Insect decline – nine action steps from a scientific perspective

Insect decline – nine action steps from a scientific perspective

Insect decline became a lot of publicity since last year. At the latest since the reports from declines from nearly 80% in some German nature reserves, the issue got more attention. Hopefully, this will turn the tide. Biodiversity as a whole finally gets more attention, supported by platforms like the IPBES. Within the general concern, pollinators are getting special attention. The Coalition of the Willing on Pollinators is an expression of this. Several states are signing the document and by this committing to take action to protect pollinators by national strategies, following some recommendations from the Coalition.

You know that I care about bees and other pollinators in particular. But I definitely care about other insects, too. The ecosystem services insects provide aren’t limited to pollination. That’s why I was really sorry that I couldn’t attend the first International Symposium for Insect Conservation last October in Stuttgart.  The speakers now published a plan with nine action steps they think most important to stop the insect decline.

Nine action steps against insect decline

The document has two main focus points: agriculture and what I would call “knowledge transfer”. The first isn’t very surprising, I will come to it in a minute. But first, let’s talk about the knowledge transfer, with which I want to condense three points in the document:

  • More natural areas in public spaces,
  • A research and education offensive,
  • public relations work.

At first sight, the first point doesn’t fit with the term knowledge transfer. But I think it’s the very basis of it. Learning happens through experiences, ideally. As the proportion of people living in cities is increasing, the direct experience of nature – trees, birds, insects or just jumping into a puddle when it’s raining – gets more an exception than a normal thing. If you don’t experience these things directly, the necessity of conserving nature is an abstract thing. You may understand the concept, but the relationship stays distant. This is especially true for insects, which scare many people and are perceived as a nuisance from many others.

The next two points are more obvious in relation to knowledge transfer. Research broadens knowledge and education translates research for a broader public. Here we have a huge gap: according to the speakers of the conservation symposium, for most insect species in Germany, we don’t even have the most basic knowledge (life-history, distribution etc.). This means more taxonomists, long-term monitorings and engaging lessons about biodiversity and ecological principles in school.

But not only schools are places for education. It may take place also while solving peoples problems. For some years, I took care of hornet nests in people’s gardens together with a friend. We had done courses and got the permission to transfer them, if necessary (hornets have a special conservation status in Germany).  In most cases, explaining how amazing they are and having the actual nest as a demonstration object, the hornet nest remained where it was. Together with the biology lesson, we gave tips on how to deal with the nest for avoiding stings. Both gardeners and hornets remained happy.

The role of agriculture

Agriculture takes a huge part of the declaration of the symposium, as one of the causes of insect decline. First of all, there is, of course, the request for limiting pesticide use. This includes also the registration process: the speakers claim to consider the “ecological collateral damage” of pesticide use. Though I agree that we need to adapt the studies to better meet the real conditions in agriculture (i.e. monitoring studies), here’s a point that I would like to rectify: the authors say that the precautionary approach should be applied not only to humans and livestock but also to nature.

Well, this is already the case. There are plenty of field studies examining the effects on earthworms, soil arthropods, bees, birds, water organisms etc. These studies may be insufficient for covering the complexity of ecosystems, but it’s not true that lab studies are sufficient to register pesticides as it reads from the document. However, I agree that the principles of Integrated Pest Management (IPM, meaning as much as necessary, as little as possible) need more promotion. These principles, that include also non-chemical measures like crop rotation, pest monitoring and much more. They are part of European legislation (Directive 2009/128/EC):

A cornerstone of the Directive is the promotion of IPM, for which general principles are laid down in Annex III to the Directive. Along with the promotion of organic farming, IPM is one of the tools for low-pesticide-input pest management, and IPM must be implemented by all professional users.

So, maybe, it would be better to claim the full implementation of the already existing laws. Using pesticides is still the easiest and most known measure for plant protection. So maybe also this point boils down to education and knowledge transfer.

insect decline, agriculture, pollination

Hedges, meadows and earth paths are an important habitat for insects.

Habitat conservation for insects

There are also other topics relating to agriculture, like habitat loss. On the one hand, the agricultural landscape is often very uniform. Recreating habitat with more structures like hedges, wildflower meadows etc. Fertilization is also a problem: the nutrients get also into natural spaces and reduce the diversity of plants. The management of grassland and conservation of this important habitat for insects is another point in this discussion paper.

Natural reserves are only a fraction of the areas in most European countries. In addition, land use in these areas isn’t always very clearly defined. For instance, these reserves may include also arable land on which pesticides are used. The speakers of the symposium call for a total ban of this practice. In addition, all land-use practices should adapt to the needs of the conservation goals of the natural reserves.

This discussion paper overall gives a good overview of the causes and necessary measures for stopping insect decline. It shows how complex the phenomenon is. It also reads as a clear claim for more research funding and recognition of biodiversity research. I hope this will be heard.



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