Flying Insect Populations Declined 75 Percent Over Three Decades: Is ‘Ecological Armageddon’ Underway?

Scientists are worried about what has turned out to be a massive drop in flying insect populations. Why have these populations declined, and is there any hope of saving these creatures from the dire fate some experts have warned about?

Previous research has suggested that certain flying insects such as honeybees have seen their populations decline steeply in recent years. For example, the nonprofit bee conservation think tank Bee Informed wrote in May 2016 that U.S. beekeepers lost about 44 percent of their colonies in a one-year span between April 2015 and April 2016. But the new paper published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One hints at what could be a bigger, broader problem, as general flying insect populations dropped by more than 75 percent over the study’s 27-year duration.

In a statement, the researchers wrote that their findings prove just how badly the flying insect community has been “decimated” in recent decades. They also warned about the ripple effect that could take place as insect populations continue to dwindle.

“Loss of insect diversity and abundance is expected to provoke cascading effects on food webs and to jeopardize ecosystem services.”

Study co-author Caspar Hallman, who admitted feeling “very, very surprised” by the study’s results, told CNN that the locations his team covered were not agricultural areas, but rather locations “meant to preserve biodiversity.”

Honeybees are among the many flying insects whose populations are on the way down. [Image by Ted S. Warren/AP Images]

Sussex University professor Dave Goulson, who was one of the lead authors of the study, had an even more foreboding reaction to the significant flying insect population decline reported by his team. In an interview with NBC News, he said that while it sounds melodramatic, he feels that the world is facing an “ecological Armageddon” and that things need to be done quickly to stop the trend from continuing in coming years.

“We need to do something and it’s urgent, it’s not something we can ponder for a few more years,” Goulson stressed.

Explaining the methodologies used by the researchers, CNN wrote that the scientists gathered data on insect populations over the last 27 years, placing a number of so-called “Malaise traps” across 63 nature reserves in Germany. As the years went by, the researchers found less and less insects, regardless of type, and when the data was analyzed at the end of the study, the shockingly high population decline was reported, with flying insect populations seeing a 76 percent seasonal decline 1989 and 2016. Declines during the traditional peak months of the midsummer were even more troubling, with the estimated population loss at 82 percent.

According to Goulson, there are several possible reasons for the huge population declines. These include pesticide use, climate change, and agriculture practices, all of which are man-made reasons. And while it might not be possible to single out a “smoking gun,” or a definitive cause for the declines, Sydney University School of Life and Environmental Sciences research and teaching fellow Tanya Latty told CNN that the new research should be a wakeup call, due to the considerable loss of insect populations, as well as the aforementioned ripple effect that could result from further declines.

“Insects pollinate the crops we eat, they contribute to pest control, we’d have to use more pesticide. They’re even crucial in waste control – most of the waste in urban areas is taken care of by ants and cockroaches.”

Latty added that there are several potential ways to stem flying insect population declines, including simple steps such as growing wildflowers around fields to encourage the presence of insects. Furthermore, she stressed that people need to be properly educated about the importance of insects, especially since only about 10 percent of all insect species have been identified, and some are “going extinct before we can even name them.”

[Featured Image by David Zalubowsky/AP Images]