Insects have declined by 75% in the past 50 years – and the consequences may soon be catastrophic. Biologist Dave Goulson reveals the vital services they perform
I have been fascinated by insects all my life. One of my earliest memories is of finding, at the age of five or six, some stripy yellow-and-black caterpillars feeding on weeds in the school playground. I put them in my empty lunchbox, and took them home. Eventually they transformed into handsome magenta and black moths. This seemed like magic to me – and still does. I was hooked.
In pursuit of insects I have travelled the world, from the deserts of Patagonia to the icy peaks of Fjordland in New Zealand and the forested mountains of Bhutan. I have watched clouds of birdwing butterflies sipping minerals from the banks of a river in Borneo, and thousands of fireflies flashing in synchrony at night in the swamps of Thailand. At home in my garden in Sussex I have spent countless hours watching grasshoppers court a mate and see off rivals, earwigs tend their young, ants milk honeydew from aphids, and leaf-cutter bees snip leaves to line their nests.
But I am haunted by the knowledge that these creatures are in decline. It is 50 years since I first collected those caterpillars in the school playground, and every year that has passed there have been slightly fewer butterflies, fewer bumblebees – fewer of almost all the myriad little beasts that make the world go round. These fascinating and beautiful creatures are disappearing, ant by ant, bee by bee, day by day. Estimates vary and are imprecise, but it seems likely that insects have declined in abundance by 75% or more since I was five years old. The scientific evidence for this grows stronger every year, as studies are published describing the collapse of monarch butterfly populations in North America, the demise of woodland and grassland insects in Germany, or the seemingly inexorable contraction of the ranges of bumblebees and hoverflies in the UK…
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