Insects are declining. While scientists differ on the severity of the problem, many findings point to a general downward trend in insect populations, with one study estimating 40% of species are vulnerable to extinction. In response, Boise State University’s Jesse Barber and his colleagues have turned their attention to boosting people’s appreciation for some of the world’s most misunderstood animals.
“Insects are the foundation of our ecology on this planet, they provide us with so much,” said Barber. “In the U.S. alone, wild insects contribute an estimated $70 billion to the economy every year through free services such as pollination and waste disposal. That’s incredible, and most people have no idea,” added Akito Kawahara, lead author of the study and associate curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity.
Insects sustain flowering plants, the lynchpins of most land-based ecosystems, and provide food sources for birds, bats, freshwater fish and other animals. But they face a barrage of threats, including habitat loss, pesticides, pollution, invasive species and climate change. If human activities are driving the decline, the authors reason, then people can also be a part of the solution.
In an opinion piece published in a special edition of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, Barber and his collaborators outline easy ways everyone can contribute to insect conservation.
If you have a lawn, mowing less can give insect populations a boost. Barber and colleagues suggest reserving 10% of a landscape for insects, either actively replacing a monoculture of grass with native plants or simply leaving the space unmown. These miniature nature preserves provide crucial habitat and food reservoirs for insects, they said, particularly if they remain free of chemical pesticides and herbicides. Benefits for lawn-maintainers include less yardwork and lower expenses.
“What might seem like a small patch of yard to you can be critical habitat to an insect!” Barber said. “If every home, school and local park in the U.S. converted 10% of lawn into natural habitat, this would give insects an extra 4 million acres of habitat.”
If you don’t have a lawn, you can still help by cultivating native plants in pots in window boxes or on balconies and patios.
Dim the lights
Nighttime light pollution has spiked since the 1990s, doubling in some of the world’s most biodiverse places. Artificial lights are powerful attractants to nocturnal insects, which can exhaust themselves to death by circling bulbs or fall prey to predators that spot an easy target.
You can give insects a hand – and reduce your electric bill – by turning off unnecessary lights after dark and using amber or red bulbs, which are less attractive to insects.
Use insect-friendly soaps and sealants
Chemical pollutants in soaps for washing cars and building exteriors and in coal-tar-based driveway sealants can harm a variety of insect life. Barber and his coauthors recommend swapping these out for biodegradable soaps and soy-based sealants. In winter, trading rock salt for salt-free formulations is safer for both insects and pets.
Become an insect ambassador
In the U.S., insects have historically been depicted as crop devourers, disease vectors and hallmarks of poor sanitation, even though the vast majority do not harm humans. Barber said rethinking your own stereotypes of insects and gaining a better understanding their beauty, diversity and roles is a first step in helping others appreciate them, too.
As antidotes to unfounded fears, walk outdoors to look for local insect life or adopt pet insects, a simple, cheap way to introduce children to science, Barber and colleagues say. Documenting what you see on platforms such as iNaturalist not only helps you learn more about your finds, but also provides data for scientific research.
These small steps have the power to effect immediate changes for the planet’s insects, according to the authors
“Immediate change happens at the individual level. If we all work together we can save insects,” said Barber.
– Co-authors of the article are Akito Kawahara and Lawrence Reeves of the University of Florida, and Scott Black of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
Some of the authors receive funding from the National Science Foundation.
Contributing Writer: Natalie van Hoose, firstname.lastname@example.org, 352-273-1922