science

Myth Busting: Bug-B-Gone

The latest and greatest in science hysteria is the new study that came out with a ‘shocking’ insect population decline. Most people are reading only the headlines, and then walking around like Chicken Little screaming their heads off about the sky falling and climate changing and, and, and humans are TEH EVUL. I’m not exaggerating. One many of the articles about the new paper includes the suggestion that we are: “currently on course for ecological Armageddon.” (Dave Goulson, Sussex University).

This person advocates mass murder. *facepalm*

Only not. First of all, this was a study done in Germany. It is not worldwide. It is a 27 year-long study, and their findings indicate that this summer, for some reason they have not yet determined for sure, flying insects (only flying, which is a small fraction of the world insect types) are dying off fast and early, and that it’s part of a general decline they have been mapping for nearly three decades. They are clear that this should not be tied to climate change, as if we posit a warming globe, that should benefit insect life. Cold blooded likes it warm, to simplify.

So this is a very complex question, and one that doesn’t have answers right now. “Hence, to what extent total insect biomass has declined, and the relative contribution of each proposed factor to the decline, remain unresolved yet highly relevant questions for ecosystem ecology and conservation.” It’s a question worth exploring, and I’ll be doing more research in my own area to discover what can be done to further studies of the insect population as an amateur naturalist. I love photographing the little things, so why not use it? But right now, it’s not something we need to be screaming in panic over. We don’t know enough. And we certainly shouldn’t be calling for more, um, ‘climate control’, when it’s clear that’s not the problem.

Two incorrect headlines for the price of one…

The other point I’d like to make is that the areas where insects were being trapped to be measured were not farmlands. They were often (this is Europe) adjacent to agricultural lands, but they were themselves protected, so it’s unlikely that farming was a major effect, although it is probably that overall crop production likely does impact insect diversity, on croplands. But the idea of the protected areas was to boost insect populations (among other things) and that isn’t what’s happening. However, farming has been happening in Germany for hundreds, if not thousands of years. What’s changed? The study talks about another census that was done in Britain, another fragmented ecology, which did not reflect a similar decline in flying insects. Another reason they suggest for the declining population is drought and other weather patterns – but they do say specifically that it’s not a global climate change, just the local weather. So what’s going on? We don’t know, not from this study. We can see that insects in Germany are declining. We don’t know why. I can’t emphasize that enough. We don’t have the answers, so we cannot yet formulate a coherent response to problems we don’t know that specific causes exist to create. No cause, no cure. First we need to find the cause, and the screaming chicken littles are all bark and no action, much less funding, for long studies. They’ll be off to the next outrage of the week soon, and most will never care that the headlines fueling their self-righteous indignation are misleading at best, utterly false at worst.

Others in this series attempting to shed light on science misconceptions: 

Ocean Plastic

Bacteriophage

Daddy Long-legs

Food

 

 

9 thoughts on “Myth Busting: Bug-B-Gone

  1. Wonder if the biologists are taking too many potential breeding insects out of the local ecology while captureing and classifying them? Wouldn’t that be an amazing factor to consider

    1. Another study I was looking at, where they were using Freshman biology students to collect insects, mentioned that they had them switching locations ever year to avoid that, but this study seems to have been mostly in a set pattern of locations.

  2. Things off the top of my head that might have affected a local insect population. Some of these can be particularly problematic if they hit at just the right/wrong time.

    1) Pesticide drift from nearby crop land.
    2) Changing of crops that the insects feed off
    3) Pollution problem
    4) Local weather change
    5) introduction of new predators to the area

  3. Oh, no! The insect population of Germany is declining. They’d better start importing insects from third world countries before it’s too late.

  4. I can assure you that the population of mosquitoes in Belgium and northern Germany, and along the Rhine, was quite healthy as of June-July 2017. Exceedingly healthy. Dreadfully robust in fact.

    1. The way they measured population was by weight, and mosquitoes are, individually, tiny. I believe they did do some evaluation of species richness and diversity, but other than mentioning butterflies’ general decline, they didn’t talk about that in detail. So, in theory, the population of mosquitoes could be enormous. Which I’m sure it felt like, and now I’m itchy in sympathy.

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