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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Insects Need More Protection

Air Date: Week of

An endangered rusty patched bumblebee forages for food. A recent study estimates 76% of insect species are inadequately protected by conservation areas worldwide. (Photo: Dan Mullen, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Roughly three quarters of the world’s insect species are inadequately protected, even in conservation areas. To help insects, which are important pollinators and the base of many food chains, Scott Black of the Xerces Society tells Host Bobby Bascomb that even small areas of protected habitat can make a big difference.


DOERING: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jenni Doering

BASCOMB: And I’m Bobby Bascomb

A recent study published in the journal One Earth found roughly three quarters of the world’s insect species are inadequately protected even in conservation areas. Researchers overlayed the distribution of nearly 90,000 species of insects onto maps of protected areas and found that nearly 2,000 insect species are afforded no protection at all. That means the task of creating habitat to help insects thrive, so they can pollinate our crops and provide the base of many food chains, must fall to local parks, municipalities and homeowners. Scott Black is the executive director of the Xerces Society for invertebrate conservation. He says the study is key to our understanding of how to better protect these keystone species.  

BLACK: It's an important study because to address the insect conservation crisis, natural areas really need to be part of the picture. The study clearly showed that there's this mismatch, that we don't have insects in the areas that are best suited for them to live long and fruitful lives. And that has to be a key part of our conservation efforts: to have more protected areas for insects, but not just insects. I think that we need a focus on protected areas for all animals, and we need to take insects into account. And that will provide this wonderful hub where we can have habitats radiate out and connect to other protected areas.

BASCOMB: Well, how do we know that insect populations are in trouble? What's the latest data?

BLACK: The latest data is really disconcerting. A paper came out–or actually, an entire issue of the Journal of the National Academy of Sciences–and it found that where studied, insects are declining at one to two percent a year. Which means over the course of 30 years, that's a 25 percent decline. Pretty much wherever we study, we're seeing declines in these animals.

BASCOMB: Well, what are the threats to these insect populations? What's causing this dramatic and concerning decline?

BLACK: A colleague of mine coined the term death by a thousand cuts, and it isn't dissimilar from what is happening to other wildlife. The key issue is likely habitat loss. We tend to grow our crops and live our lives by removing all of the natural habitat. We don't take care of our neighbors, our wildlife neighbors, very well. Then we've got habitat degradation. So you've got outright loss, and right next door you might have over mowing or over grazing or invasive species. So no habitat, marginalized habitat, then we use a lot of pesticides. So pesticides, especially insecticides, they're a key issue in the decline of these animals. And then you add to that many other issues like, we're spreading diseases by moving commercial bumblebees and honeybees across the landscape, where–have too many lights which affect moths and things like fireflies. And then you overlay that with climate change, which is really driving decline in a lot of species, and you can see, it's a hard world out there for an insect as well as for really all wildlife on the planet.

A brown bear fishing for salmon. Without insects for salmon to feed on, bears would lose this vital food source. (Photo: Christoph Strässler on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

BASCOMB: Now insects have to be the most biodiverse animal group on the planet. Why is that biodiversity important? Why is it important to protect, you know, as many different species as we can?

BLACK: So insects are the most biodiverse group of animals on the planet, and over 80 percent of all animals on the planet are insects. And what this means is that insects, because they're so diverse, have filled niches in almost every terrestrial and freshwater environment. And so what that means is that these animals are driving systems. Pollination, almost 80 percent of our plants need an animal to pollinate it, and it's almost always an insect. They actually are really important for controlling, often non-native pests, cleaning up waste from cows and other livestock, and then as food for wildlife, such as birds and fish. I like to use grizzly bears or brown bears as an example. Brown bears are insect obligate animals. They feed mostly on salmon; that salmon would never make it to the ocean had it not had small insects to feed on when it was little. Their second major food source is berries. Those berries would not form without the pollination, likely from bees that pollinated these plants.

BASCOMB: How should we be protecting insects differently than, you know, vertebrates, or mammals, or any other animal that we're concerned about?

BLACK: A lot of it is the same but there are some unique things about insects that make them in some ways easier to conserve, and in some ways harder to conserve. They're hyperdiverse. We don't know that much about many of these insects. There are a million described species. Compare that to 40,000 described mammal species. But on the other hand, many of these insects need very small spaces. So we can do conservation at a scale that works in a park or even sometimes in yards and very small spaces for insects. So harder in some respects and easier in some respects. The other cool thing about insect conservation is that we can address climate change and biodiversity loss at the same time. Xerces focuses on something called nature-based climate solutions. The idea is to plant climate adapted plants, create climate resilient habitats. These habitats actually capture carbon, and they provide for biodiversity. So it's really a win-win.

A man sprays insecticide on plants in a raised garden bed. Reducing the use of pesticides is key to maintaining healthy insect populations. (Photo: US CDC, CC0 1.0/public domain)

BASCOMB: What conservation strategies do you think will actually work for insects? I mean, what should we be doing differently?

BLACK: The neat thing about these animals is that we know what to do in many cases. And we know that it works. Studies have shown that where we focus on conservation efforts, we can see increases in diversity and abundance of insects over a relatively short timeframe. Then it just comes down to protecting the habitat that remains, restoring habitat that's been either removed or marginalized. We need to move away from the heavy use of insecticides, and we really do need to deal with climate change.

BASCOMB: Scott Black is the executive director of the Xerces Society. Scott, thank you so much for your taking the time with me today.

BLACK: Thank you, Bobby. Have a wonderful day.



Grist | “More than 75% of global insect species not adequately protected”

Find the study here

Eight simple actions that individuals can take to save insects from global declines

Learn more about the Xerces Society’s ongoing citizen science projects


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