Where have all the insects gone?

Where have all the insects gone?
While news focuses on elections or the economy, the bigger picture is that our world is being tragically and massively denuded of non-human forms of life
By Hugh Warwick
May 13 2017

There is a scene at the end of the film Gangs of New York when Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio are deep in a vicious fight for honour and territory. As the camera pulls up and away it becomes apparent how very small and insignificant the squabble is. The city is being bombarded from the sea.

That is how I feel we are treating the looming election. We are engrossed in a knife fight while all around us the world is under attack.

It is not as if the camera has not pulled back from time to time, allowing us to see the bigger picture. Experts and others with the wisdom to see are calling our attention to the looming disaster.

In the latest edition of Science there is one such attempt to get the politicians and the public to raise their gaze. Entomologists have been assessing diversity and abundance across western Germany and have found that between 1989 and 2013 the biomass of invertebrates caught had fallen by nearly 80%.

This information gives the lie to our obsession with biodiversity – because the international lists of species of conservation concern, known as red lists, do not pick up on alarming losses within relatively common species. So there is a degree of comfort in looking at those lists – but they can deflect attention from the real problem, which is a loss not of biodiversity but a loss of bioabundance.

We have all had the chance to notice this. Think back, if you can, 30 or 40 years to driving cars in the summer and how many insects were destroyed on windscreens and lights. The reason it does not happen now may be, in some small part, due to improvements in aerodynamics. But at the heart of the problem is that there are not the volumes of insects out there to hurl themselves at our cars.

I was reminded of this loss as I cycled home one balmy evening from my weekly dance class. I had taken the route along the Thames towpath and then cut across to a lane that ran along a brook, which was where, in my headtorch beam, I caught sight of a moth. A single moth. And I realised with shock that this was the only moth I had seen on a night that should have had their wings dancing like blossom in a spring breeze. I wept.



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