Insects

Plague without locusts

Insectageddon is not imminent. But the decline of insect species is still a concern

“BE AFRAID. BE very afraid,” says a character in “The Fly”, a horror film about a man who turns into an enormous insect. It captures the unease and disgust people often feel for the kingdom of cockroaches, Zika-carrying mosquitoes and creepy-crawlies of all kinds. However, ecologists increasingly see the insect world as something to be frightened for, not frightened of. In the past two years scores of scientific studies have suggested that trillions of murmuring, droning, susurrating honeybees, butterflies, caddisflies, damselflies and beetles are dying off. “If all mankind were to disappear”, wrote E.O. Wilson, the doyen of entomologists, “the world would regenerate…If insects were to vanish the environment would collapse into chaos.”

Most of these studies describe declines of 50% and more over decades in different measures of insect health. The immediate reaction is consternation. Because insects enable plants to reproduce, through pollination, and are food for other animals, a collapse in their numbers would be catastrophic. “The insect apocalypse is here,” trumpeted the New York Times last year.

But a second look leads to a different assessment. Rather than causing a panic, the studies should act as a timely warning and a reason to take precautions…