The Silence of the Bugs

Image artwork depicting various insects

Enzo Pérès-Labourdette

A study published last fall documented a 76 percent decline in the total seasonal biomass of flying insects netted at 63 locations in Germany over the last three decades. Losses in midsummer, when these insects are most numerous, exceeded 80 percent.

This alarming discovery, made by mostly amateur naturalists who make up the volunteer-run Entomological Society Krefeld, raised an obvious question: Was this happening elsewhere? Unfortunately, that question is hard to answer because of another problem: a global decline of field naturalists who study these phenomena.

Most scientists today live in cities and have little direct experience with wild plants and animals, and most biology textbooks now focus more on molecules, cells and internal anatomy than on the diversity and habits of species. It has even become fashionable among some educators to belittle the teaching of natural history and scientific facts that can be “regurgitated” on tests in favor of theoretical concepts.

That attitude may work for armchair physics or mathematics, but it isn’t enough for understanding complex organisms and ecosystems in the real world. Computer models and equations are of little use without details from the field to test them against.

Are we in the midst of a global insect Armageddon that most of us have failed to notice? Here’s another data point: A decades-long decline in plant-pollinating hawk moths has been reported in the Northeast, but its causes and consequences are uncertain because we know so little about the ecology of these insects. In days past, compiling such information would have made a respectable life’s work for a Linnaeus, Humboldt or Darwin. Now such creatures are often ignored because studying them seems unlikely to generate publications, headlines or grants that provide academics with tenure and prestige.

This leaves us with little more than anecdotal evidence to work with. A recent story in The Telegraph noted that automobile windscreens in Britain are no longer heavily caked with splattered insects. It reminded me of the tiny wings, legs and antennas that used to smear the front of my car after midsummer drives during the 1970s. Nowadays, a drive through northern New York, where I live, yields barely a blemish. Is it because cars are more streamlined? Not likely. Last July, I examined parked vehicles in Saranac Lake and found little or no bug debris, even on license plates or the blunt fronts of vans. 05-26-18

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