People & Power


Insects are vital to pollinate crops feeding the world, but have pesticides wrought irreparable damage on the ecosystem?

Where are all the insects going? To anyone suffering from the overenthusiastic attention of a cloud of mosquitoes or lamenting the effects of leaf-munching creepy crawlies in their back garden, it might seem like a ridiculous question, but it is one that many scientists have been asking for some time now.

Since the 1970s, according to one report from UK ecologists, half of all insects in Europe may have been lost as a result of intensive farming, the heavy use of pesticides and climate change.

Another 2019 study, in the journal Biological Conservation, warned that globally at least 40 percent of the remaining 1 million known species of insects are believed to be facing extinction.

If all this continues, they say, it could have devastating effects on the fragile ecosystem that sustains life on Planet Earth, because a crash of insect numbers threatens not only the birds and other animals which prey on them, but also the plants that rely on them for pollination. And that, in short, means much of the food we eat.

“About 80 percent of crops depend on insects for pollination. Eighty percent of the wild plant species as well,” says Professor Hans de Kroon of Radboud University in the Netherlands. “If we are losing that, we are losing the ecological foundation of ourselves.”

His own particular fears of a potential European insect apocalypse were backed up by results from a landmark study in Krefeld, Germany. Conducted over 30 years, scientists collected insects from 63 nature reserves. The results of obsessively tracking the changing numbers over time were shocking.

“It was a drop of 75 percent during a timeline of 27 years,” says entomologist Martin Sorg.

The effects on agriculture could be dire, but ironically, one of the prime suspects is believed to be farm-based insecticides used the world over.

“The whole system of having a way of farming which is entirely reliant on chucking on bucket loads of chemicals is not sustainable. We are going to wipe out insect life if we carry on this way,” says Professor Dave Goulson of Sussex University.

Reporter Eric Campbell went to find out why scientists are so concerned and what the solutions to the problem might be.