What’s Abuzz With Wild Insects?
It’s time to retire the stereotype of insects as “creepy, crawly pests.”
Insects have been around for over 350 million years, longer than dinosaurs and flowering plants. More than one million species of insects have been identified so far, but scientists believe this is a fraction of the species that actually exist. In fact, insects greatly outnumber humans, with around 1.4 billion insects per person in the world!
Beyond their six legs, segmented bodies, and external skeletons, it’s difficult to lump all insects into the same category. This is because they live in virtually any region and habitat, from the arctic tundra of Siberia to the wet tropics of Australia. Some insects, like cockroaches and mosquitoes, are generalists in terms of their diet and habitat. Others require certain food sources and have adapted to surviving in specific environmental conditions. Although insects are commonly viewed by humans as pests, a growing body of evidence suggests they are sentient animals with emotions and complex capabilities.
Furthermore, insects are vital to safeguarding the global food system. Bees, butterflies, moths, and certain types of flies, beetles, and ants act as pollinators to help fertilize plants. Others consume dead organisms and break down plant matter to improve soil quality. Because of the vital role they play in an agricultural setting, it’s safe to say that protecting insects is necessary if we want to continue feeding the world.
The problem is that insect populations are in decline. Beekeepers in the U.S. reported losing up to 46% of their managed colonies from 2020-2021, and globally, one in six bee species is now regionally extinct. Furthermore, meta-analyses have found that 40% of insect species in general are in decline and at risk of extinction. This is double the rate for vertebrates, but what’s even more frightening is that limited research exists on the vast majority of insects in existence. This means that the declines may potentially be more drastic than we know.
The media loves to share ideas for consumers to protect native insects and pollinators. You might be familiar with recommendations to plant pollinator-friendly gardens or limit exterior lighting on your property to prevent light pollution. These actions are important, but we also need to recognize the more systemic causes of insect declines — and arguably the most urgent threat to insects is our rapidly intensifying agriculture industry.
How Does Intensive Agriculture Harm Insects?
Just as wild birds and mammals suffer when their habitats are cleared to make room for grazing and farming land, so too do insects. Over the past 300 years, humans have rapidly converted forests, swamps, and rich meadows into pastureland, disrupting previously undisturbed habitats that many plant species — and the insects who consume them — relied on to survive.
One of the largest drivers of deforestation is the cow ranching industry, which currently uses 26% of the earth’s land surface as grazing land. This is one way that meat consumption drives environmental destruction. However, plant agriculture is also harmful to insects, in part because of the monoculture system, which is dominant around the world. In this type of system, large amounts of land are cleared for a single type of crop, creating a flat, homogenous landscape. Monocrop systems are particularly vulnerable to destruction by certain plant-eating insects and soil-borne diseases. Because of this, harmful fertilizers and pesticides are used to sustain the crops, which have detrimental side-effects. While it may be efficient from a production standpoint, monoculture systems are usually absent of hedges, wildflowers, crop stubble, and rich biodiversity that sustain wild insects.
The situation in Brazil is especially dire. Brazil is home to between 15-20% of the world’s biodiversity, including insects. However, Brazil is also the world’s largest beef exporter and soybean producer (which, in turn, is largely used as animal feed). Unfortunately, the rapid rate in which Brazil is cutting down its forests — for example, over 5,100 square miles of the Amazon rainforest were lost in 2021 — paints a concerning picture for the insects who live in this region. Furthermore, some of the pesticides that Brazil uses are so harmful to bees and other beneficial insects that they’re banned in the European Union.
Pesticides, Fertilizers, And Insects
Each year, 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used in the U.S. alone. On a global scale, this number increases to nearly 9 billion pounds. Many people think of pesticides as chemicals used to kill insects, but this is just one type. Pesticides may also target weeds, fungi, and other so-called “pests” who threaten agricultural production. However, even pesticides that aren’t meant for insects can end up harming them either directly or indirectly. What’s more, the damage pesticides cause isn’t always lethal — they can harm insect reproduction or make them more susceptible to diseases, which can be more broadly damaging than simply killing them.
Beyond the inherent welfare concerns of using chemicals to kill unwanted insects, pesticides also cause unintentional harm to pollinators and other beneficial species. For example, butterfly populations have declined 50% in the U.K. and Netherlands, caused in part by the widespread use of chemical pesticides. Even insects who don’t eat plants can be affected by pesticides. Dung beetles, who break down cow waste in farming pastures, are facing declines in the U.K., due to pesticide residue in their food sources.
Another problem is that pesticides are used and regulated differently from one country to the next. Although only 15% of pesticides used in the Netherlands are highly toxic for bees, the figure is closer to 33% in Brazil and 47% in Kenya. Neonicotinoid insecticides are banned for non-emergency use in Europe, but they remain the most commonly-used pesticides in the world.
Finally, another problem that can’t be overlooked is fertilizers. Using fertilizers to enhance crop production is often viewed as a positive thing, but overfertilization and the use of artificial fertilizers can exacerbate harms to insects. Some fertilizers are high in nitrogen, which has been shown to increase plant predation by unwanted insects including rose-grain aphids in the U.K., whitebacked planthoppers in Japan, and corn borers in the United States. This in turn leads to more pesticide use, which creates a cycle of harm. When synthetic fertilizers spread to local waterways, it can pollute the natural environment and harm other animals and insects.
Pollinators: The “Darlings” Of The Insect World
Research suggests that pollinators support around 75% of global crops and 33% of global crop production. Apples, grapes, tomatoes, pumpkins, avocados, coffee, and cranberries are just a few of the many pollinated foods we eat.
Bees, in particular, are critical for food security: Fewer bees means lowered crop yields and higher prices for the crops available. Although many animal advocates are against keeping bees for honey, beekeeping is an important income source for many rural communities around the world. The E.U. Insect Atlas notes that many women in developing countries, who are less likely to own land than men, rely on beekeeping for income.
The deforestation and monoculture systems affecting many insects are especially harmful for bees. Wild bees frequently build nests underground or live in trees and natural cavities. When land is changed to make way for agriculture, these bees lose both their homes and the wild flowers they use for nectar consumption.
Bees are also highly susceptible to pesticides. Certain pesticides are so toxic that they can exterminate an entire hive upon reaching it. Harmful neonicotinoid pesticides impact bees’ nervous systems and can harm their sense of smell and ability to navigate. Pesticides can seep into the puddles that bees drink from, creating another means of contamination. One study even found traces of pesticides in 75% of honey samples collected around the world.
Although pollinators are commonly viewed as the “darlings” of the insect world, they’ve earned this reputation because of the functional benefit they provide to humans. It’s promising that people care about what happens to pollinators, but they aren’t the only insects harmed by the agriculture industry — and they aren’t the only insects we should care about.
Problems With The Solution
Although experts are experimenting with different ways to protect wild insects, the proposed solutions may come with problems of their own. For example, to avoid pesticide use, some stakeholders suggest introducing natural predators of insects who consume plant supplies in the agriculture industry. Others are testing so-called evolutionary traps, which involve manipulating an animal’s environment to encourage insects to make poor behavioral decisions (such as laying eggs in piles of wood that humans can then destroy). Both types of insect management haven’t been researched extensively, and it’s unclear whether they could also impact non-target insects. Furthermore, introducing predators to kill insects poses animal welfare concerns: Many insect predators “suck the juices” or lay eggs inside of their hosts.
To increase pollinator numbers, some companies have started breeding and selling pollinators and beneficial insect predators to the agriculture industry. However, the mass breeding and farming of insects is rife with welfare concerns that haven’t been fully explored. In addition, introducing non-native pollinator species into new habitats can create competition with local pollinators. There’s also a possibility that purchased species propagate so much that they become considered “pests” themselves, which happened with the harlequin ladybird: It was introduced to combat aphids in the 1980s and is now spreading across Europe and North America at the expense of local species.
Finally, new technologies are being developed to combat harmful insects and to supplement the rapid decline in pollinator populations, but it remains unclear what effect these developments will have in the long term. Some scientists propose genetically modifying plant-eating insects so they cause less harm to plants — for example, by releasing sterile individuals to mate with wild ones. While the idea seems promising, it may have catastrophic effects if the sterile individuals end up mating with other species, leading to unintended population declines. Likewise, there is an interest in using robotic pollinators to sustain crop production, but these so-called “robo-bees” can end up becoming litter on the fields, resulting in plastic and chemical pollution and potentially harming unsuspecting birds who consume them.
Buzzing Toward The Future
Although many international leaders recognize the urgent need to protect insects from the harms of intensive agriculture, relatively little has been done to push this issue forward in a meaningful way. From an economic perspective, governments can invest in finding alternative, scalable sources of food and energy that won’t require monoculture systems and mass deforestation. Subsidies, which are common in the agriculture industry, can be used to reward farming practices that support wild insects — planting hedges, cutting back on pesticides, and preserving plots of uncultivated land are a few examples.
Perhaps the most obvious way to support insects is by shifting away from intensive and monoculture systems. This means engaging in crop rotation, using cover crops to enrich the soil, farming smaller fields where possible, avoiding pesticides, and using limited, organic fertilizers. Organic farms, which prioritize pollinators and exclude synthetic chemical pesticides, now account for more than 4% of U.S. food sales. Research has found that organic farms have more insect biodiversity, but at the same time, they also produce lower crop yields. As a result, switching to a fully organic system likely isn’t feasible unless it’s coupled with a reduction in animal farming.
This brings us to our last point: As a consumer, one of the most effective ways to support wild insects is by reducing one’s meat consumption. According to the FAO, 26% of global ice-free land is used for grazing, while 33% of croplands are used for animal feed production. By shifting away from meat, we can reduce both grazing land and the monoculture systems used to produce soybeans and other animal feed crops.
Insects have been around far longer than humans, and we would struggle to survive without them. Human activity is largely responsible for the harm befalling insect populations, and the onus is on us to create a safer world where they can thrive. This starts and ends with our global food system.