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Where have all the insects gone?

Updated: Mar 26


Entomologists call it the windshield phenomenon. "If you talk to people, they have a gut feeling. They remember how insects used to smash on your windscreen," says Wolfgang Wägele, director of the Leibniz Institute for Animal Biodiversity in Bonn, Germany. Today, drivers spend less time scraping and scrubbing. "I'm a very data-driven person," says Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. "But it is a visceral reaction when you realize you don't see that mess anymore."

Some people argue that cars today are more aerodynamic and therefore less deadly to insects. But Black says his pride and joy as a teenager in Nebraska was his 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1—with some pretty sleek lines. "I used to have to wash my car all the time. It was always covered with insects." Lately, Martin Sorg, an entomologist here, has seen the opposite: "I drive a Land Rover, with the aerodynamics of a refrigerator, and these days it stays clean."


Though observations about splattered bugs aren't scientific, few reliable data exist on the fate of important insect species. Scientists have tracked alarming declines in domesticated honey bees, monarch butterflies, and lightning bugs. But few have paid attention to the moths, hover flies, beetles, and countless other insects that buzz and flitter through the warm months. "We have a pretty good track record of ignoring most noncharismatic species," which most insects are, says Joe Nocera, an ecologist at the University of New Brunswick in Canada.


Of the scant records that do exist, many come from amateur naturalists, whether butterfly collectors or bird watchers. Now, a new set of long-term data is coming to light, this time from a dedicated group of mostly amateur entomologists who have tracked insect abundance at more than 100 nature reserves in western Europe since the 1980s.


Over that time the group, the Krefeld Entomological Society, has seen the yearly insect catches fluctuate, as expected. But in 2013 they spotted something alarming. When they returned to one of their earliest trapping sites from 1989, the total mass of their catch had fallen by nearly 80%. Perhaps it was a particularly bad year, they thought, so they set up the traps again in 2014. The numbers were just as low. Through more direct comparisons, the group—which had preserved thousands of samples over 3 decades—found dramatic declines across more than a dozen other sites.

Hover flies, often mistaken for bees or wasps, are important pollinators. Their numbers have plummeted in nature reserves in Germany. JEF MEUL/NIS/MINDEN PICTURES/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE


Such losses reverberate up the food chain. "If you're an insect-eating bird living in that area, four-fifths of your food is gone in the last quarter-century, which is staggering," says Dave Goulson, an ecologist at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, who is working with the Krefeld group to analyze and publish some of the data. "One almost hopes that it's not representative—that it's some strange artifact."


No one knows how broadly representative the data are of trends elsewhere. But the specificity of the observations offers a unique window into the state of some of the planet's less appreciated species. Germany's "Red List" of endangered insects doesn't look alarming at first glance, says Sorg, who curates the Krefeld society's extensive collection of insect specimens. Few species are listed as extinct because they are still found in one or two sites. But that obscures the fact that many have disappeared from large areas where they were once common. Across Germany, only three bumble bee species have vanished, but the Krefeld region has lost more than half the two dozen bumble bee species that society members documented early in the 20th century.


Members of the Krefeld society have been observing, recording, and collecting insects from the region—and around the world—since 1905. Some of the roughly 50 members—including teachers, telecommunication technicians, and a book publisher—have become world experts on their favorite insects. Siegfried Cymorek, for instance, who was active in the society from the 1950s through the 1980s, never completed high school. He was drafted into the army as a teenager, and after the war he worked in the wood-protection division at a local chemical plant. But because of his extensive knowledge of wood-boring beetles, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1979. Over the years, members have written more than 2000 publications on insect taxonomy, ecology, and behavior.


The society's headquarters is a former school in the center of Krefeld, an industrial town on the banks of the Rhine that was once famous for producing silk. Disused classrooms store more than a million insect specimens individually pinned and named in display cases. Most were collected nearby, but some come from more exotic locales. Among them are those from the collection of a local priest, an active member in the 1940s and 1950s, who persuaded colleagues at mission stations around the world to send him specimens. (The society's collection and archive are under historical preservation protection.)


Weighty disappearances


The mass of insects collected by monitoring traps in the Orbroicher Bruch nature reserve in northwest Germany dropped by 78% in 24 years.


(GRAPHIC) G. GRULLÓN/SCIENCE; (DATA) M. SORG ET AL., MITTEILUNGEN AUS DEM ENTOMOLOGISCHEN VEREIN KREFELD 1, 1–5 (2013) © 2013 ENTOMOLOGISCHER VEREIN KREFELD

Tens of millions more insects float in carefully labeled bottles of alcohol—the yield from the society's monitoring projects in nature reserves around the region. The reserves, set aside for their local ecological value, are not pristine wilderness but "seminatural" habitats, such as former hay meadows, full of wildflowers, birds, small mammals—and insects. Some even include parts of agricultural fields, which farmers are free to farm with conventional methods. Heinz Schwan, a retired chemist and longtime society member who has weighed thousands of trap samples, says the society began collecting long-term records of insect abundance partly by chance. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, local authorities asked the group for help evaluating how different strategies for managing the reserves affected insect populations and diversity.


The members monitored each site only once every few years, but they set up identical insect traps in the same place each time to ensure clean comparisons. Because commercially available traps vary in ways that affect the catch, the group makes their own. Named for the Swedish entomologist René Malaise, who developed the basic design in the 1930s, each trap resembles a floating tent. Black mesh fabric forms the base, topped by a tent of white fabric and, at the summit, a collection container—a plastic jar with an opening into another jar of alcohol. Insects trapped in the fabric fly up to the jar, where the vapors gradually inebriate them and they fall into the alcohol. The traps collect mainly species that fly a meter or so above the ground. For people who worry that the traps themselves might deplete insect populations, Sorg notes that each trap catches just a few grams per day—equivalent to the daily diet of a shrew.


Sorg says society members saved all the samples because even in the 1980s they recognized that each represented a snapshot of potentially intriguing insect populations. "We found it fascinating—despite the fact that in 1982 the term ‘biodiversity' barely existed," he says. Many samples have not yet been sorted and cataloged—a painstaking labor of love done with tweezers and a microscope. Nor have the group's full findings been published. But some of the data are emerging piecemeal in talks by society members and at a hearing at the German Bundestag, the national parliament, and they are unsettling.


Beyond the striking drop in overall insect biomass, the data point to losses in overlooked groups for which almost no one has kept records. In the Krefeld data, hover flies—important pollinators often mistaken for bees—show a particularly steep decline. In 1989, the group's traps in one reserve collected 17,291 hover flies from 143 species. In 2014, at the same locations, they found only 2737 individuals from 104 species.


Since their initial findings in 2013, the group has installed more traps each year. Working with researchers at several universities, society members are looking for correlations with weather, changes in vegetation, and other factors. No simple cause has yet emerged. Even in reserves where plant diversity and abundance have improved, Sorg says, "the insect numbers still plunged."


A weather station for biodiversity Researchers in Germany hope to develop a set of automated sensors that will monitor the abundance and diversity of plants, animals, and fungi with the help of pattern recognition and DNA and chemical analysis. 1 Sky scannerDetecting birds, bats,and large insects5 Acoustic recorderDetecting birds,frogs, and insects6 Moth scannerDetecting night-flying insects7 Scent detectorDetecting plants,animals, and soil-dwelling organisms2 Pollen collectorDetecting plantsand fungal spores3 Malaise trapDetecting insects4 Camera trapDetecting ground-dwelling animals1273456 V.ALTOUNIAN/SCIENCE

Changes in land use surrounding the reserves are probably playing a role. "We've lost huge amounts of habitat, which has certainly contributed to all these declines," Goulson says. "If we turn all the seminatural habitats to wheat and cornfields, then there will be virtually no life in those fields." As fields expand and hedgerows disappear, the isolated islands of habitat left can support fewer species. Increased fertilizer on remaining grazing lands favors grasses over the diverse wildflowers that many insects prefer. And when development replaces countryside, streets and buildings generate light pollution that leads nocturnal insects astray and interrupts their mating.


Neonicotinoid pesticides, already implicated in the widespread crash of bee populations, are another prime suspect. Introduced in the 1980s, they are now the world's most