Good morning! Ecological Armageddon is Here
October 19, 2017 7:06 AM   Subscribe

Three-quarters of flying insects in nature reserves across Germany have vanished FROM The Guardian: “Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on Earth [but] there has been some kind of horrific decline,” said Prof Dave Goulson of Sussex University, UK, and part of the team behind the new study. “We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects then everything is going to collapse.”

FROM Science Journal PLOS|One : More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas


Global declines in insects have sparked wide interest among scientists, politicians, and the general public. Loss of insect diversity and abundance is expected to provoke cascading effects on food webs and to jeopardize ecosystem services. Our understanding of the extent and underlying causes of this decline is based on the abundance of single species or taxonomic groups only, rather than changes in insect biomass which is more relevant for ecological functioning. Here, we used a standardized protocol to measure total insect biomass using Malaise traps, deployed over 27 years in 63 nature protection areas in Germany (96 unique location-year combinations) to infer on the status and trend of local entomofauna. Our analysis estimates a seasonal decline of 76%, and mid-summer decline of 82% in flying insect biomass over the 27 years of study. We show that this decline is apparent regardless of habitat type, while changes in weather, land use, and habitat characteristics cannot explain this overall decline. This yet unrecognized loss of insect biomass must be taken into account in evaluating declines in abundance of species depending on insects as a food source, and ecosystem functioning in the European landscape.
posted by pjsky (45 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I don't even know how to respond to news like this anymore. I'm having a little trouble maintaining my composure lately, in the face of an endless stream of it.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:14 AM on October 19, 2017 [42 favorites]

First they came for the frogs, and I said nothing, for I was not a frog
posted by thelonius at 7:14 AM on October 19, 2017 [10 favorites]

Anybody still in doubt we're witnessing the 6th mass extinction on the planet?
posted by DreamerFi at 7:16 AM on October 19, 2017 [16 favorites]

I really hope we come out of these phase where we powerdive into ecological collapse. Right now it feels like nobody able to do anything about it gives a damn and large swathes of the population are going to respond by demanding we pour on more insecticide. The societal collapse that led to this is ill timed to say the least.
posted by Artw at 7:18 AM on October 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

"Praise the Lord! No more 'skeeters!" cheered Trump's base.

Sorry to burst that bubble: Growing mosquito populations linked to urbanization and DDT's slow decay (Tim Stephens for UC Santa Cruz Newscenter, Dec. 6, 2016)
Mosquito populations have increased as much as ten-fold over the past five decades in New York, New Jersey, and California, according to long-term datasets from mosquito monitoring programs. The number of mosquito species in these areas increased two- to four-fold in the same period.
And 'skeeters are more adaptable to change than other insects. They can replace some of the water in their body with glycerol, which acts like an antifreeze, and Scientists have found a mosquito that appears to have evolved and adapted to climatic changes induced by global warming— the first documented case of a genetic change in response to the apparent heating up of the planet. That was back in 2001.

Even though there's probably no major environmental impact if mosquitoes went extinct, the path towards their extinction would likely be ridiculously expensive and/or cause major impacts to the environment.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:28 AM on October 19, 2017 [8 favorites]

Well, shit. I thought insects were going to be our source of protein moving forward.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:29 AM on October 19, 2017 [12 favorites]

This is essentially a double.
posted by jedicus at 7:29 AM on October 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

On BBC this morning they said that many of the nature preserves were adjacent to working farms and that new insecticides may be to blame. I'm afraid obesity is not going to be a problem in the nearish future.
posted by Bee'sWing at 7:32 AM on October 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

I just recently finished Elizabeth Kolbert's excellent The Sixth Extinction and it's clear that we (humans) are an extremely virulent invasive species whose impacts have a good deal to do with these die-off events and the mass extinction as a whole. I fear governments will never take this seriously enough to intervene in time.
Life will go on, as it has through the extinctions before, but it's looking more and more likely that we won't survive a world of our own making.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:03 AM on October 19, 2017 [8 favorites]

I'm embracing the 0.01% of me that's just like "Great! Wasps and mosquitos can go fuck themselves!"

Because the other 99.99% of me is just screaming incoherently.
posted by 256 at 8:05 AM on October 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

Since EU went from giving incentives for shut down farmland to giving incentives for Biofuel farming (shameless oversimplification) in 2007, German insects had a tough time. It became kind of difficult not to be next to a working farm.
posted by Ashenmote at 8:08 AM on October 19, 2017


In our seemingly big huge surface cave? Is an ecological species level extermination event possible? Not enough datapoints but it's not impossible.
posted by sammyo at 8:08 AM on October 19, 2017

Scariest headline I've read in a very long time, potentially so much more than any political or war discussion, recently ever.

This is essentially a double.

Should probably take this to the grey but perhaps it's worth softening that policy on serious posts on these topics.
posted by sammyo at 8:15 AM on October 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

So much for the tolerant bees. Who knew Blade Runner 2049 was a documentary?
posted by Kitty Stardust at 8:26 AM on October 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have step relatives beloved, and from tidy, tidy, Dutch ancestry. This Uncle by marriage was discussing his honeymoon in Europe and particularly Switzerland, his comment was, "I never saw a single weed!" This is not a good thing. Many insects evolved within their environments and live on plants and other insect species, and fungus even, native to their environment. Germany seems pretty green, but they are home to some bodacious chemical giants.

Humans are just not all that, and nature has a way of proving things. This web of life is a delicate web, it will be a long time repairing its self, with or without us.
posted by Oyéah at 8:30 AM on October 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Certainly scary, on the face of it. Anecdotally, it seems that in our drives around Ontario, the windshield factor suggests we are colliding with fewer flying insects than I recall 15+ years ago.

I have questions:
- has there been a corresponding decrease in the numbers of the creatures who feed directly on flying insects? I don't think anyone's claimed that the number of insect-feeding birds and bats is also down by a proportional amount, which is what I'd expect.
- I'm surprised that we have little idea of the why. Perhaps modern agriculture - pesticides, lack of natural habitat... just seems wierd that this has never crossed anyone's mind to monitor before?
- corresponding decline in areas like S America, Africa, and areas that are still mostly undeveloped?

I have pretty high faith that with their short lifespans and adaptability, insects will adapt and recover from almost anything short of a near-total wipeout (the joke about Keith Richards and the last cockroach watching the sun go nova)... but other species, including us... not so much.
posted by Artful Codger at 8:30 AM on October 19, 2017

- has there been a corresponding decrease in the numbers of the creatures who feed directly on flying insects? I don't think anyone's claimed that the number of insect-feeding birds and bats is also down by a proportional amount, which is what I'd expect.

White Nose is having its own impact on bats in the US, which might make the waters muddy on correlating the bats/insects die-offs here.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:36 AM on October 19, 2017 [7 favorites]

Also cars. Cars fuck over insects in innumerable ways, which you're probably not aware of.

If only somebody had told us monocultural food practices and highways were bad. If only!
posted by The River Ivel at 8:45 AM on October 19, 2017 [7 favorites]

This is always my question when visiting relatives in suburban Southern California. Where are all the bugs? There are tiny ants and that's it. I'm always amazed when I see a beetle.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:46 AM on October 19, 2017

God, we are so fucked.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:52 AM on October 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Great Filter may be showing up a lot sooner than anyone expected.
posted by diode at 8:58 AM on October 19, 2017 [5 favorites]

Without looking, I know the comments will be full of people happy about this. "Good, I hate bugs."
posted by agregoli at 9:05 AM on October 19, 2017

So remember how bugs used to be huge (2ft dragonflies!)? Because there was more oxygen in the air? Maybe insects these days are just smaller because there's more CO2 in the air. One day we'll all just be literally pint-sized and there'll be plenty of room on the planet for all 50 trillion of us!
posted by Grither at 9:08 AM on October 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

I hate our shitty cyberpunk future.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:24 AM on October 19, 2017 [11 favorites]

This strikes me as not just bad news, but the worst news.
posted by From Bklyn at 9:51 AM on October 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

I sadly noticed this summer in Maine that dusk and dawn had very few birds when once it was so many kinds from all directions. I wonder how much the state of the insect population may have to do with this. On the other hand, it does seem that the current administration may yield a multitude of Chernobyl-style nature preserves.
posted by InkaLomax at 10:14 AM on October 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

"Stop blowing pesticides all over the damn place and turn off all the fucking lights at night" is a pretty good prescription for the planet.

Pesticides are long lasting, don't dissipate quickly, are poorly targeted, and spread into all sorts of places where we don't expect them to be. The constant battle to create plants that outcompete weeds (thanks to chemical help) and plants that can fend off insects (thanks to chemical help) is fucking us over, ecologically and economically, in a vast number of ways (superweeds, reliance on Roundup et al for everything, inability to stock and store seeds for future use, contamination of wild ancestral seedstock, OH YEAH and now driving insects to extinction, gee that won't have any negative consequences)

Light pollution fucks up nocturnal navigation for insects (who evolved to use the nearest bright point - e.g. the moon - as a "fixed" nav point, which explains why they endlessly circle street lights), and it's bad for mammals for a lot of reasons. Light at night doesn't make us safer, it creates hard shadows which allow places for people to hide. It blocks our view of the sky, it causes us to look inward when we used to look out and realize how insignificant and small we are in the grand scheme of things. Our drive to explore, our urge to stand together against the vast cold impartiality of the universe, fuck all that, I need a 300 watt searchlight on in my urban back yard all the time because Reasons.

Yes, I have strong feelings about this shit. You should too.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:38 AM on October 19, 2017 [30 favorites]

Ellie: There's no reason to believe that their intentions are hostile.

Kitz: Why is the default position of the eggheads that aliens would always be benign? Why is that doctor?

Ellie: We pose no threat to them. It would be like us going out of our way to destroy a few microbes on some anthill in Africa.

Drumlin: Interesting analogy. And how guilty would we feel if we went and destroyed a few microbes on an anthill in Africa?

-- Contact(1997), Carl Sagan
posted by lazycomputerkids at 11:15 AM on October 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

lol we are so fucked
posted by Sebmojo at 11:39 AM on October 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

has there been a corresponding decrease in the numbers of the creatures who feed directly on flying insects? I don't think anyone's claimed that the number of insect-feeding birds and bats is also down by a proportional amount, which is what I'd expect.

Sadly, yes:

Study finds huge decreases in bird populations.

Bird populations in steep decline in North America, study finds.
posted by Bee'sWing at 11:56 AM on October 19, 2017 [8 favorites]

Roundup is a herbicide, not officially a pesticide, but it harms many insect species too.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:14 PM on October 19, 2017

We CAN help, even if only a little. Please people, take another look at wasps and spiders and Centipedes and ants etc. They dont hurt you, they help you. We desperately need our everything in the soil biome, all its little flora and fauna. Use any bit of land you can, build good soil, compost, and for gods sake dont kill off the insects!!! Not the ones in your house either(take them outside if you really dont want to share the corners of your ceilings).
posted by WalkerWestridge at 12:54 PM on October 19, 2017

I vote we stop calling our agricultural poisons "Pesticides"; they kill much more than pests, killing pests exacerbates pest cycles, and the pests wouldn't be such pests if we weren't in chemical dependent monoculture.
Calling these poisons pesticides is like renaming cheeses as "mouse-bait". not wrong, but not the full use and effect.
Replamement name for pesticides: eco-suicides?
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 1:01 PM on October 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

Also, I'm not waiting until the jury comes in on this. If we wait until we're sure, nature and us will surely be dead
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 1:03 PM on October 19, 2017

What I don't understand is, weren't we using pesticides long before 27 years ago? Why is the drop-off so relatively recent? Or were there EVEN MORE bugs in the more distant past?
posted by leotrotsky at 1:16 PM on October 19, 2017

What I don't understand is, weren't we using pesticides long before 27 years ago? Why is the drop-off so relatively recent?

Many pesticides are persisent, with long half-lives; even if we weren't using more each year, there would still be cumulative effects. But we are using more each year: GMO crops are encouraging pesticide use, and pesticide use is increasing worldwide.
posted by halation at 1:56 PM on October 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

There is still some time to stop everyone fucking with the chemistry of the planet.
With the delicate biological machinery that sustains us.
About which we know so very little.
With the thousands and thousands of species that we don't even recognize.

We can live without many things, if it means that we can live.

There is still some time.
posted by Twang at 2:13 PM on October 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

What I don't understand is, weren't we using pesticides long before 27 years ago? Why is the drop-off so relatively recent?

I think 27 years is the length of data collection in the study. That would be right around the time of German reunification.

From DFA: "The research, published in the journal Plos One, is based on the work of dozens of amateur entomologists across Germany who began using strictly standardised ways of collecting insects in 1989."

As others have noted above, it would be good to have data from other geographic areas, more information on whether there are specific local conditions where this data was gathered, and an even longer timeline going back to the green revolution. But that is asking a lot. And there is probably enough here - and in the related articles linked about birds, and what we know of diversity and biomass in the oceans - to establish a reliable trend.
posted by booksarelame at 2:26 PM on October 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

We need to have fewer kids, and grow much less food, asap.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:03 PM on October 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

>What I don't understand is, weren't we using pesticides long before 27 years ago?

As others have said, the term of the study. My own anecdota as a child in the 1970s I remember wiping the bugs off the car windscreen with a squeegee when we visited family in regional towns. I make similar trips now with maybe none or one splat instead of dozens.
posted by bystander at 3:41 AM on October 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

As somebody who has studied the global food chain.. we basically can't convert back to the old ways of more ecologically friendly farming, not without mass human starving.

Erlich was right about the mass starvation that humanity was about to face, except he wasn't aware of the green revolution. The green revolution quintupled corn yields in America (and then went on to do the same in most of the first and second world), saving humanity from untold suffering, but I fear that it has just pushed off the inevitable. We are essentially converting million year old sunlight into food, which is by definition unsustainable, but on top of that crop pests and weeds have evolved and have caught up with all of our technological changes, requiring more and more complex solutions like GMO roundup-ready corn and soy to sustain current high yields.

We need to double food yields from where they are now by 2050 to keep up with growing meat consumption and human population growth, which is a daunting task given that most of the low-hanging fruit of crop breeding and fertilization has basically been maxed out at this point. The one good point is that the green revolution still hasn't happened in most of Africa, which gives us at least some breathing room if we can pull them up to developed world crop yields, but as this article notes, the ecological costs are absolutely devastating. Humanity is in a real catch-22 situation. At a minimum, far less meat consumption is going to be required in the future to ensure food for the developing world, but the way capitalism works, I fear what will actually happen is that China will catch up economically and continue to demand more and more meat so that the economic incentives literally favor feeding our crops to cows and pigs and letting actual human beings starve. On top of that, since we must spread the green revolution in Africa so the poorest among us don't starve, which is just going to spread the ongoing ecological crisis to every last corner of the world. On top of this, there are a number of serious issues that are ruining cropland, like drawing down water tables and ending up with heavily saline soil, or desertification caused by unstable crop practices. There are some eco-friendlier ways to grow crops that also hinder pest evolution, like setting aside around 1/8 of your acreage as totally untreated to hinder the spread of resistance genes, but again, fully setting aside 1/8 of the world's cropland would result in massive starvation.

All the people I know who study this stuff seriously are pretty pessimistic about the future - doubling food yields is a monumental task, and doing it without further wrecking the ecological balance necessary for the natural world to survive is even more daunting. We're basically going to have to get very lucky to get through this without mass starvation or further mass extinctions.
posted by zug at 11:46 AM on October 20, 2017 [8 favorites]

For those (like me!) who remember insect splats in the windshield a generation ago, also remember that cars are far more aerodynamic than they used to be.
posted by xxyyxxzz at 12:55 PM on October 20, 2017

All year I've watched our resident paper wasps struggle - and fail - to make nests around our place. They'd get their nest to about a quarter or a third of normal size and then just seem to give out. They'd just cling to whatever nest they managed to make, as if too sick to even fly away. I couldn't see any signs of larvae.

We use no pesticides or herbicides but many of our neighbor's lawns are unnaturally pristine. I've been wondering if there's a new poison on the market, or if people are using more of the old ones. In any case, it's not a good sign, even if you dislike wasps. Another canary in the coalmine.
posted by metagnathous at 1:52 PM on October 20, 2017

In theory, America and Europe could tax meat, eliminate food subsidies, institute much tighter regulation of pesticides, and push for mild population reductions, like say extra taxes if you have more than two children.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:59 PM on October 20, 2017

There as an article floating around about praying matis' hunting small birds and no one was sure why. Makes me wonder if it isn't as simple as, they're hungry (and what they normally eat is no longer around.)
posted by From Bklyn at 4:52 AM on October 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

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