They’re the things that often bug us the most — quite literally.
But with warnings insects could disappear within the century, suddenly the critters we first think to squish have made us think differently.
A global scientific review of insect decline has warned insects will “go down the path of extinction” in a few decades, with “catastrophic” repercussions for the planet’s ecosystems.
The biodiversity crisis is said to be even deeper than that of climate change.
Scientists have already warned the earth’s sixth mass extinction event is underway through biological annihilation.
“Earth’s sixth mass extinction is more severe than perceived when looking exclusively at species extinctions,” researchers wrote in 2017.
They said decimation needed to be addressed immediately.
“Earth’s sixth mass extinction is more severe than perceived when looking exclusively at species extinctions.
“Population extinctions, however, are a prelude to species extinctions, so Earth’s sixth mass extinction episode has proceeded further than most assume.
“The massive loss of populations is already damaging the services ecosystems provide to civilization. When considering this frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization, one must never forget that Earth’s capacity to support life, including human life, has been shaped by life itself.”
In the Puerto Rican rainforest, 98 percent of ground insects were reported to have vanished in 35 years.
A study earlier this year found more than 40 percent of insect species are declining and a third are endangered.
So what can we do other than stop squishing them if we want to do our bit and (ultimately) save the planet?
Intensive use of pesticides has been found to be the worst culprit in the demise of insects.
Researchers say humanity must change the ways it produces food to arrest the decline and “save the planet as we know it”.
Macquarie University entomologist Dr. Matthew Bulbert says we can all do something to help save them.
The lecturer and researcher in animal behavior points out ecosystems rely on insects as the pollinators of plants and crops, recyclers of waste into nutrients and as a food source themselves for freshwater, food and, ultimately, oxygen.
We effectively cannot survive without them.
But with Australia having so many insects, it’s estimated 80 percent of species are yet to be identified.
“As scientists we know the decline is happening,” Dr. Bulbert says.
“In Australia, we’re potentially losing animals that we don’t even know are there, and there is relatively little investment in that area of research.
“The good thing is that with insects, more so than if we were trying to save snow leopards or rhinos, every individual has it in their power to do something to try and mitigate further loss.”
For anyone trying to do their bit, Dr. Bulbert has come up with a list of things you can do:
BUILD INSECT HOTELS
Think a bird nesting box — but for bugs.
“I think they’re awesome,” Dr Bulbert says.
“You create art-inspired habitats for insects, often made out of lots of different shapes and types of wood — so you might have cylinders of wood that have different size diameter holes that would cater for different animals.
“The concept is not that far removed from a bird nest box.
“The cool thing is you can put a lot more structural diversity in there, and you can build it in a way that looks great in the garden, and tailor it, through the dimensions of holes and the types of materials, to the kinds of insects you would like to see in your garden.
“It’s a great exercise to include the kids.”
While the best hotel designs are dominated by the Europeans, he says the principles for an Australian environment are the same.
SAY NO TO PESTICIDES
Find chemical-free ways of controlling insects you don’t want in your house and garden.
Dr. Bulbert says many pest species have become resistant to the pesticides we use, which is problematic in itself, but the spread of pesticides from crop areas takes out the suite of species diversity around that crop — even the ones that naturally occur to control pests.
“This effect is occurring beyond just commercial enterprise; if you think of the build-up of household sprays across the populace, that’s a lot of chemicals out there that can have effects beyond just the animal you’re trying to target.“
People can consider these alternatives to grabbing a can of spray:
Direct animals outside — for flying insects open a window and make other parts of the house dark to direct the insect towards the light. For crawling ones capture and release.
Ensure food scraps are secured in a way that doesn’t attract insects you don’t want — especially cockroaches. Of the 550 species of cockroaches in Australia, only six are considered pests, two of which are native.
“The cockroaches that are commonly invasive to households are introduced,” Dr. Bulbert says.
“They give Australia’s wonderful cockroaches a bad name, but native species are incredibly important in the breaking down of plant waste and thereby recycling the nutrients plants need.”
In your garden, be proactive rather than reactive. Use natural fertilizers and netting, and consider the ancient art of companion planting.
“This is about understanding what species you can put with the plants that you want to protect that can act as a natural deterrent,” Dr. Bulbert says.
Local councils may offer workshops in this area.
Actively encourage natural predators, such as spiders both inside and out, and in the garden, insects such as ladybirds, praying mantids, lacewings and assassin bugs.
The last resort, if you truly feel threatened by the insect invading your home and feel the need to kill it, stomp on it rather than spraying.
Plant a diversity of native species, including ones that flower year-round.
“If you plant natives, you will harbor or attract a higher diversity of insects,” Dr. Bulbert says.
“We have this thing about having brightly colored flowers, but often those flowers are not native and while you will still get pollinators, it has been found that the diversity of insects that interact with non-natives is a lot lower — even if the plants are closely related to the native.
“In saying that, having plants that flower all year round is beneficial irrespective of whether they are native or not, especially in urban landscapes.”
Dr. Bulbert recommends checking out A planting guide for European Honeybees and Australian Native Pollinators by the Australian government.
BRING BACK WATER FEATURES
While they might have gone out of fashion with modern design, Bulbert says “Bring them back!”
These can include ponds and fountains, anything where the water keeps moving to avoid stagnation and mosquito breeding.
“If you want to find a depressing piece of literature it’s the decline of freshwater species overall, so making unpolluted freshwater available can promote animals like water beetles and water bugs.”
USE LED LIGHT GLOBES
And turn the lights off when you don’t need them, or use sensor lights.
Research into light pollution caused by urbanization shows major disruption to the goings-on of insects.
“A study in Sweden, for instance, has shown artificial lights disrupt nocturnal pollination leading to a 62 percent reduction in nocturnal visits to plants in artificially lit areas when compared to dark areas, leading to a significant decline in seed set,” Dr. Bulbert says.
Insects are attracted to the wavelengths emitted by incandescent light globes, which redirects them away from the activities they are supposed to be doing.
The beam of light can also impair the effectiveness of illumination methods flowers may use to attract pollinators.
Recent research has shown warm LEDs are best.
If you don’t like their slight yellow/orange color, then go for white LEDs, which are still better than traditional incandescents.
INVEST IN A WORM FARM
These recycling factories have many roll-on benefits aside from helping invertebrates: they are recycling waste that would otherwise go to landfill, and making natural fertilizer for your plants, thereby reducing the need for chemicals.
“It’s important to invest in a nice secure environment so you can control what enters and what doesn’t — you’ve got a lovely food source for animals so it may attract things you don’t want, like rats, for instance,” Dr. Bulbert says.
You can check in with your local council about any workshops they might run.
CREATE SHADE OASES
Dr. Bulbert says maintaining vegetation is crucial for thermal buffering, particularly as episodes of extreme heat become more common.
“If you remove trees and other vegetation, you automatically start to get an increase in temperature at the ground level,” he says.
“There are temperature thresholds at which insects gets nuked, so you need the shade and cooling effects of vegetation and trees to avoid that.”
A lack of vegetation also hardens soil, making it less accessible to insects and other critters whose job it is to recycle material in the soil.
STOP TELLING THEM TO BUG OFF
Just be fascinated by them, Dr. Bulbert says.
Take some time to observe and understand what they’re doing and why they do it, and relate that to your own wellbeing.
“People have trouble connecting with insects because they are small, we don’t see very much of them, they can be freaky looking and have attributes that bear no similarity to us, unlike, say, gorillas or giraffes, but the contribution they make to our wellbeing far surpasses anything else that we are investing money in terms of conservation,” he says.
“Look at pandas — I love them, they have lots of cultural significance, and lots of roll-on attributes in terms of attracting people to zoos that may then have money for conservation for a range of things, but in reality the contribution a panda makes to society’s wellbeing is minimal in comparison to the worms in your garden.”
This story originally appeared in news.com.au.