Some of the most important research into the health of our planet’s insect populations can be linked back to a ragtag group of scientists, eccentric entomologists, and nerdy hobbyists known as the Amateur Entomology Society of Krefeld in western Germany.
Building on their three decades of diligent fieldwork and heaps of real-world data, the insect-loving team have come to sound the alarm once again: insects are heading down the path of the largest extinction event since the dinosaurs.
While their work has gained some incredible traction, the obscure volunteer group doesn’t have the budget of universities and big-time research institutions. Instead, their value lies in the fact they’ve been meticulously gathering data about insects in their local ecosystems since the 1980s. In total, the team say they have gathered up to 80 million insect specimens over the years. However, as their research clearly highlights, these numbers are now dropping drastically.
"We only became aware of the seriousness of this decline in 2011, and every year since then we have seen it get worse," Martin Sorg, president of the Amateur Entomology Society of Krefeld, told AFP in a recent interview.
"It is our greatest fear that a point of no return will be reached, which will lead to a permanent loss of diversity,” added Hans de Kroon, a Dutch professor who uses the German group's data for his work. "The cause is anthropogenic, there's no doubt about it."
The group’s most renowned work came in 2017 with a study published in PLOS One. After collecting data for 27 years from 63 nature protection areas in Germany, they documented a 76 percent decline in total flying insect biomass.
Their data was also used as part of a widely publicized meta-study from February 2019 that found 40 percent of the world’s insects could become extinct within the next few decades in a global “catastrophic collapse”.
The problem is a multi-faceted one, but there are a number of clear culprits that bear responsibility for the decline. First of all, there is the overarching threat of climate change, which is promising to dramatically alter ecosystems at a rate too fast for many species to adapt. There is also the widespread issue of intensive industrialized agriculture. Not only does this result in the loss of habitat but it also brings about the use of pesticides and fertilizers that are known to affect some insect species.
Of course, if we really do reach the "point of no return", this isn't just bad news for insects – we would also be screwed. More than three-quarters of the world's food crops rely at least in part on animal pollinators, primarily bees but also other insects, birds, and bats. Pollinators affect 35 percent of the world's crop production.
Without these guys are around, the world will undoubtedly be a much poorer place.