Honey bees: we all know that without them sticking their noses into plants and spreading the love/pollen, humanity would cease to exist. But they’re not just promiscuous pollinators; scientists recently discovered that they are also busy little mathematical whizzes, for not only do they have some facility with numbers – possessing the ability to count landmarks as they forage – they also have a rudimentary understanding of numbers including the concept of zero. Only relatively recently grasped by humans (the earliest evidence probably dating to Babylonians), the idea of ‘zero’ is understood by primates, dolphins, birds and humans beyond nursery age. And, we now know, bees.
Insects are a mighty, complex universe of wonders, one in which entomologists are immersed and the rest of us swat, squish and squirm our way through during summer’s peak picnic-bothering bug season, oblivious to the amazing alien life around us. There are 27,000 species of insects in Britain, among many millions on Earth. Beetles, flies, bees, ants, bugs, butterflies, moths, mayflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers; from imposing stag beetles to tiny wasps, each has an important role to play in the ecosystem, in which we humans are merely one species playing our part, for good and ill.
A bug’s life
What is an insect? Conservation charity Buglife (“Saving the small things that run the planet”) defines them as an arthropod – that is, an animal with a segmented body and external skeleton – with six legs. They can be apterygota (without wings) or pterygota (with wings), and have a basic life-cycle of egg, larva and adult, with adaptable lifestyles at different stages which allow them to exploit food resources.
But the chance to discover the joy of insects is slipping from our grasp. In June, a report by The Mammal Society stated that development of buildings and roads, intensive farming and invasive species mean that at least one in five wild mammals in Britain faces a high risk of extinction within a decade, including the Scottish wildcat, mouse-eared bats and water voles. Ahead of the report, nature-lover and Springwatch presenter Chris Packham warned of a “national catastrophe” as our “green unpleasant land” becomes increasingly barren. As greenbelt and brownfield are gobbled up by urban sprawl, and agriculture increasingly changes, taking place on industrialised scales, species of flora and fauna – and clever bugs – are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. Alongside changes in plant diversity, the warming climate has also played a role.
A recent study published on the open-access journal PLOS ONE, conducted across the UK, Netherlands and Germany, found that insect biomass – the volume of insects measured by weight – recorded on nature reserves between 1989 and 2016 declined by 76 per cent from March to October, and by a horrifying 82 per cent in midsummer, when insects should be at their peak.
You can be very sure if you lose three quarters of the insect biomass, a significant portion of animals higher up in food chain – birds, bats and amphibians – will be affected
Thirty-five of the UK’s bee species are facing extinction, while 71 per cent of British butterfly species are in decline and 66 per cent of larger moth species have seen their numbers fall in the last 35 years, according to Buglife. And when insects disappear, birds and other creatures that rely on eating them also vanish. “You can be very sure if you lose three quarters of the insect biomass, a significant portion of animals higher up in food chain – birds, bats and amphibians – will be affected,” says Caspar Hallmann, of the Radboud University, Netherlands, lead author of the study which identified the dizzying decline of insects. “There are bound to be consequences.”
This spring social media has been a-twitter with reports of once-common birds such as swifts now absent from the skies, and the songs of nightingales noticeably unheard. Jamie Wyver, life-long birder, conservationist and communications executive at the RSPB, says nightingales have been particularly hard hit by loss of habitat, resulting in campaigns by the charity to save their breeding grounds and raise awareness through a National Nightingale Festival. “A lot of insect-eating birds have declined, because loss of biodiversity has caused loss of insects in the UK,” he explains. “An example is the ring ouzel, an upland bird that is vanishing from the countryside in Scotland. In 10 years from 1990 to 1999 we lost 58 per cent, through climate change affecting the insects they eat, and loss of places where they live.”
Since World War Two the UK has seen the obliteration of 97 per cent of its wildflower meadows, where invertebrates flourish – perhaps Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s promise that post-Brexit we will see blooming wildflower meadows springing up across Blighty thanks to new farming incentives was not so fluffy after all: it could be what it takes to restore the sovereignty of our bug life.
The flip side is the EU’s partial ban on neonicotinoid insecticides, which Friends of the Earth, among others, say has contributed to the loss of bees, affecting their breeding success, resistance to disease and navigational skills. Since 1990 beekeepers noted sudden and unusually high disappearance and collapse of honey bee colonies, and Greenpeace found that, alongside loss of biodiversity and climate change, chemicals introduced to kill off pests at industrial agricultural sites were “the most direct risk to pollinators”.
The ban, introduced in 2013, was challenged in the General Court of the European Union earlier this year but the insecticide producers’ bid to overturn it was unsuccessful. It is just as well: with nearly one in 10 of Europe’s wild bee species facing extinction, they need all the help they can get.
The economic impact of the humble bee and other pollinators is huge. One third of all our food depends on their pollination and their work is worth £232bn to agriculture globally each year. In the UK, the net value of their unpaid work to our food production industry annually is £700m, or 13 per cent. In 2015 it was noted that bees contributed more to the UK economy than the Royal Family.
Last month Ben Bradley, MP for Mansfield, presented a Bill in the Commons calling for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to introduce a framework for ‘pollinator corridors’ – encouraging farmers to adopt wildlife-friendly practices and local authorities to plant wildflowers in grass verges to encourage insects to thrive.
But governments local and national, farmers and highways authorities are not the only ones who can bring us – and our invertebrates – back from the brink. The RSPB, Woodland Trust, Eden Project and many other organisations have guides on how to build ‘bug hotels’, ranging from a few rolled-up tubes of newspaper to extravagant stacks containing a variety of constructed habitats to appeal to all manner of creepy-crawlies. Even just planting wild flowers in a patch of the garden can encourage insects to return.
The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
Campaigners and groups like Buglife and the Royal Entomological Society are working hard to encourage us to learn to love our bugs, to learn more about them and to stop swatting them. Because nobody wants those bees (or the other arthropods) to number zero.
If you want to join the fight back on behalf of bugs, now is the time – it is National Insect Week (June 18-24) and the Royal Entomological Society has launched its 2018 Photography Competition to capture the UK’s best bug snaps. Find out more at nationalinsectweek.co.uk
Image: Keith Trueman