On the Fate of Insects, Most Troubling is How Much is Still Unknown

Sympetrum vicinum

Annapolis, MD; February 12, 2019—News reports this week about the global welfare of insects have caught the world's attention, and rightfully so. Insects and related arthropods are critical to nearly every terrestrial and freshwater ecosystem on the planet. But projections of a looming mass extinction of insects are premature at this point.

The real cause for concern should be how much, in fact, remains unknown about the impact of human activity on global arthropod species and their populations.

"There is an urgent need for more data, particularly longitudinal studies, research that looks at insect population changes over time," says Robert K. D. Peterson, Ph.D., president of the Entomological Society of America. "Without more study to clarify the geographic scope and magnitude of insect declines, we quite simply don't know what we don't know."

Without a doubt, all is not well: Many troubling indicators about our global ecosystems warrant caution and immediate action. Climate change and human land use are significant drivers of changes in size and species composition of terrestrial arthropod populations, while pollution and disturbance of rivers and streams are major threats to aquatic arthropods.

Even conservative estimates suggest that millions of insect species remain unknown to science, and so there is danger in not just what we know, but also in what remains unknown. On subjects ranging from climate change to invasive species to biodiversity and endangered species, the Entomological Society of America has advocated for continued study of insects and their relatives, habitat protection, enhanced international collaboration, citizen science efforts, effective scientific communication, and—perhaps most importantly—support for ongoing research. (See all ESA positions statements.)

"Insects are a foundational life form. It's true that people and all life on earth would be doomed if insects were to disappear. But that is most likely not an immediate danger," says Peterson. "Many insect species are under incredible pressure from human intervention through human-driven climate and landscape changes, such as urbanization, suburbanization, and agricultural intensification. Recent media headlines reporting an imminent insect apocalypse are alarming, but mask a second and very real danger: There is way too much that we don't yet know about insects and the life that depends upon them."

RELATED: "Global Insect Biodiversity: Frequently Asked Questions," March 4, 2019

CONTACT: Joe Rominiecki, jrominiecki@entsoc.org, 301-731-4535 x3009

ABOUT: ESA is the largest organization in the world serving the professional and scientific needs of entomologists and people in related disciplines. Founded in 1889, ESA today has more than 7,000 members affiliated with educational institutions, health agencies, private industry, and government. Headquartered in Annapolis, Maryland, the Society stands ready as a non-partisan scientific and educational resource for all insect-related topics. For more information, visit www.entsoc.org.

Photo credit (Sympetrum vicinum dragonfly): David Cappaert, Bugwood.org