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Insect Extinction

Call to action:

Stop the insect extinction crisis by protecting their habitats and transforming our food and energy systems.

Half of the one million species facing extinction are insects, imperiling life on earth. Insects pollinate three fourths of all flowering plants as well as the crops that produce more than one third of the world’s food. They are consumed by a majority of birds and freshwater fish. We are losing insects at an alarming rate, a circumstance sometimes referred to as the “insect apocalypse.” The crisis affects every nation. It may result in the first mass extinction in the history of insects on earth, potentially causing the collapse of the global food web and widespread starvation. Reasons for insect declines include the loss of habitat, pollution, the use of agricultural chemicals, and climate change. To stop this extinction, we must restore insect habitat and either end destructive activities or transition them to sustainable ones, such as regenerative agriculture and renewable energy.

Action Items

Individuals

Learn why insects are important and why their populations are declining. Of the eight million plant and animal species on earth, 75 percent are insects. They are an integral part of every terrestrial ecosystem, performing irreplaceable ecological services. They provide natural checks on pests. They assist in the decomposition of leaves and wood and the removal of dung, which boost soil formation, water purification, and carbon sequestration. Their burrowing aerates the soil. They are a source of food in many societies. Threats to insects include loss of habitat, land degradation, deforestation, invasive species, widespread use of agricultural chemicals, pollution, loss of codependent species, drought, and climate change. The loss of insects carries large economic and cultural costs. Declining populations pose a threat to global food supplies and food security.

Learn what can be done to stop and reverse the loss of insect populations and take action. The insect crisis requires an “all-hands-on-deck” effort to reverse their decline. We need to protect and restore climate-resilient insect habitats across all types of landscapes, from gardens to farms to city lots and watersheds. We need to reduce and eliminate destructive activities. Individuals can help by learning how their lives impact insects, and what they can do to help.

  • Eat organic and/or regeneratively grown food. The industrial food system uses crops grown with heavy applications of pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides. Choose organic and regeneratively produced food instead. Eat a diverse, plant-based diet sourced from healthy landscapes (see Agroecology Nexus, Regenerative Agriculture Nexus, and Eating Plants Nexus).
  • Wear clothes made of organically and/or regeneratively grown fibers. Cotton and other plant-based fabrics are often grown with the of use agricultural chemicals. Buy organic products or wear secondhand clothing (see Clothing Industry Nexus).
  • Convert green space into natural habitat for insects. If 10 percent of every backyard, school yard, and local park in the United States could be converted, it would increase habitat for insects by more than four million acres.
  • Reduce or eliminate pesticides and herbicides around your home and in your neighborhood. Many chemicals are used solely to improve the appearance of lawns, gardens, and parks. There are organic alternatives. To fight mosquitoes without chemicals, eliminate standing, stagnant water.
  • Reduce soap runoff from washing vehicles and building exteriors. Soaps often produce pollutants, including ammonia, heavy metals, hydrocarbons, and phosphorus that can drain directly into local water systems, where they adversely affect aquatic insects. Use biodegradable soaps.
  • Reduce exterior lighting as much as possible. Artificial light affects reproductive success in fireflies and other insects. Turn off unneeded lights, use motion-activated lighting, or switch to bulbs that produce amber- or red-colored light, which are less attractive to insects.
  • Leave stumps, logs, old trees, and dead leaves alone so they can become a home for insects.
  • Promote wildflower verges along roadsides, in medians, along corridors, and in other locations. They can easily become hot spots for insects.
  • Plant milkweeds to help the monarch butterfly. Find out which species of milkweed is local to your area. You can plant seeds almost anywhere. Here is a guide from the National Wildlife Federation. The Xerces Society has a Milkweed Project. Here is a book by the Xerces Society about plants and how to create a healthy habitat for monarchs.
  • Be an insect zookeeper. Participate in responsible insect rewilding projects, such as this effort to breed large marsh grasshoppers in London, to later reintroduce them into restored habitats.
  • Counter the negative public perception of insects. Share images on social media of bugs that you like or have photographed. Workshops and networks such as Bugshot can help. Share links to blogs, such as Bug of the Week. Bird enthusiasts could be important allies.
  • Get children interested in bugs. Early exposure is crucial for children to develop an appreciation for nature. However, many educational programs in schools do not teach about more than butterflies and beetles. Here is an example of a general insect program for kindergarteners. Here are lesson plans for older students. Here is a list of hands-on activities. Here is a resource guide for homeschoolers. The Entomological Society of America has a grant program for schools who want to teach insect-themed science.

Join or engage with organizations that support insects and their habitat. There are many types of organizations that work on behalf of insects and the native plants they need. Work includes research, protection, restoration, and advocacy. Many organizations have field days, surveys, volunteer projects, and other community-based initiatives that benefit diverse insects. See Key Players below to get involved. Here are fifteen organizations around the world working to save bees.

Join a campaign and/or participate in an activity that protects, restores, or sustainably manages insect habitat (i.e., nearly everywhere). Many types of human activities affect insect populations across all scales, from farms to forests to wilderness areas (see Degraded Land Restoration Nexus). Examples:

Speak up. Write an op-ed to a newspaper or social media site advocating for insects, particularly the protection and restoration of their habitat. Destructive human activity needs to be highlighted, including land degradation, soil erosion, deforestation, agricultural chemicals, industrial agriculture, land clearing, mining, overgrazing by livestock, invasive species, and climate change. Here and here are examples.

Join a social media site run by an advocate for insects. Here are a sampling of social media sites to learn from (see Key Players below):

  • The Entomological Society of America on Twitter
  • The North American Native Plant Society on Facebook
  • The Xerces Society on Facebook and Twitter
  • Pollinator Partnership on Facebook and Twitter
  • Pollinator Friendly Alliance on Facebook
  • Moth Photographer’s Group on Facebook
  • The Caterpillar Identification of North America on Facebook
  • iNaturalist is a social network of naturalists, citizen scientists, and biologists mapping and sharing observations around the planet.

Groups

Farmers and Ranchers

Stop the loss of insect populations on your land and restore their habitat. The use of toxic chemicals in industrial agriculture, lack of crop diversity, annual tilling, application of synthetic fertilizers, and conversion of forests and other natural landscapes to farming have all played a significant role in the decline of insect populations. They need to be replaced by regenerative farming and ranching practices (see Regenerative Agriculture Nexus, Agroforestry Nexus, and Grasslands Nexus). Insect-specific practices and examples include:

  • Don’t use neonicotinoid insecticides. Recent research indicates that neonicotinoids are causing widespread damage to insect populations, bees in particular. Neonicotinoids are a type of pesticide that attacks the nervous system of insects. It harms birds and other wildlife in the process.
  • Implement organic no-till. The combination of chemical-free and no-tillage agriculture, often achieved with the use of cover crops, is highly beneficial to insects. When using cover crops, consider including plant species that benefit pollinators and other insects, such as nectar flower mixes preferred by bumblebees and butterflies.
  • Use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to thwart unwanted insects. IPM is an ecologically based approach using regenerative farming practices to enhance levels of biological control of pests while boosting populations of beneficial insects.
  • Grow hedgerows on your land. Hedgerow habitat leads to greater diversity and abundance of bees and other insects, increasing their pollination of crops. Long rows can become corridors for insects.
  • Remove invasive plants. Clearing plants from streams and wetlands improves habitat for dragonflies and damselflies.
  • Don’t eradicate native thistles. Many species of bees and butterflies, including monarchs, rely heavily on native thistle flowers. The Xerces Society publishes a practitioner’s guide to native thistle conservation.
  • Plant prairie strips on your fields. Prairie strips are narrow bands of vegetation that act as a sponge for water moving downhill. A study showed that replacing 10 percent of row crops with prairie strips increased the amount of insect species by two and a half times, increased pollinator abundance threefold, and doubled the diversity of native birds.
  • Plant riparian buffers. They are strips of vegetation, including a mixture of trees, shrubs, and tall grasses, that prevent erosion and restore degraded areas, particularly along watercourses and wetlands.
  • Create beetle banks. They are areas where native plants have been integrated into crop fields to provide shelter for predatory ground beetles.
  • Create wildflower areas. Suitable locations include the margins and corners of fields. Use a mix of fine grasses and perennial plants. Eco59 is a farmer-led native wildflower seed company in New England.
  • Avoid complete weed eradication. Weeds provide food and habitat for beneficial insects. 
  • Protect and restore freshwater systems and aquatic habitat. Reducing and eliminating pollution as it enters waterways is crucial to insect health, including nonpoint sources (such as fertilizer from farmland). Intact wetlands are vital to many insect species. Healthy watersheds will protect streams from the effects of erosion.

Homeowners

Grow an insect-friendly garden or yard. There are many ways to make your garden and yard insect-friendly, from small steps to comprehensive approaches that turn gardens and yards into conservation projects and insect havens. Options include:

  • Grow native plants. Many insects rely on native plants as a food source or nesting site. Declines in populations of backyard birds have been linked to an increased number of nonnative plants. The Audubon Society provides an online database for native plants. Seeds can be purchased. Native plants can be acquired from a nursery. Here is a nursery directory. Here is information about planting a pollinator garden.
  • Use healthy soil. Match your plants to the soil type; ensure proper sunlight levels; use organic fertilizer. Homeowners use up to ten times more pesticides per acre than farmers. There are alternatives to chemical pesticides. Here is an example. Encourage natural enemies of pests, including ladybugs, lacewings, wasps, tachinid flies, syrphid flies, and others. Here are ways to let your yard “go wild” for insects.
  • Consider growing heirloom vegetables and other plants. Many require insects for pollination. Here is an article about getting started. Here is a list of heirloom vegetables. Here is an example of an heirloom seed company.
  • Build insect hotels, which are constructed from wood and pocked with cavities that become homes for different types of insects.
  • Add a pond or other source of fresh water (rainwater is best). Build the pond in a spot that’s partly sunny/partly shady so it doesn't go stagnant. Grow waterlilies in it to keep it oxygenated.
  • Build a butterfly drinking fountain.
  • Consider planting edible shrubs or growing a food forest. An example can be found here from GroCycle, a permaculture organization. They also provide guides to forest garden design.

Land Managers

Stop the loss of insect habitat in cities and on county, state, and federal land and restore insect populations. Reduce or eliminate the use of toxic chemicals in urban spaces and on public lands (see Nature of Cities Nexus). In cities, encourage the establishment of wildflower verges and pollinator corridors. Emphasize native plants. Make the insect-friendly plots as large as possible.

  • On public lands, maintain the natural conditions of an area as much as possible. Protect migratory passages such as the corridor that monarch butterflies use to travel from Minnesota to Mexico. The All-Ireland Pollinator plan brings together government agencies, landowners, and citizens to work on the behalf of Ireland’s insects.
  • Restore and manage streams, rivers, and wetlands for insects. Particular attention should be paid to connecting freshwater habitats so insect species can move to new areas as the climate changes. The effort should be holistic and include a variety of wildlife. An example is the Netherlands’ Delta Plan for Biodiversity Recovery.
  • Work with private landowners to implement these changes on private land.

Scientists

Study what can be done to stop and reverse the loss of insect populations. Data on the scope, speed, and geographical extent of the insect crisis is limited and needs to be significantly expanded. Efforts in the past have focused mostly on rare, endangered, and charismatic species at the expense of a more complete picture of insect populations. Help close knowledge gaps. Questions to explore:

  • How steep are the declines exactly?
  • What are the consequences of extinctions in specific ecosystems?
  • How do alien insect species affect native populations?
  • What stressors (land degradation, deforestation) are most important?
  • What effects are/will climate change have?
  • How to fill geographical gaps? Most of the data on insects comes from Europe and the U.S. The rest of the world remains understudied, including India and the tropics.

Companies

Ensure that your supply chains protect, maintain, and restore insect populations. Companies should produce and use organic products and agroecological and regenerative agricultural practices that improve soil health, protect ecosystems and reverse land degradation (see Regenerative Agriculture Nexus and Agroecology Nexus).

Governance

Governments at all levels must implement policies that preserve and restore insect habitat, protect vulnerable species, reduce pesticide risk, and address climate change. Policy targets include:

  • Strengthening pesticide regulations to prevent further contamination of land and water habitats. In 2016, Maryland became the first state to ban the use of neonicotinoid insecticides. Here are policy recommendations from the Xerces Society on protecting pollinators from neonicotinoids.
  • Creating strong incentives to protect, enhance, and restore habitat for insects. For instance, Iowa incentivizes the use of native plants along county and state roadsides. There are programs in the U.S,, Canada, and Mexico to incentivize conservation of monarch butterflies and a broad suite of pollinators.
  • Restricting or banning pest-control products that are used for cosmetic purposes in nonagricultural spaces, such as lawns, gardens, parks, sports fields, and around homes. In Canada, Ontario and Nova Scotia have legislation that significantly reduces pesticide exposure.
  • Ending the practice of rewarding environmentally degrading farming with subsidies and crop insurance.
  • Increasing funding for research, outreach, and education programs.

Bad Actors

Biocides used in industrial agriculture, along with habitat conversion and degradation, often involve the actions of multinational corporations, including:

Cargill, a family-owned agribusiness behemoth at the center of the global industrial production of soy, corn, and other commodities on former grasslands and implicated in a wide variety land-degrading activities. The CEO is David MacLennan. His email is david_maclennan@cargill.com. His phone is (952) 742-4507

ADM and Bunge, two major food commodities traders and suppliers, are failing to protect land from degradation in their supply chains. The ADM CEO is Juan Luciano. His email is juan.luciano@adm.com His phone is (312) 634-8100 (HQ). The CEO of Bunge is Greg Heckman. His email: gregory.heckman@bunge.com. His phone: (314) 292-2000 (HQ)

Bayer/Monsanto, a large agribusiness that produces a variety of chemicals, including the herbicides dicamba and glyphosate (e.g., Roundup), which are sprayed on croplands. Bayer Ag CEO is Werner Baumann. His email is werner.baumann@bayer.com. His phone is 49 214 30 47720

DuPont, an international chemical manufacturer whose products have been used in industrial agriculture and food production for decades and linked to a variety of harmful effects. The CEO of DuPont is Edward Breen. His email is ed.breen@dupont.com. His phone is 302-774-1000.

Corteva, a major chemical and seed company. It was split off from the DowDuPont corporation. The CEO of Corteva is James C. Collins, Jr. His phone is 800-922-2368.

JBS S.A., a Brazilian meatpacking corporation that is the world’s largest supplier of beef, much of it raised on pastureland converted from tropical forests. It has been accused of abetting deforestation and violating forest protection laws. Pressure against JBS is working. In 2021, it made a commitment to produce “deforestation-free” beef, though the corporation has repeatedly broken itspromises. The CEO is Gilberto Tomazoni. His email is gilberto.tomazoni@jbs.com.br. His phone is 55 11 3144-7801.

Learn

Read

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, published in 1962 and recently reissued

Tales from the Ant World by E. O. Wilson

Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shepard

Farming the Woods: An Integrated Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests by Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel

Mongabay journalism series on insects

Listen

Arthro-Pod podcast series

Bug Talk podcast series

Bugs and Stuff podcast series

2 Million Blossoms podcast series

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