Massive insect extinction threatens humans

Massive insect extinction is not about good riddance to irritating bugs. Insects are actually a vital part of almost all ecosystems. When they die these ecosystems often die also. And this is true of many of the ecosystems where us humans live.

Most of the information on the massive insect extinction this article describes comes from a New York Times article. The title of the article is “The Insect Apocalypse is Here.” It is by Brooke Jarvis. There is a link to this article at the bottom of this page.

I have to say that this is one of the best articles I have read recently. The original article appeared in the Times on Nov. 27, 2018.

The windshield problem

Those of us who have been driving for the last thirty years probably remember all of those dead bugs on our windshields. You would have to stop and spend five or ten minutes scrubbing your windshield.

Have you noticed that you no longer need to clean the bugs off your windshield? Buggy windshields haven’t been happening for the last ten years or so.

A German entomologist wondered why this might be. So he looked into it. It turns out that a huge proportion of the the wold’s bugs have flat out disappeared.

Thousands of sandhill cranes lift off in unison at dawn.
Sandhill Cranes lifting off at dawn at Bosque del Apache in New Mexico. This look like a lot of birds, and it is to those of us living now in as vastly depleted bio-landscape. To historians of the way the earth once was, this is just a drop in the bucket.

“The German study found that the overall abundance of flying insects has decreased by 75 percent over just 27 years. If you look at the midsummer population peaks, the drop was 82 percent.”

Scientists all over the world were horrified when they heard this. The study quickly became the sixth-most-discussed scientific paper of 2017. Headlines around the world warned of an “insect Armageddon.

And, as it also turns out, insects were not the only thing that were dying. Lots of other plants and animals were also mysteriously disappearing. For instance birds. 27% of the common birds of North America have disappeared since 1970.

The insect extinction is part of a larger extinction

When historians look at the massive animal populations of past centuries it looks like an Eden. In the past, humans were just one animal awash in a huge sea of life.

Brooke Jarvis says that the earth in past centuries the earth was crawling with animal life. Unfortunately this is no longer true since huge numbers of species have gone extinct. The ones still alive, he says, “are but a shadow of what they once were.”

Extinction is not the only tragedy we are living in. Many writers have asked, what about the species that still exist, but as just a shadow of what they once were?

In “The Once and Future World,” the journalist J.B. MacKinnon cites records from recent centuries that hint at what has been lost. “In the North Atlantic, a school of cod stalls a tall ship in midocean. Off Sydney, Australia, a ship’s captain sails for hours through pods of whales as far as the eye can see. Pacific pioneers complain about so many salmon that they threaten to swamp their canoes. There were reports of lions in the south of France. Walruses were seen at the mouth of the Thames. There were flocks of birds that took three days to fly overhead. There were 100 blue whales in the Southern Ocean for every one that’s left now.”

“These are not sights from some ancient age of fire and ice,” MacKinnon writes. “We are talking about things seen by human eyes, recalled in human memory.””

“What we’re losing is not just the diversity part of biodiversity, but the bio part: life in sheer quantity. ” Jarvis says “scientists learned that the world’s largest king penguin colony shrank by 88 percent in 35 years. Additionally, more than 97 percent of the bluefin tuna that once lived in the ocean are gone.

And here is a disturbing fact. Jarvis says that “the number of Sophie the Giraffe toys sold in France in a single year is nine times the number of all the giraffes that still live in Africa.”

Molas lake in the Colorado Rockies.  Mass insect extinction is threatening all ecosystems including this one.
Molas Lake in the Colorado Rockies. In ecosystems all life is necessary for the entire system to survive. When I was here, the lake was full of cut-throat trout. But without insects they cannot last for long. And the birds that flit through those trees are dependent on insects also. Massive insect extinction is dragging down the whole ecosphere even if it does not immediately apparent.

Why does the end of bugs matter

But to get back to insects. Most people think that bugs are annoying pests and the world would be better off without them. Some think this massive insect extinction is great. But, unfortunately, this is far from the truth. Without insects humans are not going to make it.

When asked to imagine what would happen if insects were to disappear completely, scientists find words like chaos, collapse, Armageddon. Some talk of a flowerless world with silent forests. Others talk of the loss of ecosystems impossible to replace.

E.O. Wilson has written of an insect-free world, a place where most plants and land animals become extinct. A world where fungi explodes, thriving on death and rot. A world where the human species would barely be able to survive. Or maybe not at all. It would be a word of mass starvation and resource wars. It would be a devastated world, an ecological dark age. He adds that the survivors would pray for the return of bugs and weeds.

Massive insect extinction is a world wide problem.

Brad Lister is a tropical ecologist. In 2010 he returned to the rain forest where he had studied lizards 40 years earlier. Here he set out sticky traps and sweep nets across foliage in the same places he had in the 1970s. But this time he caught much, much less: 10 to 60 times less than before. (It’s easy to read that number as 60 percent less. But it’s sixtyfold less: Where once he caught 473 milligrams of bugs, Lister was now catching just eight milligrams.) “It was, you know, devastating,” Lister told Jarvis.

Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

But even scarier said Jarvis, were the ways the losses were already moving through the ecosystem. There were serious declines in the numbers of lizards, birds and frogs world wide. There was a collapse of the food web.” Other scientists told him they were seeing similarly frightening declines. Even after his own dire findings, Lister found these losses shocking: “And I didn’t even know about the earthworm crisis!”

It was strange said Lister. All the declines he found would still be invisible to the average person walking through the Luquillo rain forest. On his last visit, the forest still felt “timeless” and “phantasmagorical. There were still cascading waterfalls and carpets of flowers.” You would have to be an expert to notice what was missing.

At some point, he expects the losses of insects to push the forest toward a tipping point. And beyond this point there will be a sudden and dramatic loss of the rain-forest ecosystem. And then the changes will become obvious to anyone. The place he loves will soon become unrecognizable.

Massive insect extinction is part of a transformation of the world.

Many scientists are seeing this ongoing extinction of insects as a major event. They are beginning to see it as the beginning of the end of the world as we once knew it.

Wildflowers in Yankee Boy Basin in the high rockies are affected by the ongoing mass insect extinction.
Wildflowers in Yankee Boy Basin in the high Rockies. Global warming is stunting and killing the wildflowers in the Rockies. And honey bees are dependent on flowers everywhere. And without honey bees and the crop fertilization they perform, humans will have a hard time surviving. It’s not that the loss of wildflowers in the Rockies is going to hurt honey bees that much, most of the bee decline comes from pesticides, but still, wildflower extinction is surely part of massive insect extinction. Everything hangs together.

Insects are responding to what many are calling a transformation of the world. It is not just the changing climate. It is also the widespread conversion of natural spaces into human ones. There are fewer and fewer resources left-over for nonhuman creatures to live on. What resources remain are often contaminated.

Hans de Kroon characterizes the life of many modern insects as trying to survive from one dwindling oasis to the next but with “a desert in between, and at worst it’s a poisonous desert.”

“Of particular concern are neonicotinoids. These are neurotoxins found in insecticides that were thought to affect only treated crops. But it turned out that they accumulate in the landscape where they are consumed by all kinds of non-targeted insects.

People talk about the “loss” of bees to colony collapse disorder. Bug affected hives aren’t full of dead bees, but simply mysteriously empty. A leading theory is that exposure to neurotoxins leaves bees unable to find their way home. Even hives exposed to low levels of neonicotinoids collect less pollen and produce fewer eggs and far fewer queens. Some recent studies found bees doing better in cities than in the supposed countryside.”

And so it is clear that the ongoing massive insect extinction is a very big deal indeed. And it’s not just insects. Temperatures are rising. Environments are massively contaminated. And everywhere the earth is being taken over by humans.

It is getting to be very hard to be optimistic about the survival of the natural world. Or the survival of humans and their civilization.

Deep blue forest pond in Glacier National Park.
Forest Pond in Glacier National Park
Arrowroot and summer sky in the Tetons.  Even here mass insect extinction in threatening this ecosystem.
Arrowroot and summer sky in the Tetons.


Most of the information in this article comes from an outstanding article in the New York Times. I think that this article is worth reading in full. A link to the article is below.

The Insect Apocalypse Is Here

There are also a lot of other articles about the massive insect extinction available. Here are a few. One of the articles says that an actual massive extinction is far worse that what we are experiencing now. Howver we are definitely heading in that direction. By the time an actual massive extinction arrives, there will be no one left to write such articles.

Earth Is Not in the Midst of a Sixth Mass Extinction 

We have a new global tally of the insect apocalypse. It’s alarming.

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