It’s as if “our global climate dataset only involved 73 weather stations, mostly in Europe and the United States, active over different historical time windows,” explained Alex Wild from the University of Texas at Austin on Twitter. “Imagine that only some of those stations measured temperature. Others, only humidity. Others, only wind direction. Trying to cobble those sparse, disparate points into something resembling a picture of global trends is ambitious, to say the least.”
For those reasons, it’s hard to take the widely quoted numbers from Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys’s review as gospel. They say that 41 percent of insect species are declining and that global numbers are falling by 2.5 percent a year, but “they’re trying to quantify things that we really can’t quantify at this point,” says Michelle Trautwein from the California Academy of Sciences. “I understand the desire to put numbers to these things to facilitate the conversation, but I would say all of those are built on mountains of unknown facts.”
Still, “our approach shouldn’t be to downplay these findings to console ourselves,” Trautwein adds. “I don’t see real danger in overstating the possible severity of insect decline, but there is real danger in underestimating how bad things really are. These studies aren’t perfect, but we’d be wise to heed this warning now instead of waiting for cleaner studies.”
After all, the factors that are probably killing off insects in Europe and North America, such as the transformation of wild spaces into agricultural land, are global problems. “I don’t see how those drivers would have a different outcome in a different area, whether we know the fauna there well or not,” says Jennifer Zaspel from the Milwaukee Public Museum.
Insects, though diverse, are also particularly vulnerable to such changes because many of them are so specialized, says May Berenbaum from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “There’s a fly that lives in the gills of a crab on one Caribbean island,” she says. “So what happens if the island goes, or the crab goes? That’s the kind of danger that insects face. Very few of them can opportunistically exploit a broad diversity of habitats and supplies.” (That said, Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys concluded that several once-common generalist species are declining, too.)
The loss of even a small percent of insects might also be disproportionately consequential. They sit at the base of the food web; if they go down, so will many birds, bats, spiders, and other predators. They aerate soils, pollinate plants, and remove dung and cadavers; if they disappear, entire landscapes will change. Given these risks, “do we wait to have definitive evidence that species are disappearing before we do something?” Berenbaum asks.
Doing something is hard, though, because insect declines have so many factors, and most studies struggle to tease them apart. In their review, Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys point the finger at habitat loss above all else, followed by pesticides and other pollutants, introduced species, and climate change, in that order. “If it was one thing, we’d know what to do,” says Moreau from Cornell. Instead, we are stuck trying to tend to 1 million smaller cuts.