Do Captive Insect Welfare Regulations Exist?
Our negative impact on wild insect populations is manifold, ranging from individuals killed on our car windshields, under our feet, or after exposure to our pest management approaches. Arguably the most successful animals on Earth are actually perceived by us in a greatly varied fashion, mainly falling into one the following three categories depending on species:
- Dislike: we see many insects as bad, dangerous and/or repellent. They are disliked because they sting, transmit diseases, are annoying or destroy our possessions, be it food, clothes or gardens. Scientific names ascribed to such insects are very telling (e.g. flies named Haematobia irritans or Calliphora vomitoria) of our feelings towards them.
- Like: we like a few insects: butterflies, scarabs, ladybirds, bees and dragonflies are notable examples. Here again, we name colorful butterflies in the names of Greek goddesses (e.g. Troides helena, Speyeria aphrodite) to express our fondness.
- Ignorance: we ignore the majority of insects – their existence is not recognized in our lives. Even taxonomists are aware of just a fraction of all insect species and little is known of their biology.
We view insects from such a narrow anthropocentric view that we do not even evaluate their importance in the ecosystems that all of us depend on. It is important to ensure that our personal feelings about what might or might not seem ‘natural’ for us or any feelings of repulsion would not play a decisive role in the discussion on insect welfare standards.
A collaboration between two scientists of Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg (Germany) and the University of Kent (U.K.) resulted in a scholarly book chapter on welfare issues posed by keeping insects in captivity. The fact that a unified view has never existed and is unlikely to emerge renders consideration of insect welfare akin to ‘a suicide mission’, the authors proclaim. Laws of most countries do not take insects into consideration. Such speciesism seemingly can only be challenged by animal advocates.
Looking back in history, only two insect species have been kept permanently in captivity: silkworm moths (Bombyx mori) and honeybees (Apis mellifera). Today, although the number of species bred does not exceed several hundreds, this involves the confinement of trillions of individuals. In fact, the number already exceeds that of captive vertebrates. The numbers of individuals kept vary greatly, depending on the nature of the confinement: hobbyists keep relatively few, while commercial businesses continuously breed uncountable quantities as feed for zoo and companion animals, for silk, education, pest management and pollination. The greatest numbers are actually to be expected in the field of pest control, followed by raising insects as food or feed.
Our inability to understand the wellbeing of individual insects poses various welfare and husbandry challenges. Meanwhile, guidelines are typically limited to suggesting keepers “strive towards ensuring the most naturally appropriate conditions”. So-called well-managed confinement can indeed eliminate many natural stresses that animals in the wild would be exposed to. Examples include appropriate temperature and humidity, food abundance, and protection from enemies – conditions that lead to significantly higher survival rates. Invertebrates seem to have a generally lower tolerance for poor conditions. Furthermore, medicinal means typically employed to compensate for poor conditions in the farming of vertebrates are not available for insects.
The incomprehensibly wide range of insect species, and their functional traits, makes agreeing upon general standards for insect welfare in captivity a nearly impossible task. Any potential standards would need to be species-specific as there is no insect model that could describe optimal conditions for development, food, behavior, ecology and other parameters in all insects. Previous research has proposed the Five Freedoms principle whereby farmed animals must be ensured freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition; from thermal and physical discomfort; from pain, injury and disease; from fear and distress; and have the freedom to express normal behavior. This underlying welfare objective, combined with species-specific guidelines for conditions in captivity, seem to hold the most promise for the well-being of farmed insects.
What does the future hold for insects?
Some promising results are emerging, where artificial diets are developed for feeding captive insects, saving lives of their natural prey or hosts. However, this has been held back by the practical and economic circumstances that commercial breeders are subject to at the moment. In the field of producing sterile male insects for release into nature (e.g. in the fight against malaria), x-ray irradiation of the living individuals is typically employed. Here, several researchers are raising the question of whether this involves stress, pain and suffering. On the other hand, raising insects for food is currently promoted by several NGOs, including the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the media, and an increasing number of authors worldwide. The number of insects kept in captivity for this purpose is expected to rise exponentially. Meanwhile, although there is no data to reliably quantify the magnitude of insect breeding for feed, a good indication is that it is possible to buy live insects off-the-shelf in nearly all pet shops, not to mention that they are widely available online. Individual welfare is nearly impossible to assess as they are typically sold by weight and transported in densely packed containers without food. The bad news is that, given the recent declines in wild pollinator populations, mass breeding and targeted release of such insects is on the rise, too.
To be frank, the chapter raises more questions than it provides answers. The reader, aware of animal issues, may very well be surprised and discouraged to learn that despite the ever-increasing trade of live insects and their products, possible stress and welfare issues that these animals are exposed to have never been addressed. In fact, even data on how insects are kept and mass-produced cannot be gathered and analyzed properly, as methods and outcomes are not publically available. The worrying notion expressed here is that, even if we knew the answers to some of these troubling questions, it would still not help much, as there is little widespread public consideration for the lives of most insects. We advocates should take the precautionary principle regarding insect sentience to action, and push for the acknowledgment of insects as animals and their welfare.