A few recent panels on insect conservation I’ve contributed to:
Off Track – great program on ABC’s Radio National (Australia) telling stories of nature. This week, the program featured myself and a couple of other Aussie invertebrate experts, Kate Umbers and Nick Porch. We talk about insect conservation in Australia, as well as challenges facing conservation policy and action in Australia more generally.
British Ecological Society – the society recently ran a number of events as part of National Insect Week and the Edinburgh Science Festival in the UK. I contributed to an excellent panel discussion on the Insect Apocalypse and insect conservation, along with Adam Hart, Nick Isaac, and Ashleigh Whiffin.
If you’re not familiar with the story, it goes a little something like this. “When I was a kid we would drive long distances for holidays and get bugs all over the windscreen. I don’t see any bugs on the windscreen anymore, therefore….” The interpretation, whether implied or stated explicitly, is that this is yet more evidence that a global insect decline is happening.
There are obvious flaws in this assumption, but the anecdote still strikes a chord with so many people, perhaps through some kind of confirmation bias. We know that biodiversity is in trouble, we know humans are having damaging effects on the environment, so it must be true, right?
We present an evidence-based perspective to show how invertebrates, and the ecosystems they support, face major threats as fire severity and frequency intensifies in response to global climate change. Our capacity to make effective decisions about ecosystem recovery and restoration funding after bushfires is hampered by the lack of knowledge on how invertebrates are impacted by fire, directly and indirectly, and how invertebrate communities influence ecosystem recovery.
Unfortunately, invertebrates were often overlooked in media coverage and conservation policy responses. Other than a few charismatic threatened invertebrates, the discourse focused on the tiny proportion of animals that are most well-known and loved – vertebrates.
This is largely because there simply isn’t enough information or baseline data about most of our invertebrate species to talk with any certainty about how many invertebrates were lost or impacted by the fires. Listed threatened invertebrates are a rare thing, mostly an artefact of the taxonomic expertise and recommendation activity that was available for the relevant committee, rather than knowledge of new threats facing invertebrates.
This is a guest post by Dr Tobias Smith, a bee ecologist and stingless bee expert at University of Queensland. He founded Bee Aware Brisbane and is also on the board of Wild Pollinators Oceania. Tobias is one of Australia’s leading native bee experts and has published an easy to use identification key to Australian bee genera, which you can download for free here. Effective communication plays a key role in conservation of bees (and biodiversity generally), a topic Tobias and I have published on before.
Lately on social media I have seen some spread of the idea that common names for bee species are detrimental to the science and conservation of bees and so should be avoided. I disagree, and in fact I regard common names as a vital part of bee conservation. Let me explain why.
First of all, let’s look at scientific naming, using Australia’s two biggest bee species as an example, Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) aruana and Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) lieftincki. These are big (males up to 26mm in length, females up to 22–23mm in length) beautiful, furry, yellow and black bees. These bees have the genus name Xylocopa. In Australia there are eight known Xylocopa species, but there are hundreds more found around the world. The second name, Koptortosoma, is the subgenus name. It tells us which part of the evolutionary tree of Xylocopa these bees are in.
Some interesting syntheses of long-term insect data have been published in the last few months. These synthesis studies attempt to provide an answer to the big question mark raised by the recent insect apocalypse narrative.
This is how much of an impact a single study that gets lots of attention can have on the direction of science. The insectageddon opinion piece that started this ball rolling had fundamental flaws that are now well-documented (unfortunately it is still being widely cited in scientific literature and popular media as supposed evidence of decline). Sure, one could argue it got people talking about an important issue that we already had decades of evidence for.
This is a guest post from Matthew Holden, an applied mathematician based at the University of Queensland. I loved seeing his backyard biodiversity hunt on Twitter, because so many of his pictures were of invertebrates! His story…
Well that’s what I wanted to know about my home.
It all started one day, more than a year ago, when my housemate, Dr Andrew Rogers, was cleaning out his closet. He wanted to move the spiders outside and spare them from getting sucked up by our vacuum, during a much-needed cleaning session. But there was one problem, there were a lot of spiders, definitely several species. He thought, “How many spiders do I share the house with?” It was a slippery slope … it wasn’t long till we wanted to know all of the species in our home.
From then on, we regularly talked about conducting a very local biodiversity survey, but never got around to it. We were fortunate enough to even have a taxonomist, Dr Russell Yong, move in with us, who was keen to help out. But we kept putting it off.
Then the pandemic happened. We all decided to start working for home – a perfect time to do the survey. It would give us all a social activity to bond over during this time of isolation. Andrew even came up with a hashtag for us to share our findings #StayHomeBiodiversityChallenge. Continue reading →
The latest issue of Insect Conservation & Diversity is out, a special issue on insect population trends. I’m really happy I was able to contribute to a few papers in this issue as both editor and author (obviously not the same papers in each case!).
Thanks to Editor in Chief Raphael Didham for pulling together a great collection of papers, as well as rallying the editorial team to contribute to the issue with this really useful peer-reviewed paper summarising the key challenges involved in measuring insect population trends. This paper is really timely, as it highlights some of the potential pitfalls involved in estimating population changes over time.
Ecological data (e.g. long-term data on animal population trends) are not like simplified stock market trends or sports team stats. They are confounded by numerous complex environmental and measurement factors, many of which an observer may not be aware of. Nature isn’t simple and we’re kidding ourselves if we want a quick and easy answer to sum up everything, everywhere. Continue reading →
This magic number was stated in that flawed entomofauna paper, without any explanation of how this number was calculated – see why that paper is flawed here.
Since then, it has been stated regularly in popular media, scientific papers and technical reports, often without citation, just a number pulled out of the air and presented as fact.
Globally, there are about 5 million estimated insect species in total. Only 1 million species have scientific names. So, conservatively, the 40% claim suggests that at least 400,000 species are threatened with extinction.
We summarise the major flaws in the pop culture ‘insect apocalypse’ narrative and argue that focusing on a hyped global apocalypse narrative distracts us from the more important insect conservation issues that we can tackle right now. Promoting this narrative as fact also sends the wrong message about how science works, and could have huge impacts on public understanding of science.
And, frankly, it’s just depressing. Right now, we all need hope, optimism and reasons to act, not a reason to give up.
It is an unfortunate paradox that insects, the most abundant and diverse class of animals on Earth, are also the most understudied and misunderstood. With diversity comes complexity, and scientists have only scratched the surface on knowledge of global insect ecology. In The Last Butterflies, ecologist and butterfly expert Nick Haddad explores some of this complexity.
Despite the title, this is not a story of despair. Nor is it just about butterflies. Haddad weaves an absorbing narrative about the multidimensional process of science and insect conservation, the damaging impacts humans can have on the web of life, the ethical quandaries of conservation, and the positive changes and solutions that give us hope. Each main chapter is focused on a single butterfly species: six of the rarest North American butterflies that Haddad has spent his career studying, and two more well-known species from North America and the UK. The eight butterflies are framing devices, each one illustrating pieces of the challenging puzzle that is insect ecology and conservation. Continue reading →