NIJMEGEN, NETHERLANDS – Though the rapidly vanishing bee population has captured headlines in recent years, a new study suggests that the bees’ disappearance is merely a symptom of a much larger problem. According to a new, decades-long study conducted by researchers at Radboud University in the Netherlands, the insect population at large is in startling decline, with the abundance of flying insects having plunged by more than 75 percent over a period of nearly three decades. While some biologists had suspected a decline in the insect population, this study has demonstrated that the trend is much more dramatic and troubling than previously thought.
Researchers began collecting data across 63 nature reserves in Germany in 1989, obtaining more than 1,500 samples over the years using specialized tents called malaise traps. The total insect biomass of the samples was weighed and compared, revealing an average decline of 76 percent over the 27-year span of the study. During mid-summer, a time when insect numbers are typically at their highest, the decline was even more pronounced, reaching 82 percent for that particular season.
The study has sent shock waves across the scientific community, largely because most previous studies have focused on the population decline of specific and well-known species, such as the honeybee or butterflies. Because this study evaluated all flying insects – including infrequently examined species such as wasps and flies – it presents a much stronger indication of widespread population decline. As a result, the researchers have ominously warned that the study’s findings suggest that the world is “on course for ecological Armageddon.”
The implications and outlook are so dire both because over half of all recorded species are insects and because insects serve essential ecological functions upon which other species, including humans, depend.
Of particular concern to the researchers was the fact that the drastic population decline was recorded in nature reserves – protected areas managed to preserve biodiversity. As one of the study authors, Caspar Hallmann, said in a statement, “All these areas are protected and most of them are managed nature reserves. Yet, this dramatic decline has occurred.”
Research sites, however, despite being protected areas, were often surrounded by agricultural areas, causing the researchers to speculate that the agricultural zones, which account for more than half of all land use in the EU, act as an “ecological trap” that jeopardizes surrounding insect populations — including those in nature reserves, where insect biodiversity is generally higher. The researchers noted that the findings of the study are likely representative for most of the European continent as well as other parts of the world, particularly where protected areas or nature reserves are surrounded by sites of intensive, industrial agriculture.
In the face of ecological catastrophe, agribusiness yawns
As the researchers noted, the most likely causes for the stunning decline were directly related to industrial agriculture, specifically the loss of natural habitat to make room for more fields and the precipitous increase in pesticide use that occurred in Europe over the study period. Changes in weather, landscape and plant species composition were ruled out by researchers as potential causes for the downward trend.
While this study did not collect data on pesticide levels, numerous studies have linked their increased use to the decline in bee and butterfly populations. Pesticides have also been connected to the decrease in bird populations — another indicator that the agrochemicals affect insect populations, as insects are a key food source for birds. However, despite the clear link between pesticide use and its deleterious environmental impacts, governments around the world continue to bow to pressure from the agrochemical industry in refusing to ban substances shown to cause grave harm to both environmental and human health.
Even in light of the grave findings of this recent study and the troubling portent it holds for the fate of biodiversity on a global scale, the profit-driven corporate model that continually places business interests above those of the public is unlikely to change in the absence of a major ecological catastrophe or political movements demanding that a new course be taken.
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