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1/25/2021 The Insect Apocalypse Is Here – The New York Times

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/27/magazine/insect-apocalypse.html 1/17

S

FEATURE

What does it mean for the rest of life on Earth?

By Brooke Jarvis

Nov. 27, 2018

une Boye Riis was on a bike ride with his youngest son, enjoying the sun slantingover the fields and woodlands near their home north of Copenhagen, when itsuddenly occurred to him that something about the experience was amiss.

Specifically, something was missing.

It was summer. He was out in the country, moving fast. But strangely, he wasn’t eating anybugs.

For a moment, Riis was transported to his childhood on the Danish island of Lolland, in theBaltic Sea. Back then, summer bike rides meant closing his mouth to cruise through thickclouds of insects, but inevitably he swallowed some anyway. When his parents took himdriving, he remembered, the car’s windshield was frequently so smeared with insectcarcasses that you almost couldn’t see through it. But all that seemed distant now. Hecouldn’t recall the last time he needed to wash bugs from his windshield; he even wondered,vaguely, whether car manufacturers had invented some fancy new coating to keep offinsects. But this absence, he now realized with some alarm, seemed to be all around him.Where had all those insects gone? And when? And why hadn’t he noticed?

Riis watched his son, flying through the beautiful day, not eating bugs, and was struck by themelancholy thought that his son’s childhood would lack this particular bug-eatingexperience of his own. It was, he granted, an odd thing to feel nostalgic about. But hecouldn’t shake a feeling of loss. “I guess it’s pretty human to think that everything wasbetter when you were a kid,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t like it when I was on my bike and I ateall the bugs, but looking back on it, I think it’s something everybody should experience.”

I met Riis, a lanky high school science and math teacher, on a hot day in June. He wasanxious about not having yet written his address for the school’s graduation ceremony thatevening, but first, he had a job to do. From his garage, he retrieved a large insect net, drove

The Insect Apocalypse Is Here

1/25/2021 The Insect Apocalypse Is Here – The New York Times

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/27/magazine/insect-apocalypse.html 2/17

to a nearby intersection and stopped to strap the net to the car’s roof. Made of white mesh,the net ran the length of his car and was held up by a tent pole at the front, tapering to asmall, removable bag in back. Drivers whizzing past twisted their heads to stare. Riis eyedhis parking spot nervously as he adjusted the straps of the contraption. “This is not 100percent legal,” he said, “but I guess, for the sake of science.”

Riis had not been able to stop thinking about the missing bugs. The more he learned, themore his nostalgia gave way to worry. Insects are the vital pollinators and recyclers ofecosystems and the base of food webs everywhere. Riis was not alone in noticing theirdecline. In the United States, scientists recently found the population of monarch butterfliesfell by 90 percent in the last 20 years, a loss of 900 million individuals; the rusty-patchedbumblebee, which once lived in 28 states, dropped by 87 percent over the same period. Withother, less-studied insect species, one butterfly researcher told me, “all we can do is waveour arms and say, ʻIt’s not here anymore!’ ” Still, the most disquieting thing wasn’t thedisappearance of certain species of insects; it was the deeper worry, shared by Riis andmany others, that a whole insect world might be quietly going missing, a loss of abundancethat could alter the planet in unknowable ways. “We notice the losses,” says David Wagner,an entomologist at the University of Connecticut. “It’s the diminishment that we don’t see.”

Because insects are legion, inconspicuous and hard to meaningfully track, the fear that theremight be far fewer than before was more felt than documented. People noticed it by canalsor in backyards or under streetlights at night — familiar places that had becomeunfamiliarly empty. The feeling was so common that entomologists developed a shorthandfor it, named for the way many people first began to notice that they weren’t seeing as manybugs. They called it the windshield phenomenon.

To test what had been primarily a loose suspicion of wrongness, Riis and 200 other Daneswere spending the month of June roaming their country’s back roads in their outfitted cars.They were part of a study conducted by the Natural History Museum of Denmark, a jointeffort of the University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University and North Carolina StateUniversity. The nets would stand in for windshields as Riis and the other volunteers drovethrough various habitats — urban areas, forests, agricultural tracts, uncultivated open landand wetlands — hoping to quantify the disorienting sense that, as one of the study’sdesigners put it, “something from the past is missing from the present.”

When the investigators began planning the study in 2016, they weren’t sure if anyone wouldsign up. But by the time the nets were ready, a paper by an obscure German entomologicalsociety had brought the problem of insect decline into sharp focus. The German study foundthat, measured simply by weight, the overall abundance of flying insects in German naturereserves had decreased by 75 percent over just 27 years. If you looked at midsummerpopulation peaks, the drop was 82 percent.

1/25/2021 The Insect Apocalypse Is Here – The New York Times

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/27/magazine/insect-apocalypse.html 3/17

Riis learned about the study from a group of his students in one of their class projects. Theymust have made some kind of mistake in their citation, he thought. But they hadn’t. Thestudy would quickly become, according to the website Altmetric, the sixth-most-discussedscientific paper of 2017. Headlines around the world warned of an “insect Armageddon.”

Within days of announcing the insect-collection project, the Natural History Museum ofDenmark was turning away eager volunteers by the dozens. It seemed there were peoplelike Riis everywhere, people who had noticed a change but didn’t know what to make of it.How could something as fundamental as the bugs in the sky just disappear? And whatwould become of the world without them?

Anyone who has returned to a childhood haunt to find that everything somehow got smallerknows that humans are not great at remembering the past accurately. This is especially truewhen it comes to changes to the natural world. It is impossible to maintain a fixedperspective, as Heraclitus observed 2,500 years ago: It is not the same river, but we are alsonot the same people.

A 1995 study, by Peter H. Kahn and Batya Friedman, of the way some children in Houstonexperienced pollution summed up our blindness this way: “With each generation, theamount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation takes that amount asthe norm.” In decades of photos of fishermen holding up their catch in the Florida Keys, themarine biologist Loren McClenachan found a perfect illustration of this phenomenon, whichis often called “shifting baseline syndrome.” The fish got smaller and smaller, to the pointwhere the prize catches were dwarfed by fish that in years past were piled up and ignored.But the smiles on the fishermen’s faces stayed the same size. The world never feels fallen,because we grow accustomed to the fall.

By one measure, bugs are the wildlife we know best, the nondomesticated animals whoselives intersect most intimately with our own: spiders in the shower, ants at the picnic, ticksburied in the skin. We sometimes feel that we know them rather too well. In another sense,though, they are one of our planet’s greatest mysteries, a reminder of how little we knowabout what’s happening in the world around us.

We’ve named and described a million species of insects, a stupefying array of thrips andfirebrats and antlions and caddis flies and froghoppers and other enormous families of bugsthat most of us can’t even name. (Technically, the word “bug” applies only to the orderHemiptera, also known as true bugs, species that have tubelike mouths for piercing andsucking — and there are as many as 80,000 named varieties of those.) The ones we think wedo know well, we don’t: There are 12,000 types of ants, nearly 20,000 varieties of bees,almost 400,000 species of beetles, so many that the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane reportedlyquipped that God must have an inordinate fondness for them. A bit of healthy soil a foot

1/25/2021 The Insect Apocalypse Is Here – The New York Times

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square and two inches deep might easily be home to 200 unique species of mites, each,presumably, with a subtly different job to do. And yet entomologists estimate that all thisamazing, absurd and understudied variety represents perhaps only 20 percent of the actualdiversity of insects on our planet — that there are millions and millions of species that areentirely unknown to science.

With so much abundance, it very likely never occurred to most entomologists of the pastthat their multitudinous subjects might dwindle away. As they poured themselves intostudies of the life cycles and taxonomies of the species that fascinated them, few thought tomeasure or record something as boring as their number. Besides, tracking quantity is slow,tedious and unglamorous work: setting and checking traps, waiting years or decades foryour data to be meaningful, grappling with blunt baseline questions instead of moresophisticated ones. And who would pay for it? Most academic funding is short-term, butwhen what you’re interested in is invisible, generational change, says Dave Goulson, anentomologist at the University of Sussex, “a three-year monitoring program is no good toanybody.” This is especially true of insect populations, which are naturally variable, withwide, trend-obscuring fluctuations from one year to the next.

When entomologists began noticing and investigating insect declines, they lamented theabsence of solid information from the past in which to ground their experiences of thepresent. “We see a hundred of something, and we think we’re fine,” Wagner says, “but whatif there were 100,000 two generations ago?” Rob Dunn, an ecologist at North Carolina StateUniversity who helped design the net experiment in Denmark, recently searched for studiesshowing the effect of pesticide spraying on the quantity of insects living in nearby forests.He was surprised to find that no such studies existed. “We ignored really basic questions,”he said. “It feels like we’ve dropped the ball in some giant collective way.”

1/25/2021 The Insect Apocalypse Is Here – The New York Times

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If entomologists lacked data, what they did have were some very worrying clues. Along withthe impression that they were seeing fewer bugs in their own jars and nets while out doingexperiments — a windshield phenomenon specific to the sorts of people who have bug jarsand nets — there were documented downward slides of well-studied bugs, including variouskinds of bees, moths, butterflies and beetles. In Britain, as many as 30 to 60 percent ofspecies were found to have diminishing ranges. Larger trends were harder to pin down,

1/25/2021 The Insect Apocalypse Is Here – The New York Times

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/27/magazine/insect-apocalypse.html 6/17

though a 2014 review in Science tried to quantify these declines by synthesizing the findingsof existing studies and found that a majority of monitored species were declining, onaverage by 45 percent.

Entomologists also knew that climate change and the overall degradation of global habitatare bad news for biodiversity in general, and that insects are dealing with the particularchallenges posed by herbicides and pesticides, along with the effects of losing meadows,forests and even weedy patches to the relentless expansion of human spaces. There werestudies of other, better-understood species that suggested that the insects associated withthem might be declining, too. People who studied fish found that the fish had fewer mayfliesto eat. Ornithologists kept finding that birds that rely on insects for food were in trouble:eight in 10 partridges gone from French farmlands; 50 and 80 percent drops, respectively,for nightingales and turtledoves. Half of all farmland birds in Europe disappeared in justthree decades. At first, many scientists assumed the familiar culprit of habitat destructionwas at work, but then they began to wonder if the birds might simply be starving. InDenmark, an ornithologist named Anders Tottrup was the one who came up with the idea ofturning cars into insect trackers for the windshield-effect study after he noticed that rollers,little owls, Eurasian hobbies and bee-eaters — all birds that subsist on large insects such asbeetles and dragonflies — had abruptly disappeared from the landscape.

The signs were certainly alarming, but they were also just signs, not enough to justify grandpronouncements about the health of insects as a whole or about what might be driving awidespread, cross-species decline. “There are no quantitative data on insects, so this is justa hypothesis,” Hans de Kroon, an ecologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands,explained to me — not the sort of language that sends people to the barricades.

Then came the German study. Scientists are still cautious about what the findings mightimply about other regions of the world. But the study brought forth exactly the kind oflongitudinal data they had been seeking, and it wasn’t specific to just one type of insect. Thenumbers were stark, indicating a vast impoverishment of an entire insect universe, even inprotected areas where insects ought to be under less stress. The speed and scale of the dropwere shocking even to entomologists who were already anxious about bees or fireflies or thecleanliness of car windshields.

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1/25/2021 The Insect Apocalypse Is Here – The New York Times

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The results were surprising in another way too. The long-term details about insectabundance, the kind that no one really thought existed, hadn’t appeared in a particularlyprestigious journal and didn’t come from university-affiliated scientists, but from a smallsociety of insect enthusiasts based in the modest German city Krefeld.

Krefeld sits a half-hour drive outside Düsseldorf, near the western bank of the Rhine. It’s acity of brick houses and bright flower gardens and a stadtwald — a municipal forest andpark — where paddle boats float on a lake, umbrellas shade a beer garden and (I couldn’thelp noticing) the afternoon light through the trees illuminates small swarms of dancinginsects.

Near the center of the old city, a paper sign, not much larger than a business card, identifiesthe stolid headquarters of the society whose research caused so much commotion. When itwas founded, in 1905, the society operated out of another building, one that was destroyedwhen Britain bombed the city during World War II. (By the time the bombs fell, membershad moved their precious records and collections of insects, some of which dated back to the1860s, to an underground bunker.) Nowadays, the society uses more than 6,000 square feetof an old three-story school as storage space. Ask for a tour of the collections, and you willhear such sentences as “This whole room is Lepidoptera,” referring to a former classroomstuffed with what I at first took to be shelves of books but which are in fact innumerablewooden frames containing pinned butterflies and moths; and, in an even larger room, “everybumblebee here was collected before the Second World War, 1880 to 1930”; and, uponopening a drawer full of sweat bees, “It’s a new collection, 30 years only.”

On the shelves that do hold books, I counted 31 clearly well-loved volumes in the series“Beetles of Middle Europe.” A 395-page book that cataloged specimens of spider wasps —where they were collected; where they were stored — of the western Palearctic said “1948-2008” on the cover. I asked my guide, a society member named Martin Sorg, who was one ofthe lead authors of the paper, whether those dates reflected when the specimens werecollected. “No,” Sorg replied, “that was the time the author needed for this work.”

Sorg, who rolls his own cigarettes and wears John Lennon glasses and whose gray hairgrows long past his shoulders, is not a freewheeling type when it comes to his insect work.And his insect work is really all he wants to talk about. “We think details about nature andbiodiversity declines are important, not details about life histories of entomologists,” Sorgexplained after he and Werner Stenmans, a society member whose name appearedalongside Sorg’s on the 2017 paper, dismissed my questions about their day jobs. Leery of anarticle that focused on him as a person, Sorg also didn’t want to talk about what drew him toentomology as a child or even what it was about certain types of wasps that had made himwant to devote so much of his life to studying them. “We normally give life histories whensomeone is dead,” he said.

1/25/2021 The Insect Apocalypse Is Here – The New York Times

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There was a reason for the wariness. Society members dislike seeing themselves described,over and over in news stories, as “amateurs.” It’s a framing that reflects, they believe, a too-narrow understanding of what it means to be an expert or even a scientist — what it meansto be a student of the natural world.

Amateurs have long provided much of the patchy knowledge we have about nature. Thosebee and butterfly studies? Most depend on mass mobilizations of volunteers willing to walktransects and count insects, every two weeks or every year, year after year. The scarynumbers about bird declines were gathered this way, too, though because birds can be hardto spot, volunteers often must learn to identify them by their sounds. Britain, which has aparticularly strong tradition of amateur naturalism, has the best-studied bugs in the world.As technologically advanced as we are, the natural world is still a very big and complexplace, and the best way to learn what’s going on is for a lot of people to spend a lot of timeobserving it. The Latin root of the word “amateur” is, after all, the word “lover.”

Some of these citizen-scientists are true beginners clutching field guides; others, driven bytheir own passion and following in a long tradition of “amateur” naturalism, are far fromnovices. Think of Victorians with their butterfly nets and curiosity cabinets; of VladimirNabokov, whose theories about the evolution of Polyommatus blue butterflies were ignoreduntil proved correct by DNA testing more than 30 years after his death; of young CharlesDarwin, cutting his classes at Cambridge to collect beetles at Wicken Fen and once putting alive beetle in his mouth because his hands were already full of other bugs.

The Krefeld society is volunteer-run, and many members have other jobs in unrelated fields,but they also have an enormous depth of knowledge about insects, accumulated throughyears of what other people might consider obsessive attention. Some study the ecology orevolutionary taxonomy of their favorite species or map their populations or breed them tostudy their life histories. All hone their identification skills across species by amassing theirown collections of carefully pinned and labeled insects like those that fill the society’sstorage rooms. Sorg estimated that of the society’s 63 members, a third are university-trained in subjects such as biology or earth science. Another third, he said, are “highlyspecialized and highly qualified but they never visited the university,” while the remainingthird are actual amateurs who are still in the process of becoming “real” entomologists:“Some of them may also have a degree from the university, but in our view, they arebeginners.”

The society members’ projects often involved setting up what are called malaise traps, netsthat look like tents and drive insects flying by into bottles of ethanol. Because of thescientific standards of the society, members followed certain procedures: They alwaysemployed identical traps, sewn from a template they first used in 1982. (Sorg showed me theoriginal rolled-up craft paper with great solemnity.) They always put them in the same

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places. (Before GPS, that meant a painstaking process of triangulating with surveyingequipment. “We are not sure about a few centimeters,” Sorg granted.) They savedeverything they caught, regardless of what the main purpose of the experiment was. (Thesociety bought so much ethanol that it attracted the attention of a narcotics unit.)

Those bottles of insects were gathered into thousands of boxes, which are now crammed intowhat were once offices in the upper reaches of the school. When the society members, likeentomologists elsewhere, began to notice that they were seeing fewer insects, they hadsomething against which to measure their worries.

“We don’t throw away anything, we store everything,” Sorg explained. “That gives us todaythe possibility to go back in time.”

In 2013, Krefeld entomologists confirmed that the total number of insects caught in onenature reserve was nearly 80 percent lower than the same spot in 1989. They had sampledother sites, analyzed old data sets and found similar declines: Where 30 years earlier, theyoften needed a liter bottle for a week of trapping, now a half-liter bottle usually sufficed. Butit would have taken even highly trained entomologists years of painstaking work to identifyall the insects in the bottles. So the society used a standardized method for weighing insectsin alcohol, which told a powerful story simply by showing how much the overall mass ofinsects dropped over time. “A decline of this mixture,” Sorg said, “is a very different thingthan the decline of only a few species.”

The society collaborated with de Kroon and other scientists at Radboud University in theNetherlands, who did a trend analysis of the data that Krefeld provided, controlling forthings like the effects of nearby plants, weather and forest cover on fluctuations in insectpopulations. The final study looked at 63 nature preserves, representing almost 17,000sampling days, and found consistent declines in every kind of habitat they sampled. Thissuggested, the authors wrote, “that it is not only the vulnerable species but the flying-insectcommunity as a whole that has been decimated over the last few decades.”

For some scientists, the study created a moment of reckoning. “Scientists thought this datawas too boring,” Dunn says. “But these people found it beautiful, and they loved it. Theywere the ones paying attention to Earth for all the rest of us.”

The current worldwide loss of biodiversity is popularly known as the sixth extinction: thesixth time in world history that a large number of species have disappeared in unusuallyrapid succession, caused this time not by asteroids or ice ages but by humans. When wethink about losing biodiversity, we tend to think of the last northern white rhinos protected

1/25/2021 The Insect Apocalypse Is Here – The New York Times

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by armed guards, of polar bears on dwindling ice floes. Extinction is a visceral tragedy,universally understood: There is no coming back from it. The guilt of letting a uniquespecies vanish is eternal.

But extinction is not the only tragedy through which we’re living. What about the speciesthat still exist, but as a shadow of what they once were? In “The Once and Future World,”the journalist J.B. MacKinnon cites records from recent centuries that hint at what has onlyjust been lost: “In the North Atlantic, a school of cod stalls a tall ship in midocean; offSydney, Australia, a ship’s captain sails from noon until sunset through pods of spermwhales as far as the eye can see. … Pacific pioneers complain to the authorities thatsplashing salmon threaten to swamp their canoes.” There were reports of lions in the southof France, walruses at the mouth of the Thames, flocks of birds that took three days to flyoverhead, as many as 100 blue whales in the Southern Ocean for every one that’s there now.“These are not sights from some ancient age of fire and ice,” MacKinnon writes. “We aretalking about things seen by human eyes, recalled in human memory.”

What we’re losing is not just the diversity part of biodiversity, but the bio part: life in sheerquantity. While I was writing this article, scientists learned that the world’s largest kingpenguin colony shrank by 88 percent in 35 years, that more than 97 percent of the bluefintuna that once lived in the ocean are gone. The number of Sophie the Giraffe toys sold inFrance in a single year is nine times the number of all the giraffes that still live in Africa.

Finding reassurance in the survival of a few symbolic standard-bearers ignores the value ofabundance, of a natural world that thrives on richness and complexity and interaction.Tigers still exist, for example, but that doesn’t change the fact that 93 percent of the landwhere they used to live is now tigerless. This matters for more than romantic reasons:Large animals, especially top predators like tigers, connect ecosystems to one another andmove energy and resources among them simply by walking and eating and defecating anddying. (In the deep ocean, sunken whale carcasses form the basis of entire ecosystems innutrient-poor places.) One result of their loss is what’s known as trophic cascade, theunraveling of an ecosystem’s fabric as prey populations boom and crash and the variouslevels of the food web no longer keep each other in check. These places are emptier,impoverished in a thousand subtle ways.

Scientists have begun to speak of functional extinction (as opposed to the more familiarkind, numerical extinction). Functionally extinct animals and plants are still present but nolonger prevalent enough to affect how an ecosystem works. Some phrase this as theextinction not of a species but of all its former interactions with its environment — anextinction of seed dispersal and predation and pollination and all the other ecologicalfunctions an animal once had, which can be devastating even if some individuals still persist.The more interactions are lost, the more disordered the ecosystem becomes. A 2013 paper in

1/25/2021 The Insect Apocalypse Is Here – The New York Times

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Nature, which modeled both natural and computer-generated food webs, suggested that aloss of even 30 percent of a species’ abundance can be so destabilizing that other speciesstart going fully, numerically extinct — in fact, 80 percent of the time it was a secondarilyaffected creature that was the first to disappear. A famous real-world example of this type ofcascade concerns sea otters. When they were nearly wiped out in the northern Pacific, theirprey, sea urchins, ballooned in number and decimated kelp forests, turning a richenvironment into a barren one and also possibly contributing to numerical extinctions,notably of the Steller’s sea cow.

Conservationists tend to focus on rare and endangered species, but it is common ones,because of their abundance, that power the living systems of our planet. Most species arenot common, but within many animal groups most individuals — some 80 percent of them —belong to common species. Like the slow approach of twilight, their declines can be hard tosee. White-rumped vultures were nearly gone from India before there was widespreadawareness of their disappearance. Describing this phenomenon in the journal BioScience,Kevin Gaston, a professor of biodiversity and conservation at the University of Exeter,wrote: “Humans seem innately better able to detect the complete loss of an environmentalfeature than its progressive change.”

In addition to extinction (the complete loss of a species) and extirpation (a localizedextinction), scientists now speak of defaunation: the loss of individuals, the loss ofabundance, the loss of a place’s absolute animalness. In a 2014 article in Science, researchersargued that the word should become as familiar, and influential, as the concept ofdeforestation. In 2017 another paper reported that major population and range lossesextended even to species considered to be at low risk for extinction. They predicted“negative cascading consequences on ecosystem functioning and services vital to sustainingcivilization” and the authors offered another term for the widespread loss of the world’s wildfauna: “biological annihilation.”

It is estimated that, since 1970, Earth’s various populations of wild land animals have lost, onaverage, 60 percent of their members. Zeroing in on the category we most relate to,mammals, scientists believe that for every six wild creatures that once ate and burrowedand raised young, only one remains. What we have instead is ourselves. A study publishedthis year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that if you look atthe world’s mammals by weight, 96 percent of that biomass is humans and livestock; just 4percent is wild animals.

We’ve begun to talk about living in the Anthropocene, a world shaped by humans. But E.O.Wilson, the naturalist and prophet of environmental degradation, has suggested anothername: the Eremocine, the age of loneliness.

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Wilson began his career as a taxonomic entomologist, studying ants. Insects — about as faras you can get from charismatic megafauna — are not what we’re usually imagining whenwe talk about biodiversity. Yet they are, in Wilson’s words, “the little things that run thenatural world.” He means it literally. Insects are a case study in the invisible importance ofthe common.

Scientists have tried to calculate the benefits that insects provide simply by going abouttheir business in large numbers. Trillions of bugs flitting from flower to flower pollinatesome three-quarters of our food crops, a service worth as much as $500 billion every year.(This doesn’t count the 80 percent of wild flowering plants, the foundation blocks of lifeeverywhere, that rely on insects for pollination.) If monetary calculations like that soundstrange, consider the Maoxian Valley in China, where shortages of insect pollinators haveled farmers to hire human workers, at a cost of up to $19 per worker per day, to replace bees.Each person covers five to 10 trees a day, pollinating apple blossoms by hand.

By eating and being eaten, insects turn plants into protein and power the growth of all theuncountable species — including freshwater fish and a majority of birds — that rely on themfor food, not to mention all the creatures that eat those creatures. We worry about saving thegrizzly bear, says the insect ecologist Scott Hoffman Black, but where is the grizzly withoutthe bee that pollinates the berries it eats or the flies that sustain baby salmon? Where, forthat matter, are we?

Bugs are vital to the decomposition that keeps nutrients cycling, soil healthy, plants growingand ecosystems running. This role is mostly invisible, until suddenly it’s not. Afterintroducing cattle to Australia at the turn of the 19th century, settlers soon found themselvesoverwhelmed by the problem of their feces: For some reason, cow pies there were takingmonths or even years to decompose. Cows refused to eat near the stink, requiring more andmore land for grazing, and so many flies bred in the piles that the country became famousfor the funny hats that stockmen wore to keep them at bay. It wasn’t until 1951 that a visitingentomologist realized what was wrong: The local insects, evolved to eat the more fibrouswaste of marsupials, couldn’t handle cow excrement. For the next 25 years, the importation,quarantine and release of dozens of species of dung beetles became a national priority. Andthat was just one unfilled niche. (In the United States, dung beetles save ranchers anestimated $380 million a year.) We simply don’t know everything that insects do. Only about2 percent of invertebrate species have been studied enough for us to estimate whether theyare in danger of extinction, never mind what dangers that extinction might pose.

When asked to imagine what would happen if insects were to disappear completely,scientists find words like chaos, collapse, Armageddon. Wagner, the University ofConnecticut entomologist, describes a flowerless world with silent forests, a world of dungand old leaves and rotting carcasses accumulating in cities and roadsides, a world of

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“collapse or decay and erosion and loss that would spread through ecosystems” — spiralingfrom predators to plants. E.O. Wilson has written of an insect-free world, a place where mostplants and land animals become extinct; where fungi explodes, for a while, thriving on deathand rot; and where “the human species survives, able to fall back on wind-pollinated grainsand marine fishing” despite mass starvation and resource wars. “Clinging to survival in adevastated world, and trapped in an ecological dark age,” he adds, “the survivors wouldoffer prayers for the return of weeds and bugs.”

But the crux of the windshield phenomenon, the reason that the creeping suspicion ofchange is so creepy, is that insects wouldn’t have to disappear altogether for us to findourselves missing them for reasons far beyond nostalgia. In October, an entomologist sentme an email with the subject line, “Holy [expletive]!” and an attachment: a study just outfrom Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that he labeled, “Krefeld comes toPuerto Rico.” The study included data from the 1970s and from the early 2010s, when atropical ecologist named Brad Lister returned to the rain forest where he had studied lizards— and, crucially, their prey — 40 years earlier. Lister set out sticky traps and swept netsacross foliage in the same places he had in the 1970s, but this time he and his co-author,Andres Garcia, caught much, much less: 10 to 60 times less arthropod biomass than before.(It’s easy to read that number as 60 percent less, but it’s sixtyfold less: Where once hecaught 473 milligrams of bugs, Lister was now catching just eight milligrams.) “It was, youknow, devastating,” Lister told me. But even scarier were the ways the losses were alreadymoving through the ecosystem, with serious declines in the numbers of lizards, birds andfrogs. The paper reported “a bottom-up trophic cascade and consequent collapse of theforest food web.” Lister’s inbox quickly filled with messages from other scientists, especiallypeople who study soil invertebrates, telling him they were seeing similarly frighteningdeclines. Even after his dire findings, Lister found the losses shocking: “I didn’t even knowabout the earthworm crisis!”

The strange thing, Lister said, is that, as staggering as they are, all the declines hedocumented would still be basically invisible to the average person walking through theLuquillo rain forest. On his last visit, the forest still felt “timeless” and “phantasmagorical,”with “cascading waterfalls and carpets of flowers.” You would have to be an expert to noticewhat was missing. But he expects the losses to push the forest toward a tipping point, afterwhich “there is a sudden and dramatic loss of the rain-forest system,” and the changes willbecome obvious to anyone. The place he loves will become unrecognizable.

The insects in the forest that Lister studied haven’t been contending with pesticides orhabitat loss, the two problems to which the Krefeld paper pointed. Instead, Lister chalks uptheir decline to climate change, which has already increased temperatures in Luquillo bytwo degrees Celsius since Lister first sampled there. Previous research suggested that

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tropical bugs will be unusually sensitive to temperature changes; in November, scientistswho subjected laboratory beetles to a heat wave reported that the increased temperaturesmade them significantly less fertile. Other scientists wonder if it might be climate-induceddrought or possibly invasive rats or simply “death by a thousand cuts” — a confluence ofmany kinds of changes to the places where insects once thrived.

Like other species, insects are responding to what Chris Thomas, an insect ecologist at theUniversity of York, has called “the transformation of the world”: not just a changing climatebut also the widespread conversion, via urbanization, agricultural intensification and so on,of natural spaces into human ones, with fewer and fewer resources “left over” for nonhumancreatures to live on. What resources remain are often contaminated. Hans de Krooncharacterizes the life of many modern insects as trying to survive from one dwindling oasisto the next but with “a desert in between, and at worst it’s a poisonous desert.” Of particularconcern are neonicotinoids, neurotoxins that were thought to affect only treated crops butturned out to accumulate in the landscape and to be consumed by all kinds of nontargetedbugs. People talk about the “loss” of bees to colony collapse disorder, and that appears to bethe right word: Affected hives aren’t full of dead bees, but simply mysteriously empty. Aleading theory is that exposure to neurotoxins leaves bees unable to find their way home.Even hives exposed to low levels of neonicotinoids have been shown to collect less pollenand produce fewer eggs and far fewer queens. Some recent studies found bees doing betterin cities than in the supposed countryside.

The diversity of insects means that some will manage to make do in new environments,some will thrive (abundance cuts both ways: agricultural monocultures, places where onlyone kind of plant grows, allow some pests to reach population levels they would neverachieve in nature) and some, searching for food and shelter in a world nothing like the onethey were meant for, will fail. While we need much more data to better understand thereasons or mechanisms behind the ups and downs, Thomas says, “the average across allspecies is still a decline.”

Since the Krefeld study came out, researchers have begun searching for other forgottenrepositories of information that might offer windows into the past. Some of the Radboudresearchers have analyzed long-term data, belonging to Dutch entomological societies,about beetles and moths in certain reserves; they found significant drops (72 percent, 54percent) that mirrored the Krefeld ones. Roel van Klink, a researcher at the German Centerfor Integrative Biodiversity Research, told me that before Krefeld, he, like mostentomologists, had never been interested in biomass. Now he is looking for historical datasets — many of which began as studies of agricultural pests, like a decades-long study of

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grasshoppers in Kansas — that could help create a more thorough picture of what’shappening to creatures that are at once abundant and imperiled. So far he has foundforgotten data from 140 old data sets for 1,500 locations that could be resampled.

In the United States, one of the few long-term data sets about insect abundance comes fromthe work of Arthur Shapiro, an entomologist at the University of California, Davis. In 1972,he began walking transects in the Central Valley and the Sierras, counting butterflies. Heplanned to do a study on how short-term weather variations affected butterfly populations.But the longer he sampled, the more valuable his data became, offering a signal through thenoise of seasonal ups and downs. “And so here I am in Year 46,” he said, nearly half acentury of spending five days a week, from late spring to the end of autumn, observingbutterflies. In that time he has watched overall numbers decline and seen some species thatused to be everywhere — even species that “everyone regarded as a junk species” only afew decades ago — all but disappear. Shapiro believes that Krefeld-level declines are likelyto be happening all over the globe. “But, of course, I don’t cover the entire globe,” he added.“I cover I-80.”

There are also new efforts to set up more of the kind of insect-monitoring schemesresearchers wish had existed decades ago, so that our current level of fallenness, at least, iscaptured. One is a pilot project in Germany similar to the Danish car study. To analyze whatis caught, the researchers turned to volunteer naturalists, hobbyists similar to the ones inKrefeld, with the necessary breadth of knowledge to know what they’re looking at. “Theseare not easy species to identify,” says Aletta Bonn, of the German Center for IntegrativeBiodiversity Research, who is overseeing the project. (The skills required for such work “arereally extreme,” Dunn says. “These people train for decades with other amateurs to be ableto identify beetles based on their genitalia.”) Bond would like to pay the volunteers for theirexpertise, she says, but funding hasn’t caught up to the crisis. That didn’t stop the“amateurs” from being willing to help: “They said, ʻWe’re just curious what’s in there, wewould like to have samples.’ ”

Goulson says that Europe’s tradition of amateur naturalism may account for why so many ofthe clues to the falloff in insect biodiversity originate there. (Tottrup’s design for the car netin Denmark, for example, was itself adapted from the invention of a dedicated beetle-collecting hobbyist.) As little as we know about the status of European bugs, we knowsignificantly less about other parts of the world. “We wouldn’t know anything if it weren’t forthem,” the so-called amateurs, Goulson told me. “We’d be entirely relying on the fact thatthere’s no bugs on the windshield.”

Thomas believes that this naturalist tradition is also why Europe is acting much faster thanother places — for example, the United States — to address the decline of insects: Interestleads to tracking, which leads to awareness, which leads to concern, which leads to action.

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Since the Krefeld data emerged, there have been hearings about protecting insectbiodiversity in the German Bundestag and the European Parliament. European Unionmember states voted to extend a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides and have begun to putmoney toward further studies of how abundance is changing, what is causing those changesand what can be done. When I knocked on the door of de Kroon’s office, at RadboudUniversity in the Dutch city Nijmegen, he was looking at some photos from another meetinghe had that day: Willem-Alexander, the king of the Netherlands, had taken a tour of thecity’s efforts to make its riverside a friendlier habitat for bugs.

Stemming insect declines will require much more than this, however. The European Unionalready had some measures in place to help pollinators — including more strictly regulatingpesticides than the United States does and paying farmers to create insect habitats byleaving fields fallow and allowing for wild edges alongside cultivation — but insectpopulations dropped anyway. New reports call for national governments to collaborate; formore creative approaches such as integrating insect habitats into the design of roads, powerlines, railroads and other infrastructure; and, as always, for more studies. The necessarychanges, like the causes, may be profound. “It’s just another indication that we’re destroyingthe life-support system of the planet,” Lister says of the Puerto Rico study. “Nature’sresilient, but we’re pushing her to such extremes that eventually it will cause a collapse ofthe system.”

Scientists hope that insects will have a chance to embody that resilience. While tigers tendto give birth to three or four cubs at a time, a ghost moth in Australia was once recordedlaying 29,100 eggs, and she still had 15,000 in her ovaries. The fecund abundance that isinsects’ singular trait should enable them to recover, but only if they are given the space andthe opportunity to do so.

“It’s a debate we need to have urgently,” Goulson says. “If we lose insects, life on earth will….” He trailed off, pausing for what felt like a long time.

In Denmark, Sune Boye Riis’s transect with his car net took him past a bit of woods, somesuburban lawns, some hedges, a Christmas-tree farm. The closest thing to a meadow thatwe passed was a large military property, on which the grass had been allowed to grow talland golden. Riis had received instructions not to drive too fast, so traffic backed up behindus, and some people began to honk. “Well,” Riis said, “so much for science.” After threemiles, he turned around and drove back toward the start. His windshield stayed mockinglyclean.

Riis had four friends who were also participating in the study. They had a bet going amongthem: Who would net the biggest bug? “I’m way behind,” Riis said. “A bumblebee is in thelead.” His biggest catch? “A fly. Not even a big one.”

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At the end of the transect, Riis stopped at another parlous roadside spot, unfastened the netand removed the small bag at its tip. Some volunteers, captivated by what the studyrevealed about the world around them, asked the organizers for extra specimen bags, sothey could do more sampling on their own. Some even asked if they could buy the entire car-net apparatus. Riis, though, was content to peer through the mesh, inside of which he couldmake out a number of black specks of varying tininess.

There was also a single butterfly, white-winged and delicate. Riis thought of the bet with hisfriends, for which the meaning of bigness had not been defined. He wondered how it mightbe reckoned. What gave a creature value?

“Is it weight?” he asked, staring down at the butterfly. In the big bag, it looked small and sadand alone. “Or is it grace?”

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