1989. Special tents called malaise traps were used to capture more than 1,500 samples of all flying insects at 63 different nature reserves.

When the total weight of the insects in each sample was measured a startling decline was revealed. The annual average fell by 76% over the 27 year period, but the fall was even higher – 82% – in summer, when insect numbers reach their peak.

Previous reports of insect declines have been limited to particular insects, such European grassland butterflies, which have fallen by 50% in recent decades. But the new research captured all flying insects, including wasps and flies which are rarely studied, making it a much stronger indicator of decline.

The fact that the samples were taken in protected areas makes the findings even more worrying, said Caspar Hallmann at Radboud University, also part of the research team: “All these areas are protected and most of them are well-managed nature reserves. Yet, this dramatic decline has occurred.”


Say Goodbye to bug salad

The amateur entomologists also collected detailed weather measurements and recorded changes to the landscape or plant species in the reserves, but this could not explain the loss of the insects. “The weather might explain many of the fluctuations within the season and between the years, but it doesn’t explain the rapid downward trend,” said Martin Sorg from the Krefeld Entomological Society in Germany, who led the amateur entomologists.

Goulson said a likely explanation could be that the flying insects perish when they leave the nature reserves. “Farmland has very little to offer for any wild creature,” he said. “But exactly what is causing their death is open to debate. It could be simply that there is no food for them or it could be, more specifically, exposure to chemical pesticides, or a combination of the two.”

In September, a chief scientific adviser to the UK government warned that regulators around the world have falsely assumed that it is safe to use pesticides at industrial scales across landscapes and that the “effects of dosing whole landscapes with chemicals have been largely ignored”.

The scientists said further work is urgently needed to corroborate the new findings in other regions and to explore the issue in more detail. While most insects do fly, it may be that those that don’t, leave nature reserves less often and are faring better. It is also possible that smaller and larger insects are affected differently, and the German samples have all been preserved and will be further analysed.

In the meantime, said De Kroon: “We need to do less of the things that we know have a negative impact, such as the use of pesticides and the disappearance of farmland borders full of flowers.”


17 Responses to “German Study has Ominous Insect Finding”

  1. […] Friday night, at my niece’s birthday party, the conversation turned (not started by me … surprisingly) to news from Germany: the insects are disappearing. […]

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    This is no joke, and is not limited to the narrow results of this study. Here in the U.S., biologists have commented on the “Windshield Effect”—–the fact that there seem to be fewer bugs going SPLAT on car windshields each year.

    That is certainly true in Northern Virginia and along the mid-Atlantic from here to Southern New Jersey near Atlantic City. I make the 420 mile round trip up there several times a year to visit family, and now only have a handful of “bug smears” to clean off the windshield at the end of the trip. Twenty+ years go, I would have had to clean the windshield once or twice each way in order to be able to see.

    Some good news is that I still have a handful of bees and and some butterflies visiting the flower bed.

  3. disperser Says:

    When I linked that same article in one of my posts (with the required warning about us being screwed), I was directed to this post:

    When I did a Google search looking for confirmation of a decline here in the US, a lot of the articles and discussions shot back to the German study. I didn’t look hard, but didn’t see links to US studies. Note: I’m not an academic, not a denialist or skeptic, but I do like to be accurate when I quote stuff.

    What seems counterintuitive is that more insects are surviving winter in northern latitudes, and that would seem as if it would result both in a migration North (which I think is a concern when it comes to some disease-bearing insects) and an overall increase.

    As for the windshield test . . . cars these days are a lot more aerodynamic than they were twenty years ago. A better test is the front grille, although even that is optimized for laminar flow.

    Of course, nothing helped much in Colorado, where I used to live. Even a short trip necessitated washing the front of the car before the splatter caked on there, so perhaps locations matter, but if that’s so, we can’t use personal experiences to make the case one way or the other.

    What’s weird is that here in Hawaii I hardly get any bugs hitting the car and one can’t say there aren’t insects around. Perhaps different kind of insects. Also, there are few places where one can go over 45 mph, so that might matter as well.

    I think the above blog article is right; we need more and larger studies.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Interesting that you mentioned Colorado—-I can remember a trip through CO and NM in the summer of 1966 where the sky was so filled with small white moths that it looked like it was snowing—-it was particularly hard driving at night because of the reflection, and I had to stop and buy a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Windex. The windshield needed cleaning every 10 miles or so, and at gas stations people were also cleaning the smashed bugs off the front of their radiators to avoid overheating. Have not seen anything like it in subsequent trips out there.

      You say you’re not a denier or skeptic, but you seem like you’re tending that way with the over reach displayed by “cars are a lot more aerodynamic now”. True to a point, but that merely converts the old straight on “splat” of the more upright windshields of old into a glancing “smear” on newer ones—-improved laminar flow does not keep the bugs from impacting—-it merely changes the dynamics. (And the vehicles I’ve been using in my “personal experiences observations” are 14 and 18 years old anyway—LOL).

      It’s not clear what you’re saying in your “counterintuitive” paragraph—-you have a bit of an apples-oranges thing going when you talk about numbers of species vs numbers in a population of a single species vs “migrations” and “overall” anything.

      Finally—yes, the German study is the hot topic this week, and you’ll have to google deeper to find stuff. Look to the links in the first generation google hits you get—-sometimes the real gold lies in the secondary and tertiary links you will find there. (And some of the best evidence for insect decline is the decline in the numbers of insectivorous birds, which topic has been under discussion for 20 or 30 years.)

      PS Another “personal experience” anecdote. I have in my backyard a Sport Court, and it’s lighted for night play. When we installed it in in 1978, moths and other insects would swarm the lights and bats, sometimes 2 or 3 at once, would zoom in from the shadows and gorge themselves until we turned the lights out—-lots of fun to watch during breaks from play. We no longer see the big insect swarms and only an occasional bat will make a short visit. Sometimes “personal experience” offers valuable information, especially when you’ve been around as long as I have.—-don’t sell it short

    • disperser Says:

      Well, I replied, but it’s not showing up. Too bad. It was all clever and stuff.

  4. webej Says:

    This is truly scary. The bugs have always survived everything. They are the bottom of the pyramid.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Yes, it IS “truly scary”, but not because the “bugs” are the “bottom of the pyramid and they have always survived everything”. The bugs are actually pretty far up the ladder—–the bottom of the pyramid is inhabited by bacteria and other miniscule “critters” like algae and fungi.

      Bacteria are found everywhere from 30,000 feet up in the atmosphere to miles below the surface of the planet. Should we in our hubris manage to extinguish most of the larger and visible forms of life on the planet, the littlest things will begin the billion year climb back to large multi-cellular life.

      Perhaps, if something resembling humans are even in the next evolutionary wave, they will be wiser than he misnamed Homo sapiens.

  5. J4Zonian Says:

    Combine this with a nearly 60% decline in all wildlife species, (more by now, I’m sure)
    and a 90% decline in large ocean fish (more by now, I’m sure)
    the denial that we’re in any kind of trouble and have to drastically change our lives immediately is absolutely astounding. We need to remove the disturbed people from power and begin to heal from their depredations.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      “We need to remove the disturbed people from power and begin to heal from their depredations”, you say??. To remind everyone of the words of the immortal POGO, “We have met the enemy and he is us”. Yes, the wrong leaders make it worse, but the truth is that the human species is just not evolved enough to get it done even if we put the best among us in charge. The “depradations” are just humans doing their thing, most of them merely wanting to survive as any other animal does.

      Regarding the 60% decline, a major part of the problem is that we have NO idea how many species there really are on total on the planet and the most important species for the survival of the biosphere are virtually invisible—they are hardly studied because they are not “glamorous” and can’t be found in zoos or filmed by National Geographic).

      The cited report deals only with vertebrates — “an analysis of data on more than 14,200 populations across 3,700 species of mammals, fish, amphibians, birds and reptiles — projected that if the trend continued, the world could lose more than two-thirds of wildlife by 2020”.

      And 3700 species? We have NO idea of the total number of species on the planet. Best low ball guess is somewhere around 2 million, with estimates of up to 10 million or so floating around. It’s good that the vertebrates are the most familiar and can serve as canaries in the coal mine, but it’s the potential extermination of our mostly unseen little friends that is the real worry. So, do your bit and take a protist to lunch today.

      • J4Zonian Says:

        Years of research tell me 10 million is not the high end, it’s the best estimate for the number of species. Most are insects. 14,000 populations of 3700 species of vertebrates is sampling, the technique used for virtually every estimate of everything, and it’s good work, with many times the data points needed to give a good picture of what’s happening. Given the varied biomes and ecosystems included, and the interconnectedness of all life, species not included are very likely to be suffering a similar decline. Especially in light of the 3 independent studies cited, and many smaller ones that reach the same conclusions for single species or ecosystems, the trend is utterly clear, even the degree of uncertainty about the speed is immaterial in the face of the current exponential increase in effects of the larger psycho-ecological crisis.

        More important: the vast majority of people aren’t causing any of the global ecological problems we have. The poorest 6 billion emit only about 20% of humanity’s GHGs; that’s an excellent indication of their part in energy and material use, and all the serious ecological problems we have. Since most decisions about where and how the poor live are made by the rich, the poor aren’t even responsible for the tiny amounts they pollute. This crisis is overwhelmingly caused by the richest few percent of people.

        Human nature encompasses everything we do, good, bad, adaptive and maladaptive. This is not a problem caused by humanity; it’s a psychological problem that afflicts those few who have created our institutions, conditions and standard modes of operation to be created by those afflicted–objectification and projection and all that results from that combination: capitalism, inequality, slavery (>30 million now), genocide, racism, sexism, class and religious prejudice, ecological destruction. There is a psychological system we’re all part of, projecting and introjecting parts of each other, acting out the unconscious desires of each other. Healing any of us helps the system heal, so those we can’t reach or heal will have to be healed in mass ways, through media, and above all our refusal to take part in their system any more. To do that we need to recognize the psychological nature of the crisis.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Yes indeed! Shit is a very important part of the cycle of life on the planet, and it is the “lunch” for protists that I mentioned in another comment here. Of course, it does the most good when left in the places that bears and whales leave it.

  6. livinginabox Says:

    I have noticed an enormous decline in flying insects in recent decades. I remember going on Summer holidays in France and the front of the car would be covered in splattered insects, not any more.
    Here at home in the UK, instead of a constant buzz of flies, wasps, bees, sawflies, dragonflies, butterflies, moths, craneflies, beetles and etc. in Summer, it’s all gone quiet.

    I took part in the in September. During the time my wasp trap was operational 2-9 Sept, I caught zero wasps. It was a cold spell, and I have seen wasps since.

    It’s terrible.

  7. Jerry Falwel Says:

    If you read the actual study it is mostly voodoo research. only 1 site had four collections in the study period, most had only one. You cannot make any conclusions from the collections as there is simply no comparable data from year to year. All you need is a high insect collection from one or two sites to skew the entire results. Most sites were of low nutrient content per the study which puts a much higher load on the fewer, much fewer high nutrient sites which were sampled one time. Give a draught and the mass of insects would plunge affecting the whole study.

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