By now everyone is probably well aware of the alarming news that bees are dying out. For years we have been warned that their gradual disappearance is a desperately bad thing. But it turns out that the situation is even worse than we imagined. It is not just the bees that are declining in number, but flying bugs in general. And this can only have dire consequences for all of us on the planet.
Every creature in the natural world, even the very smallest ones – or sometimes especially the very smallest ones – have an important role to play within the Earth’s ecosystems. As organisms interact with other organisms and their natural environment, they create and sustain a system that supports all of them and – in greater or lesser ways – all of us as human beings.
These networks of plants and animals working together with their habitats has lead to some amazingly diverse ecosystems. These run the gamut – from lush jungles to tundra, arid plains to coral reefs. Even places that may seem barren, such as deserts or arctic wastes, host their own ecosystem which has adapted to its specific environment.
As well as having interlocking components, ecosystems also connect with each other. For example, during a flood, a river ecosystem might expand to take in the surrounding land. Conversely, during a drought, a river might reduce or evaporate entirely, so that land vegetation and animals now inhabit what was once a water-based ecology.
Even when they are stable, elements of different ecosystems are constantly moving to other ecosystems and back again. For example, air always moves across ecosystems, as does water. But so do some plants, animals and other organisms. A disaster for one ecosystem usually has a ripple effect on other systems, so we can think of the Earth as one giant ecosystem.
Although ecosystems are generally resilient, they can suffer irreparable damage, causing what is known as an ecological collapse. In the past this has happened due to the domino effects of natural phenomena such as volcanoes and asteroids. Scientists speculate that 305 million years ago the Carboniferous rainforest collapse, which led to the extinction of many plant and animal species, may have been at least partly caused by climate change.
Of course, the Carboniferous rainforest collapse happened hundreds of millions of years ago, before people were around to witness it, let alone record the event. However, a recent historical study backs up previous claims that the collapse of the Ptolemaic Empire in Ancient Egypt in 30 BC may have been the result of environmental disaster, and the ruling elite’s failure to deal with it.
Joseph G. Manning is Professor of Ancient History at Yale University and led the study “Volcanic suppression of Nile summer flooding triggers revolt and constrains interstate conflict in Ancient Egypt,” published in October 2017. Manning spoke to The Washington Post about his findings not long after the publication of the work. “For so long, [the Ptolemaic Empire] had been playing so close to the edge, fighting huge wars and growing crops that were especially vulnerable to changes in the Nile,” he said. “They refused to change their politics and it left them vulnerable once larger forces in nature and in the world came along and pushed them over the edge.”
The Egyptian study is especially timely, as we may be currently on the brink of another own ecological collapse. And this time the catastrophe may be on a global scale. There have been many warning signs that the planet is in trouble over the last few years. Rising temperatures, melting ice-caps, the increase in extreme weather events and ocean acidification all point to man-made climate change.
We have seen animal species suffer from climate change as well. The adverse knock-on effects of global warming on polar bears have been widely reported. But now other animals under threat include the Antarctic’s Adélie penguins and North Atlantic cod. The Central American golden toad has already become extinct, a victim of climate change in its habitat – cloud forests.
In the case of some species, such as the North Atlantic cod, the consequences to humans of the creature’s decreasing numbers are immediately obvious. Any fisherman worth his salt will be able to point to reduced catches as the reason for the fish’s absence from restaurant menus. But the decline of some other species, however, are felt more subtly and slowly over time. And the disappearance of these critters could have potentially even more devastating results.
The honey bee population has been in decline in Europe and the U.S. for the past decade. Since bees are an essential part of raising successful crops around the world, this is a serious concern. So far, the worst affected crop has been Californian almonds, because their growth requires the most bee activity. But if bee numbers continue to drop, it will be an issue for other crops – and an urgent problem for everyone.
Understandably, scientists and agriculturalists have been watching honey bee population numbers carefully but, until now, there have been no published studies on winged insects in general. In October 2017, however, the results of a 27-year-long study on that category of insect were made available. It showed that, in Germany at least, flying bug numbers have plummeted by more than 75 percent during that time.
The study was produced by Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, in conjunction with the Entomological Society Krefeld in Germany. Biologist Professor Dave Goulson of Sussex University in England also worked on the project. He told U.K. newspaper The Guardian, “Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on Earth [but] there has been some kind of horrific decline.” He added, “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.”
What is especially disturbing is that the research, which included all flying insects including flies and wasps, was done on nature reserves, not more representative urban or farming land. Caspar Hallmann, another co-author of the study, from Radboud University Nijmegen, spoke to CNN. He said, “These are locations meant to preserve biodiversity, but still we see the insects slipping out of our hands.”
Although the cataclysmic study was conducted in Germany, it has implications for similar kinds of agricultural countries around the world. This means the results have massive implications for humankind. Not only do flying insects pollinate about 80 percent of the crops that make up our food supply, they also act as a natural form of pest control.
But, of course, it is not just human beings who depend on this kind of insect life. Flying bugs make up the diet of many bird and animal species and the loss of these insects would adversely affect whole ecosystems. In Germany, birds are already being seriously affected. German government figures for 2013 show a 15 percent drop in its bird population over the previous 12 years.
Not everyone is convinced that the flying insect study points to a drop in all bug numbers, however. James Pryke, an entomologist at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, told The Washington Post that the methods used in the study were more effective at trapping flies than larger flying insects. He said, “This is not a criticism of the study but a comment that these results are most likely from a reduction in the number of flies.”
Unfortunately, so far, scientists have been unable to give an exact cause for the dwindling numbers of flying bugs. Most likely it is a combination of factors – habitat destruction and pesticide use being the most obvious. Some experts believe that climate change may be somehow contributing to the lower insect population. But Hallmann is skeptical about this, he thinks higher temperatures should be good for them.
But although things may seem grim, there is still hope. As Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, an Oregon-based insect conservation charity, told The Washington Post. Black maintains that ordinary folk can make a huge difference just by planting native flowers in their garden. He said, “I see tens of thousands of everyday people engaged in managing their own little piece of Earth in a better way.” So, the answer may well be another case of think global, act local.