dragonfly perched on a post

The insect apocalypse and ways to avoid it

Insects and their spineless relatives are too essential to let them suffer an insect apocalypse.

An insect apocalypse is a good thing, right? No more termites eating through the rafters or spiders sending young girls into screaming fits. No more pesky bugs in your ear, mosquitoes biting your ankles or cockroaches in the kitchen. 

Butterflies are lovely, but bedbugs from your Air BnB are not. On balance, most city dwellers would vote for an insect apocalypse.

Of course, a moment’s thought and these instinctive responses fall over.

Have you any idea what fish eat?  Or what do lizards, amphibians, and bats eat? 

Did you know that insectivorous birds consume 500 million tonnes of prey annually?

Or that each year somewhere between $235 and $577 billion (U.S.) worth of annual global food production relies on pollination from honey bees, native bees, and flies?

And this is not half of it.

Insects making ecology happen.

Tiny creatures control pests; recycle organic material from dung to corpses, tree trunks and leaves; keep the soil healthy; disperse seeds; and contribute to many ecosystem services. 

All of this happens through the existence and actions of insects and their invertebrate cousins that we call bugs.

In 2018, Alloporus reported on long-term monitoring studies showing the number of invertebrates that fly had declined by 76% in 23 years — three-quarters of their abundance gone in a human generation. 

Here is a more recent quote from an article by Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex and the author of Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse

It should thus be of deep concern to all of us that insects appear to be disappearing from the earth at alarming rates. In Germany, flying insects have declined by 76% in just 26 years. In the UK, our more common butterfly populations have fallen by 46% since 1976, and the rarer ones by 77%, despite great efforts to protect them by conservationists. Thirteen bee species in the UK have gone extinct and more will probably follow. In the US, the celebrated monarch butterfly, famed for its annual migration between Mexico and Canada, has declined by more than 80% since the 1980s. The monarch population west of the Rockies is down 99.9% in the last couple of decades and looks headed for extinction within a year or two.

Professor Dave Goulson

An insect apocalypse or insectageddon, as some have dubbed this disaster.

Three quarters.

One half.

These are significant proportions. Imagine if you lost 75% of your salary or half your superannuation. Panic would ensue, and action demanded with shots fired at whoever might be responsible for such a tragedy.

But this loss of bugs barely registers.

The newsfeeds make it a filler somewhere down the list, with few people even realising what it means.

It means that human impact on the environment is now acute. Land clearing, pollution, global warming and the channelling of net primary production into human food have crippled the hardiest creatures, organisms that have been around for 350 million years.

And there will be consequences.

Insects are not just food for birds and bats; they are integral to the ecological balance, the processes that sustain plant life, and the likelihood of human persistence.

I kid you not.

Remember that most of the food to supply the 22 trillion kilocalories a day required by the global population of humans is grown in soil. And that only happens because the soil biodiversity facilitates the exchange of nutrients into plant roots.

Lose the soil animals and agriculture becomes inert.

picture of a robber fly perched on an outdoor table, a species vulnerable to an insect apocalypse
Robber fly—Alloporus

Actions to avoid an insect apocalypse 

It is time to register such events with more than a passing ‘oh wow’ and take action to halt the loss.

Here are a few of the obvious ones:

  • We must look closely at insecticides and the leakage of fertilisers into waterways and native vegetation around fields. 
  • Land-clearing decisions must be more intelligent. Clearing native vegetation shouldn’t be because a developer will make a dollar, or a landholder says that food can be grown if the trees are cut down. We must know these claims are valid and make informed decisions on the value propositions. 
  • Insects are not just critical to decomposition and nutrient cycling, they are also a nitrogen and protein source. Instead of eradicating them, cultivating the promising species might be an idea.
  • Restore habitat not just for the cute and cuddly critters but also for the invertebrates. The handy part of this is that regeneration is much easier to recover insect populations than tigers or Leadbeater’s possums. 
  • Create a matrix of vegetation that can support a diversity of insect species—functional patches than corridors for critters that never use them.
  • Raise awareness of how nature works and the critical role played by invertebrates. Bugs are yucky, and some are even dangerous to humans. There are poisonous spiders, scorpions that sting, bull ants that sting and bite, and other species that transfer parasites or are disease vectors. But these bad things come with benefits. The predatory species help with pest control, burrowers and nest builders help maintain soil health, and the myriad of species that decompose dead organic matter stop us from being neck-deep in even more ugly material.
  • Everyone, especially the politicians and technocrats, to learn all about soil biodiversity
beetles congregating on a plant to mate
Image source: Alloporus

What sustainably FED suggests

An insect apocalypse, insectageddon, is a huge deal. It is a symptom of the intensification of agriculture and the scale of human exploitation of nature.

Nothing should trivialise this loss. When the bees go, we are in deep shit. When the decomposers are compromised, the flow of nutrients to crops is too. 

We need the bugs.

But the real problem is that we don’t know we are in nature. 

We believe still that we are somehow separate and must subdue the earth. Our place is somehow different to all other species, we have dominion. 

We have built our economies as though they are separate and autonomous despite acquiring all the raw materials and energy from nature, and then using the land and oceans to dump our waste.

All of this is nonsense. 

Humans are a species like any other, dependent on finite resources on a finite planet. We might be smart enough to bend nature to extremes, but until we recognise our dependence, those smarts will wreck the future.

An insect apocalypse is a harbinger.


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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