A 2019 study published in Biological Conservation concluded over “40% of insect species are threatened with extinction” driven mainly by habitat loss, climate change, and agro-chemical pollutants.
I know, it’s a different crisis every day.
In January, 2020, more than 70 scientists from around the globe concluded “the decline of insects, other arthropods and biodiversity as a whole, is a very real and serious threat that society must urgently address.” The group also published a “roadmap to recovery” for the impending “insect apocalypse.” Among other things, roadmap calls for:
- The eradication of pesticide use and prioritization of “nature based farming”
- Urgent reducing of water, light and noise pollution
- Establishing which species are a conservation priority, and enhancing programs accordingly
- Enhancing citizen science programs
- Mitigating invasive species introductions
The roadmap calls for urgent action from conservation groups, government bodies and agriculture leaders, but it didn’t provide specific actions for individuals. That didn’t sit well with me, so I reached out to Rod Crawford, curator of arachnids at Burke Museum and University of Washington. Crawford is Seattle’s only arachnologist and has more than 45 years of experience in the field. The views expressed here are his own, and are not necessarily endorsed by Burke Museum or UW.
What would an insect-free Seattle look like?
According to Crawford, even in places where the “insect apocalypse” is most severe, the long term effects have yet to be measured. Based on his own data on local spiders, which depend on insect populations for food, the native insect population in the Pacific Northwest is, for the most part, holding steady. However, there has been a noticeable decline in native pollinators.
“If pollinators decline past a certain point, you’ll find a closely related apocalypse in wildflowers and other native flowering plants, because nobody is pollinating them,” Crawford said. “If insect decomposers – that eat dead leaves, poop, corpses – if they decline past a certain point, sooner or later we will all be up to our necks in dead stuff.”
Similarily, if plant-eating insects decline past a certain point, according to Crawford, farmers may be happy about not having to use pesticides for a short while – until their fields are over taken by a jungle of leafy plants and weeds.
“Small invertebrates – including but not limited to insects – basically perform all the important functions of land ecosystems,” Crawford said. “They do way more of everything that needs to be done in the biosphere than any other group, with the exception of plants.”
An insect-less Seattle is not such a pretty picture. The thought of it almost makes me appreciate the slugs undoubtedly munching on the Brussels sprouts in my garden right now…
How can we prevent an insect apacolypse?
Something I learned in this process: when you ask a scientist a question, you get an impartial, data-driven scientific answer. Brace yourself for one of those, but I’m going to start with the lighter stuff.
Crawford said people can gain a better understanding and appreciation for insects and arachnids by simply picking up a book. In fact, he had a mild spider fear as a kid before he read the arachnid classification chapters that his high school zoologist teacher skipped over. One book led to another, and the rest is history. Crawford especially recommends Spiders & Their Kin (1968), a little paperback which is still available here.
With over 392,000 specimens, The Burke Museum is another great resource to better understand the world of insects, spiders and small invertebrates.
“As an institution, Burke has been the official natural history museum of the state of Washington since the late 19th century,” Crawford said. “We’ve got everything you’d expect in a natural history museum – dinosaurs, mammoths – and little things, too.”
Check out Crawford’s “Spider Myths” page on the Burke Museum website.
The Elephant in the Room
Eating pesticide-free foods, turning off unnecessary lights and planting native plants can benefit local insect populations. However, Crawford said these actions are trivial compared to the elephant in the room: human overpopulation.
“Every time a new human is added, space and resources are taken away from many other species,” Crawford said in an email. “That is the basic reason for all species and habitat declines. With fewer humans, there would be less pesticide, less habitat bulldozed, less excess carbon in the atmosphere, less of everything that is gradually turning our lovely planet into a wasteland. So the absolutely most helpful thing any person could choose to do is, don’t have babies!”
It’s important to remember here that Crawford’s opinions are his own and do not reflect official positions of the Burke Museum or UW.
A matter of biomass
A recent study titled “The biomass distribution on Earth” (2019) found the following:
- The mass of humans is nearly ten times the mass of all wild mammals put together. That includes whales, elephants, hippos – all the biggies.
- The mass of our livestock is even bigger than our own mass.
- Domestic poultry outweighs all wild birds three times over.
- “The total plant biomass (and, by proxy, the total biomass on Earth) has declined approximately twofold relative to its value before the start of human civilization.”
Not exactly feel-good stuff, but I must give Crawford credit. I’ve asked dozens of people to share Earth-friendly living expertise through Emeraldology and he’s the first one mention overpopulation. It’s a tough subject and it’s not my intent to influence anyone’s reproductive decisions. But I think the biomass data is important in terms of evaluating human consumption habits, especially regarding land and livestock.
It’s one thing to have a human biomass that weighs nearly ten times more than all wild mammals, but it’s another to be responsible for a separate and even GREATER biomass gobbling up the world’s resources. Think about this: how many insects could live on the space and resources a single cow demands? How many could live in the footprint of your house, if the land had been left undeveloped?
How many wild animals could live on the space and resources consumed by the nine million cows living in factory farms in the United States?
Turns out creepy crawlies aren’t the animals to fear after all.
With that said, I’ll leave you with a video of Rod Crawford debunking common spider myths.