Tn an authoritative and compelling new book, The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires that Run the World, Oliver Milman, an environmental journalist with The Guardian, brings us into the center of a frightening ecological situation. Insects may overwhelm us with their diversity, their adaptability, even their fecundity; however, in tale after troubling tale, the author shows us that “what was once infinite now seems jarringly vulnerable.”
Milman portrays moths, midges, beetles, bumblebees, and butterflies in glorious, vivid detail, frequently unraveling our preconceptions in the process. Moths, he writes, which are “often maligned as powdery vandals that enjoy chomping their way through the clothes in our wardrobes,” are in fact critically important pollinators that attend to the plant species ignored by bees. The United States is home to some 15,000 moth species, of which “just two… will ever pose a threat to a woolen sweater or cashmere scarf.”
When people consider the world’s disappearing biodiversity, Milman explains, they tend to fixate on polar bears, rhinos, tigers, and the like. “We are drawn, moist eyed, to some species and withdraw with a shrug from others. Insects largely find themselves in the latter category.”
But these creatures are, quite simply, indispensable—they are “the struts holding aloft most life on Earth,” he writes. As pollinators, they sustain 90 percent of the world’s wild, flowering plants, and one-third of those grown for human consumption. They are decomposers, transforming dead flesh and fecal matter into healthy soil. And they provide critical nourishment for innumerable animals. Half the world’s bird species, for example, would perish without them. As the author warns, “Start yanking enormous numbers of insects out from the environment and the whole web of life, including humanity, is thrown off-kilter.”
Scientific research, of course, resides at the heart of this book, but Milman is particularly adept at evoking the humanity of the ecologists, biologists, and entomologists whose work he depicts. A reader can almost envision him accompanying these men and women into the field, peering over their shoulders as they sift through the soil, and listening as they grapple with their findings.
Danish biologist Anders Pape Møller has studied swallows for more than 50 years. When he began noticing a decline in the birds’ numbers, Møller’s thoughts turned immediately to their food supply: a pair of nesting barn swallows, along with their chicks, consumes about a million insects each season. Møller recalled his childhood on a farm, where the skies and croplands teemed with beetles, bumblebees, and flies—an abundance he no longer noted. So, in 1996 he devised an unusual experiment: along with a few PhD students, Møller began driving up and down two stretches of road—37 miles per hour, as often as nine times a day, from May to September —then counting the insects splattered on the windshield. He has done this faithfully for more than 20 years, and the results are startling: insect numbers have plummeted 80 percent along one stretch of road, 97 percent on the other.
Milman tells of Brad Lister, an ecologist who took sticky traps into Puerto Rico’s lush El Yunque rainforest decades ago to measure insect populations. Thirty-five years later, he returned to reset the traps. “While in the 1970s the sticky plates ended up matted in insects, this time they regularly came back with just a couple of sad specimens,” Milman documents. More than three-quarters of the insects, Lister learned, had simply disappeared. Populations of lizards, frogs, and birds, in turn, had also plummeted. Lister’s research prompted The Washington Post to coin the now-familiar term “insect apocalypse.”
Daniel Jantzen has studied tropical insects since the 1950s, documenting their decline in both the cloud forests and the lowlands. When skeptics question the severity of an insect collapse and suggest that more research is needed, he bristles: “The house is burning. We do not need a thermometer. We need a fire hose.”
Milman points to habitat loss, insecticides, and climate change as the primary factors causing this crisis, and describes in painstaking detail the damage wrought by each. Regarding habitat loss, readers might be surprised to learn that insects starve not only amidst swaths of industrialized agriculture, but also in neatly manicured and seemingly bucolic fields and lawns —any place, in fact, no longer edged in messy, life-sustaining weeds.
Scientists, Milman suggests, have been shocked by the enormity of this crisis. Years ago, many speculated that insects, “[w]ith their large, elastic populations and their defiance of previous mass extinction events,” might endure climate change more easily than mammals, birds, and other creatures. As it turns out, insects are “faring worst of all.”
The combined impact of habitat loss, pesticides, and climate change can be catastrophic, as Milman illustrates in his discussion of the monarch butterfly, perhaps the world’s most beloved insect. The author describes the monarch with appropriate awe— “[a] fragile wisp of a creature, weighing as much as a raisin, [that] is able to complete an odyssey of just under 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles) using just its wings, air currents, and finely honed instinct.” He shows how the deadly combination of pesticide spraying and monoculture farming has reduced monarch numbers to a fraction of what they once were, then describes how the surviving butterflies face a final, daunting challenge in their overwintering grounds: oyamel fir trees, whose branches protect them from the freezing rains, are dying out in response to a warming climate. Milman observes, “It’s as if the monarch butterfly is perched on a ladder where each rung is being systematically set on fire.”
Milman punctuates his narrative with thoughtful, often poignant observations—pointing out, for example, that the insect crisis is not a one-size-fits-all sort of calamity. In the not-so-distant future, he writes, we may find ourselves fondly remembering butterflies and bumblebees, as we are overrun by bedbugs and cockroaches.
Insecticides get a great deal of attention in the book. Milman’s discussion of neonicotinoids—“calculated to be around 7,000 more toxic to bees than DDT”—is particularly grim: “Across vast, featureless fields, insects are being systematically maimed, befuddled, and exterminated,” he writes. Milman shows how these substances seep far beyond the borders of the fields where they are applied and describes their deadly impact on non-targeted insect and animal species. Perhaps most disturbing are his accounts of scientists whose work has been undermined by the pesticide industry.
There are, however, signs of hope, and Milman is quick to expound on them. He tells of Kepp, a 3,500-acre farm in southeast England that models “nature-based” management, a place where all manner of wildlife, particularly insect life, thrives. And he describes how quickly insects might rebound, if given just a bit of space— “the embankment next to the din of a highway, the greenery poking through railway tracks, the overgrown plot where a house once stood ….” But often, the ecological situation Milman documents appears unavoidably bleak. One might wish the book included a list of resources: Where does one learn about pollinator-friendly gardening? Is there a role for non-scientists in the battle over pesticides? But this is a small quip.
Milman has written a timely and important book, thoroughly researched and immensely persuasive. Our own wellbeing and survival, as it turns out, is entwined with the fate of insects. A reader senses that the time for counting bugs on the windshield has passed, that we must act boldly to preserve these irreplaceable creatures.
Tucker Coombe writes about nature and conservation from Cincinnati, Ohio and Chatham, Massachusetts. Her work has been published in Brevity, The Rumpus, and Los Angeles Review of Books. In her spare time she trains dogs, keeps bees, and gardens with a focus on native plants and wildlife.
Header image by Protasov AN, courtesy Shutterstock.