In the 20th of a series of articles charting the Wild Wanstead project, Susie Knox reports on a new initiative to stop the decline in British insects and encourages us all to help
Insects. Love them or loathe them, we certainly need to look after them – they are, after all, the foundation of life on Earth. That’s why one sunny lunchtime back in November, I nipped to the Museum of London to join the launch of a new report into the state of insect life in Britain.
It is known that insects are in calamitous decline across the world – ‘insectageddon’ as it has been termed by the newspapers. In 2017, a study reported that flying insects had declined by around 75% in the last 25 years on German nature reserves. But what is the situation in the UK and how should we all be responding? Those are the questions addressed by Insects and Why They Matter, a report by leading entomologist Professor Dave Goulson.
Considering their importance, there is remarkably little data monitoring insect populations. One of the best-studied groups in the world is British butterflies. Our common butterflies have declined by about half over the last 40 years, and despite conservation efforts, numbers of those needing specialist habitats have fallen by 77%. Over a similar period, the ranges of wild bees and hoverflies have shrunk dramatically. There are now large areas of the country where many species are no longer able to live.
This is bad news for birds, bats, lizards, amphibians, fishes and the many other creatures that rely on insects for food. And it’s bad news for us humans too. Insects perform an important function controlling pests on our crops. They help old material decay, recycling nutrients into the soil, and they pollinate the plants we eat. Three-quarters of food crops need insects. No insects mean no tomatoes, apples, coffee and even chocolate.
According to the report, there are three main reasons why insects are declining in Britain: loss of habitat, the intensification of farming and the use of pesticides. Nearly 17,000 tons of pesticides are sprayed on farms every year – not to mention all the chemicals used by councils and homeowners. According to DEFRA, every hectare of arable land in the UK receives 17 applications of pesticide each year.
With less habitats, fewer flowers and an environment contaminated with poison, it’s not surprising our insects are dying. But there is still time to make a difference. Many insects may have reduced range but they are still in existence, so there is scope to rejuvenate their populations. There are two main strategies proposed for addressing this: stopping all routine and unnecessary use of pesticides and creating more and better connected insect-friendly habitats in our gardens, towns, cities and countryside. So, with this in mind, what can individuals do to help? Here are a few ideas to consider:
Never apply pesticides in our gardens.
Use every bit of outdoor space we have to create a habitat for wildlife. Greening up driveways, installing green roofs, planting trees, shrubs and pollinator-friendly flowers in our gardens, and leaving some areas to get a bit wilder.
Email the council to ask them to stop using pesticides and support the creation of more wild areas (like the new Grow Zones, which are slowly being established on verges and parks in Wanstead).
Buy organic food where possible.
Sign petitions asking the government to act.
According to Insects and Why They Matter, ecosystem crashes due to a critical loss of insect abundance and diversity are a real and present threat to society, but they are not inevitable. Insect declines in the UK are mainly caused by a loss of habitat in which to thrive, and the use of pesticides on farmland, urban green spaces and gardens. These can be addressed without major economic or cultural cost. It just needs all of us to act.