"Lavender Bee" by Bennilover is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Imminent Insect Demise Means Global Food Web Is On Verge Of Collapse

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The newest report from the World Entomology Body (WEB) is absolutely frightening. Buried in the late Friday afternoon news cycle, the most recent annual assessment available of insect health indicates that loss of whole insect communities is imminent — which will have disastrous effects for the global food web.

The collapse of the insect population is due to a series of factors: loss and fragmentation of habitat; pollution from light, microplastics, and synthetic pesticides; the spread of pathogens and parasites; and the climate crisis. These stressors drove the demise of the world’s insect biodiversity.

Now the human ability to grow enough food to sustain the world’s population is truly at risk.

“These significant declines in populations of managed and native bees and other pollinators are destroying production agriculture,” Ken Chandler, director of agricultural studies at Iowa’s Gadwall University, “that are going to result in billions of dollars of economic losses to the sector and the national economy by the end of the 2024 growing season.” He paused. “Our ability to grow food is no longer a given.”

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Insects & Ecosystems: Sublime, Tenuous Relationships

Flowers and their pollinators have a close relationship.

Flowers burst onto the scene in northern climes during the spring and summer. Their color, smell, and nectar attract pollinators to land then carry pollen with them, flower to flower. Essential for plants, these pollinators create the process for the crops that humans eat. Pollination occurs when the deposit of pollen grains from the anther (male structure) onto the pistil (female structure) of the same plant species takes place. Pollen is full of genetic information needed to fertilize a plant. Successful pollination results in the production of viable seeds and a fruit to protect them.

The relationship between plants and their pollinators is an ancient one, as the UK’s Natural History Museum recounts. Researchers have found a tumbling flower beetle trapped in amber from the Cretaceous Period almost 99 million years ago. Although honeybees get most of the credit, at least 1,500 insect species pollinate plants in the UK. In some parts of the world, birds, bats and even lizards also get involved.

The US grows over 100 crop plants that are pollinated by insects and animals. Primary examples include almonds, apples, pears, citrus fruits, cherries, pumpkins, cucumbers, blackberries, cranberries, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, melons, tomatoes, soybeans, and sunflowers.

The warnings of insect demise and associated pollinator decimation aren’t new — there were calls as early as the 1960s to foreground the field of pollinator ecology at the heart of evolutionary and ecology research. The fragility of the insect world, however, and its key connection to the sustainability of agricultural practices seems to have been passed over in favor of more catchy headlines about green hydrogen and carbon capture.

Calls to curtail population losses caused by both inadvertent insecticide poisoning and habitat destruction as well as an increased understanding of the biology and ecology of pollinating insects went unheeded.

In 2019, Biological Conservation reported that 40% of all insect species were declining globally and that a third of them were endangered. Too few paid attention. Paige Monahan, lead writer for Environmental Essence, commented then that human beings would be in big trouble without insects. “Insects provide critical actions as pollinators: they help create the plants we eat, enhance decomposition in forest soil, and are our key to food chain. We really rely on insects,” Monahan added.

By 2021, a few select organizations were getting worried. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) argued that multiple reports had drawn attention to declines in insect abundance, biomass, species richness, and range sizes. Essential time-series data on the rates, geographic scope, ecological aspects, and taxonomic nature of insect population trends were scant relative to those for vertebrates. There just wasn’t enough data on whether the rates of decline for insects were on par with or exceeded other groups.

PNAS recognized the need to explore appropriate nesting habitat and to ensure the availability of alternative sources of forage were funded by governments or philanthropic entities. As a result, a symposium of world experts on insect biodiversity and conservation was assembled, and they were asked to report on the state of knowledge of insect population trends. The symposium ended with the conclusion that there was an urgent need for time-series data so that temporal and spatial population trends could be assessed. Such data, the experts said, could be used to identify stressors, rates of insect population changes, and lineages and ecological guilds that are changing in abundance.

But the action research didn’t result in substantive, broad-reaching answers to insect decline. The new WEB report indicates that critical timing to save insect abundance and diversity across a range of pollination syndromes has passed.

What the WEB Report Said about Insects & Ecosystems

Methodology: To gather data, the study’s authors consulted a number of apiary and agricultural experts during the research phase from 2013 through 2023. The regions varied in their topography and the type of agricultural zone, from agro-climatic distinctions at macro and micro level, existence of cold arid, temperate, inter-mediate, and sub-tropical zones. All regions had in common the need for maximum crops sown to rely on prominent and robust insect pollination patterns to get the highest potential yield. While agriculture remained the backbone of the economy in these regions overall, it became clear the availability of pollinators was not meeting the requirements and was, in fact, declining systematically and dangerously over the course of the data collection. By the time the reality of the results had sunk in, course direction actions proved insurmountable.

Conclusions: Many simple and relatively inexpensive practices for pollinator conservation were available but not utilized. Opportunities existed to connect pollinator protection efforts with integrated pest management and conservation initiatives designed to protect soil, water, and air quality and enhance wildlife habitat, They were the object of massive disinformation campaigns.

Thus, the widespread adoption of these promising practices was ignored because of a lack of production agriculture sector general appreciation of pollinators’ ecological and economic benefits. The dramatic decline in pollinator populations had been “a critical issue for production agriculture but it was not on the top priority list for many agricultural organizations,” the authors noted.

Many growers simply were not aware, it seems, of the significance the contribution of native pollinators to the production of their crops and farm profitability.

Where Might We Go from Here? Is It Really Too Late to Save the Insect Pollinators?

For those of you savvy CleanTechnica readers, you’ve been watching the date today — April 1 — and wondering which of our cast of writers would grab onto the opportunity to poke a bit of fun while making a social point. Yes, this is one of our April Fool’s articles. We’re lucky that the world’s insect pollinator population has not evaporated as written here.

But the truth of the matter is that, unless substantive changes are made to protect the collapse of the insect population, the end of human ability to grow mass foodstock could cause social upheavals.

We must work to save habitat. We have to change ideologies so that light pollution becomes unacceptable. We must reduce and eventually eliminate microplastics and synthetic pesticides. We must fund research into the spread of pathogens and parasites. And we must all commit to zero emissions lifestyles to mitigate the already dangerous effects of the climate crisis.

Our global food supply truly does have the potential to vanish if our insect pollinators aren’t around anymore. The joke would be on us.

insect
Photo by Carolyn Fortuna/ CleanTechnica

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

Carolyn Fortuna has 1280 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna