The Current

Some insects are disappearing, and that could put humans at risk, says author

While you may wish bugs would buzz off sometimes, climate writer Oliver Milman says we wouldn't want to live in a world without them.

Oliver Milman says that without insects we will lose out on food production, medication, and waste disposal

The idea behind "No-Mow May" is to allow wildflowers to bloom and provide food for pollinating insects including butterflies and bees. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

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Originally published on Feb. 22, 2022.

While you may wish bugs would buzz off sometimes, climate writer Oliver Milman says we wouldn't want to live in a world without them.

"We wouldn't survive there for very long," Milman told The Current guest host Duncan McCue.

Milman writes for The Guardian in the U.K. and is the author of the book, The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires That Run the World, which will be released in March. 

While it might not outright be an insect doomsday, Milman says we have seen a dramatic decline in insect populations. Milman referenced a study in rural Denmark, which found a decline of 80 to 97 per cent of insects on hitting vehicles' windshields over two decades, from 1997 to 2017.

And a long-term study in Germany that concluded in 2017 found that that annual average weight of flying insects caught in traps has dropped by 76 per cent since 1989.

Milman says it's been happening for a variety of reasons, including habitat loss from construction, pesticide use, and climate change, he explained.

He said if we continue like this, some insects will disappear, while others will grow.

Bugs are essential for pollinating plants such as alfalfa. (CBC)

"Mosquitoes [habitat] range is expanding because of what we're doing rather than contracting," said Milman. 

"A lot of [insects] that we are losing, those half a million species that are likely to go down the drain, are [insects] we find kind of beautiful and lovely and useful for us," he added, referencing an analysis by two Australia-based scientists, Francisco Sánchez-Bayo and Kris Wyckhuys, that anticipate the dramatic loss in species over the next few decades. 

He said a world without bugs would have serious effects on everything from the environment to the availability of chocolate and ice cream.

For example, we would see more corpses of small animals and feces lying around, as beetles get rid of those for us by eating them.

He also said a third of the foods we eat would shrivel up and die without the pollination provided by insects. That includes tiny midges that pollinate the plant used for chocolate, as well as insects that pollinate alfalfa, which cows eat. 

While some insect populations are on the decline, mosquito population is on the rise. (CBC)

"You'd be left with the vegan stuff," said Milman.

But don't go out and panic buy tubs of ice cream just yet.

"Luckily, I don't think we're going to ever see that because I think insects will outlive us on this planet. The issue is that we are creating a world that is changing the composition of insects," he said.

Soccer-playing bees?

Based on some of the abilities insects have, the next time someone tells you to stop "bugging" them, you should take that as a compliment. Milman is concerned the reputation of insects isn't matching up with their usefulness and intelligence. 

Take the humble bee, for example.

Bees can be trained to play soccer if given food incentives. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)

"It's been shown that they can count; you can teach them to play soccer. They have incredible logistical abilities to travel between plants," he said.

Or ants, that can act as paramedics to treat other ants in the colony.

What can be done?

Milman said countries are already finding replacements for insects. That includes robot bees, or a drone that can pollinate apple orchards.

Others are trying to slow down the extinction of insects, like enacting pesticide bans throughout the European Union, or cutting down on light pollution — which may deter some moths from laying eggs and puts other insects at risk of being seen by predators — in Germany.

People can plant milkweed, a food source of the Monarch, to help the butterfly. (Evan Buhler/The Canadian Press)

But other solutions are surprisingly simple. This includes planting milkweed, a food source for Monarch butterflies, or just letting your lawn grow, allowing for more plants and habitats insects.

"Insects would just appreciate it if we just let things go a bit. You don't have to rake your yard of leaves every time. You can let the grass grow a little bit," said Milman. 

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Lindsay Rempel.

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