When it comes to conservation, looks are everything. Research shows that people give most generously to wildlife charities when presented with images of a select few endangered mammals. Furry, photogenic beasts such as polar bears, pandas, and tigers dominate the list of top earners. The preservation of those majestic animals is a worthy cause; nobody wants them to join the ever-growing list of wild species that humanity has driven to extinction. (See Briefing.) But it’s also true that we can survive in a world without polar bears and tigers, just as our own species has thrived in one without mammoths and dodos. What’s less clear is whether humanity can endure the disappearance of a less cute group of creatures: insects. A new study has found that insect biomass—the weight of all bugs on Earth combined—is dropping by a staggering 2.5 percent a year, largely because of pesticide use, habitat destruction, and climate change. In a few decades, nearly 50 percent of insect species worldwide could go extinct.
Some might rejoice at this mass creepy-crawly die-off, which would mean fewer ants and flies invading their homes and spoiling picnics. But an insect apocalypse is nothing to cheer. The sheer abundance of bugs—there are at least 1.4 billion for each one of us—means they play a foundational role in the planet’s ecosystems. Some three-quarters of our food crops and 80 percent of wild flowering plants are pollinated by bees, wasps, beetles, butterflies, and other insects. Ants, flies, and beetles munch up dead animals and plant matter and channel nutrients back into the soil. Those bugs are in turn a major source of food for countless birds, reptiles, and fish species; without them, insect eaters simply starve to death. France, for example, has seen 50 and 80 percent drops in its nightingale and turtledove populations in recent years. We might not appreciate our six-legged friends now, but we’ll certainly miss them when they’re gone.