Why insects matter, why they should fascinate you, and how to stop humankind wiping them out

the worldwide collapse in insect populations

Silent Earth – Averting the Insect Apocalypse by Dave Goulson, pub. HarperCollins

“Unless we actually go looking for insects in our parks and gardens,” writes biology professor Dave Goulson, “we are most likely to encounter those that invade our homes, including cockroaches, houseflies and bluebottles, clothes moths and silverfish.” He admits that it takes time to become properly acquainted with these before their merits become apparent.

But in Silent Earth – Averting the Insect Apocalypse, he sets out to engage the reader with insects, not only because he finds them fascinating – and convincingly communicates that fascination in a gently lyrical style – but because our own continued existence depends on theirs.

Goulson is making a connection with Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring, which alerted the world to the effect of pesticides on bird populations, raised environmental consciousness and spurred conservation efforts globally.

the worldwide collapse in insect populations

A bird prepares to eat a cicada. A high-protein source of food for birds, animals and other insects, cicadas emerged in the eastern United States and some Midwestern states this spring after living underground for 17 years. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Insects lack the same appeal, but they are key to the existence of “a multitude of birds, bats, spiders, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals and fish which would have little or nothing to eat if it weren’t for insects”, Goulson explains. “In their turn, the top predators such as sparrowhawks, herons and osprey that prey on the insectivorous starlings, frogs, shrews or salmon would themselves go hungry without insects.”

And while many readers of this book may not consume insects, about 2,000 species make up a sometimes significant portion of the diet of 80 per cent of the world’s population.

the worldwide collapse in insect populations

The cover of Goulson’s book, whose title evokes Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring, which alerted the world to the effect of pesticides on bird populations, raised environmental consciousness and spurred conservation efforts.

About three quarters of the crop types we grow depend upon insects for pollination, and without them there’s no chance of feeding the world. We could produce the bulk, since most of our crops are wind-pollinated, but without fruits and vegetables we would succumb to mineral and vitamin deficiencies. So if we notice a lack of dead insects on our windscreens, we should not feel relief that there’s less to clean up, but be seriously concerned.

This is a persuasive rather than a preachy book, although one chapter describing what an insect-free dystopia might look like has a certain Hollywood quality, and Goulson admits he hasn’t enjoyed the insects that he’s tried to eat himself. But he is as much concerned with giving us reasons to like or even admire insects as telling us why we need them, and the book offers a swarm of vivid, appealing descriptions of insect beauty and quite extraordinary behaviour.

“For me, the economic value of insects is just a tool with which to bash politicians over the head. They only seem to value money, so I point out to them that insects contribute to the economy. But if I’m honest, their economic worth has nothing whatsoever to do with why I try to champion their cause. I do it because I think they are wonderful.”

the worldwide collapse in insect populations

Anita Chaisatuen, owner of a hair salon, eats fried insects for a lunchtime snack in Bangkok, Thailand. Four-fifths of the world’s people eat insects. Photo by Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket via Getty Images

The book requires no biological bent to enjoy, and not even curiosity about the insect world, since Goulson writes well enough to engage any reader with aphid-like creatures that mimic thorns, weevils with long necks resembling miniature giraffes, and bagworms that build themselves a casing like a snail’s shell.

Whether he’s replying to an Australian radio show host’s question (“Insects disappearing. That’s a good thing isn’t it?”) from the toilet of an English pub, or recalling comic misadventures such as falling into a prickly pear bush in Spain while trying to study paper wasps, Goulson brings charm to his descriptions not only of brilliant butterflies, but also of parasitic insects, dung beetles and sexton beetles – the undertakers of the insect world – which all play vital roles in the environment that mostly go unnoticed.

“The American biologist Paul Ehrlich,” he tells us, “famously likened loss of species from an ecological community to randomly popping out rivets from the wing of an aeroplane. Remove one or two and the plane will probably be fine. Remove 10, or 20, or 50, and at some point that we are entirely unable to predict, there will be a catastrophic failure.”

Many of us feel powerless to act in the face of large-scale disasters, such as the worldwide collapse in insect populations, and use that as an excuse to take no action. But Goulson does not counsel despair, rather closing with a detailed list of recommendations for actions anyone can undertake.

He’s clear that it’s not too late. But it will be soon.

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