I was somewhat dismayed to see a BBC Article earlier this week detailing the fact that 41% of the worlds insect species are considered, or proven, to be in decline. This may not ring alarm bells with many people. However, when the irreplaceable role insects fulfil in many food chains, both plant and animal, and the essential part they play in plant pollination, is taken into account its significance becomes self-evident. The prime cause seems to be the intervention of mankind and some of his practices. First among them seem to be agricultural changes in recent years. Apart from routine use of fungicides, pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers and other chemicals of a similar ilk we now have the threat of genetic crop engineering staring us in the face. The chemical threats tend to have an immediate and easily noticed effect (except in cases such as run-off water table pollution that may take some time to manifest itself ) and remedial action, should the will be there, can be taken.
An even greater threat?
More insidious, to my mind, is the potential long term effect of some of the genetic engineering now being experimented with. This is not just a souped up version of selective breeding, which has been with us since agriculture began, but a direct interference with the genetic makeup of plants and animals. No assurances can, in reality, be given as to any potentially deleterious side effects of any of these procedures, since they have not been in existence long enough for those effects to have become apparent. Assurances, from whatever source, can only, therefore, be conjecture and/or someone’s “best guess” or opinion. Unfortunately this could turn out to be a “genie” that cannot be coaxed “back into the bottle”. Only time will tell.
Reasons for decline.
Still in the developed world, where all the above are most in effect, there is also the result of change of agricultural land use. Gone are the small mixed farms of my boyhood with their hedgerows, copses, coverts,unpolluted streams and water meadows. In are the mega mono crop holdings, be that crop vegetable or animal. Along with their inevitable chemically based husbandry they are now run more as a spreadsheet than a living, breathing, entity. Hedgerows are out in favour of barbed-wire fences. Stone walls are out in deference to the manpower cost of maintenance and replacement. Field borders are out where dozens of once individual field units have become one with rape, linseed, or similar stretching as far as the eye can see. Copses are out as they serve little practical purpose in this day and age. Coverts are out as fox-hunting, whatever the moral rights and wrongs of it in current civilised society, is no longer practised as an integral part of country life. Many former water meadows, home to such a diversity of life forms, are out, as they have become housing estates. Consequently there is much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth the next time the area floods, as the newly straightened out river delivers increasingly heavy rainfall at a rate far greater than Nature ever intended, and bursts its banks.
All bad news if you are an insect looking for something to eat, somewhere to sleep, something to pollinate and someone else to breed with.
Perhaps the most allegedly dramatic decline, and the one that has focussed attention on the problem due to its potential longterm effect on the human food chain, is the case of the Honey Bee. There seems to be a generally accepted public concept that Honey Bees are in serious decline. This concept seems to have gained credence as the result of a number of alarmist reports in various of the World’s media. Whether this is fact or not seems to be a contentious issue in scientific circles, as do the potential causes, hypothetical or otherwise. Working on the hypothesis that there is no smoke without fire, and taking into account the sheer number of unrelated studies on which the findings were based, some 73 in total, all subscribing to the general decline theory that led to the BBC’s article, I am inclined to believe it is based on fact. Again, whether it is factual or not, it seems to have taken the public eye and let’s hope that, with the help of the BBC and like agencies, it will result in a concerted scientific look at a potentially looming catastrophe. We always seem to have to reach “the brink of collapse” before the powers that be sit up and take notice.
Areas most affected.
Probably the greatest concentration of insect species occurs, not in the developed world, but rather in the Tropics and Rain Forest areas where chemical pollution is less a problem, if only as a result of costs. Slash and burn forest clearance for various forms of mining and farming is, however, still a problem. This is then exacerbated with areas of deliberate mass deforestation to make way for plantations of crops such as Oil Palm. This occurs on a scale that is difficult for Western heads to comprehend. Its effect is to convert a whole maze of different habitats into what, for many insects, is the equivalent of a sterile desert.
Climate change and Global Warming reared their perennial heads as factors involved in the decline. The jury, however, still seems to be out as to whether these are fact or fiction so I’ll continue to “Watch this space” before subscribing to the theory.
Cause and effect.
There will be many arguments both for and against all aspects of the problem now that it looks like it may, not before time, get an airing via the BBC. There will be many who fail to see the significance of the extinction of a seldom seen bug in Outer Mongolia. The problem with the World of Wildlife is that it acts as a web, rather like an old fashioned ladies stocking. A small hole anywhere almost instantly created what I seem to remember ladies referring to as a “run”, or a “ladder”, whereby, with a kind of domino effect, the results spread right through the garment and ruined it. So it is with the Wildlife Web. A bug going extinct in one corner of the globe can ultimately cause a whole forest to go extinct in an opposite corner.
Of course I can acknowledge that other species will either arise, or spread, to fill the gaps and niches left by extinctions. The process of evolution, be it man instigated or not, is unstoppable. The effect, however, that it may have in human terms is, once again, merely a matter of conjecture.
Good news amidst the gloom.
The good news is that there are still a whole range of fascinating insects going about their daily lives, here in Zimbabwe, blissfully unaware of the potentially grisly fate that awaits them. I have Titled this post “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and attached a few images accordingly. I feel somewhat guilty since they are all, in reality, “Good” and fulfil their own particular role in the scheme of things. “Bad”, other than as a synonym for “rotten”, usually refers to some behavioural trait that goes against the acceptable norm. This section, then, encompasses the stingers, biters and practisers of anti-social habits, of the insect world. “Ugly” is a relative term and, since beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, it is probably contentious as to which species fall under this heading. Suffice to say I have depicted here species which I would least like to land on the pillow next to me at night, purely from a looks point of view, and seek to cast no aspersions as to their inner beauty and intent.
We have recently introduced, as an optional activity, here at Pamuzinda Safari Lodge, guided Photographic Insect Walks for those interested in photographing some of the species currently at a photogenic stage in their life cycles.