Insect declines: Apocalypse Now to Great Expectations

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.

But at what cost? Its long-term effects on science communication and scientific efforts are most concerning, something we flagged in our analysis published earlier this year.

Continue reading

Special issue on insect conservation and population trends

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

Are 40% of insects facing extinction?

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.

So is it an accurate prediction? No. Here’s why: Continue reading

Moving on from the insect apocalypse to evidence-based conservation

Our insect apocalypse paper is finally published online at BioScience, with awesome co-authors Jasmine Janes and James O’Hanlon!

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.

This blog isn’t about the paper, you can read it yourself (journal, preprint, or email me for a copy). This is about why we wrote the paper. Continue reading

The windscreen phenomenon: anecdata is not scientific evidence

The windscreen phenomenon refers to people’s perception that there are fewer insects being splattered on their windscreen than they used to see. It is one of the most common anecdotes presented as evidence of global insect decline in the Insectageddon stories. But anecdotes are not scientific evidence. Anecdotes describe local conditions, not globally-relevant facts.

People often claim the ‘windscreen phenomenon’ is established evidence and proven fact. But a search of academic journal databases returns only one published study that has used car windscreens to measure changes in local insect abundance. In that study, Anders Møller compared insect abundance (although it’s not clear from the Methods if he actually measured density) with breeding rates of insectivorous birds in an agricultural landscape in Denmark. Data was collected in the same way at the same location for 20 years, which is very impressive, and analysis showed an 80% decline in insects across the period. Continue reading

Insectageddon is a great story. But what are the facts?

Hype is an ineffective communication strategy, especially when based on limited facts. There are many elements to effective communication – simply raising awareness about a problem is not enough if audiences don’t engage with the facts and participate in developing solutions.

The latest instalment in the Insect Armageddon saga is out. I wasn’t going to write about it. After my previous posts, I didn’t want to sound like a stuck record. But I’ve had a few media requests, some from journalists who found my original blogs. Most journalists I spoke to have been great, and really understand the importance of getting the facts straight. But a few seemed confused when they realised I wasn’t agreeing with the apocalyptic narrative – ‘other scientists are confirming this, so why aren’t you?’

This latest review paper has limitations, just like the German and Puerto Rican studies that received similar hype over the last few years. This doesn’t make any of them ‘bad’ studies, because every single research paper has limitations. No single study can answer everything neatly. Science takes time. Continue reading

Australia’s threatened insects

A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk at the Insect Ecology Research Chapter workshop at the Ecological Society of Australia’s annual conference in Brisbane. I talked about how policy and popular media influence insect conservation in Australia; as an example, I discussed this research by Toby Smith and me showing how introduced honey bees dominate mainstream media coverage of pollinators in Australia.

I also collated data on which insect species are officially listed as threatened species in Australia. In Australia, we have a national list (under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999) of flora and fauna species that are considered threatened at a national scale. In addition, each individual state and territory has its own threatened species list under various state legislation. Continue reading

Don’t, don’t…believe the hype!

We are suckers for hype. The recent media sequel of the mythical Insect Armageddon and the coverage of the latest WWF report on wildlife declines are a reminder of this.

Global declines in insect populations are a huge concern. Insects contribute to myriad ecosystem services through a multitude of ecological processes and functions. If we lose insects, we WILL suffer. But the two studies media have hyped on this issue are not actually evidence that this happening. They are concerning; they are a wake-up call; they are worrying. But, in and of themselves, they are not evidence of apocalyptic declines in the number of all 1+ million species of insect on Earth.

Similarly, the recent WWF report does not show any evidence that humans have ‘wiped out’ 60% of all animals on Earth in the last 30/40 years, as many media outlets are claiming. The truth: the report considered around 4000 species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians…i.e. vertebrates. There are at least ~400,000 more species of vertebrate on Earth (depending who you talk to), probably more. And huge caveat!… Invertebrates are the most abundant and diverse group of animals, so any claim about ‘all animals’ that doesn’t include invertebrates is automatically dubious. Continue reading

Insect declines: pay attention

Last year I wrote about the Insect Armageddon story – an important paper that received some exaggerated media hype.

A new paper just published in PNAS adds another twist to the insect declines saga…clearly, this story is far from over.

Lister & Garcia analysed data collected in the Luqillo Experimental Forest in Puerto Rico. This area of tropical rainforest is not a ‘pristine’ untouched wilderness, as some media reports are claiming – no place on Earth is untouched by humans! The site has been a long-term research location for decades, going back to the early 1900s, with a focus on experiments to understand the effects of disturbances of all kinds. Many important experimental research projects involving human disturbances (like this one) have happened in the Luqillo forest.

This study is important for a few reasons. Continue reading

Insect Armageddon reprise

I was recently interviewed for a great new podcast on ABC called Science Friction by Natasha Mitchell. The episode is about insect declines, including the Insect Armageddon story I blogged about last year. Natasha also talks to two well-known Australian entomologists, Ary Hoffmann and Ken Walker, as well as Caspar Hallmann one of the authors of the German insect decline study. It’s really nicely produced and explores more than just the decline issue, showcasing how wonderfully unique insects are and why we need to spend more time getting to know them!

You can listen to the Insect Armageddon story here, or subscribe to Science Friction through your favourite apps.