The Earth Is Experiencing an Insect Armageddon

August 20th, 2018 - by admin

Living on Earth / Public Radio International & Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) / US House of Representatives & Jessica Else / The Garden Island – 2018-08-20 01:29:11

Flying Insects Crash
Living on Earth / Public Radio International

(August 17, 2018) — The disappearance of bees and butterflies has concerned scientists and the public for years, but a study from Germany confirms that the abundance of all flying insects has dropped over 75% since 1989. Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex in the UK, discusses the probable causes with host Steve Curwood, and says the problem is so serious, loss of insects could lead to an “ecological Armageddon.”

Listen: Download the broadcast here.


STEVE CURWOOD: From PRI, and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, this is an encore edition of Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Insects can be annoying or even dangerous disease vectors of course, such as mosquitoes that spread West Nile and malaria. But scientists are calling the crash in insect populations “Ecological Armageddon,” as these six-legged creatures support key ecosystems. They feed birds, bats and frogs, and they pollinate many plants, including food crops key to human civilization. But now civilization is destroying them.

The journal PLOS One reports that amateur entomologists in Germany have discovered that since 1989, some three-quarters of flying insects there have vanished from nature preserves.
Study team member Dave Goulson teaches Biology at the University of Sussex in the UK, and I asked him why this is such a perilous development.

STEVE GOULSON: So, flying insects, most insects, they make of the bulk of life on Earth. About two-thirds of all species we know are insects. They pollinate more than 80 percent of all the plant species on Earth, so if we lose the flying insects we will lose all the flowers on Earth, literally all of them.

Flowers evolved to attract insects, that’s why we have them. Three quarters of our crops need pollinating by flying insects. So, we’d have a world without most fruit and vegetables. They do other things too. They help to keep pests under control. They recycle dung and so on, and they’re food for the majority of other creatures.

So, even if you hate insects and many people do, but most people think birds are rather attractive and like to see them in the garden or whatever. Well, most birds — at some stage of their life — cycle eat insects. Almost all reptiles, amphibians, aquatic fish, bats, lots of small mammals, all depend on insects. So, essentially take away the insects and everything else is going to collapse.

CURWOOD: You’ve convinced me that we’re in lot of trouble without them. Talk to me about the data that you have looked at here. What is it and how did it come together?

GOULSON: So, a group of German entomologists back in the 1980s took it upon themselves to start insect trapping our nature reserves scattered all over Germany. They used things called malaise traps which look a bit like a small tent which catch flying insects, bump into them and fall into a pot basically, and they’ve been doing it ever since from their own kind of interest.

I got involved relatively recently, a couple of years ago, when this data kind of finally came to light and we realized what a kind of treasure trove of information it could be. And when we started looking at it we couldn’t quite believe what it showed, which was just this wholesale disappearance of insects.

The daily catch of insects has fallen by three-quarters, a little over three-quarters in 26 years which suggests a scale of insect decline that was just . . . we knew things weren’t going well, we knew that butterflies are in decline and so on but there was very little other monitoring of insects going on and so we had no idea just how dramatic it had been until we saw these numbers.

CURWOOD: What do you suspect is behind this decline? As we were getting ready to talk to you, we raised the question of the neonicotinoid insecticides, which started being used in the 80s about the time this decline begins. How much of a suspect are the neonicotinoid insecticides?

GOULSON: I think it’s very likely they are playing a role. Whether they’re the main driver or not is hard to say. The broad picture I think is that essentially the way we grow food these days makes the environment completely hostile to more or less all forms of life. It isn’t just neonicotinoids.

We grow these huge monocultures of crops, great big fields, which typically in Europe get about 20 different pesticides applied to them, each crop cycle including maybe four or five different insecticides, whole bunch of fungicides, things to kill slugs, herbicides to control the weeds. So, there’s just no scope for anything to survive there apart from the crop and if we cover the landscape in fields like that, then we probably shouldn’t be surprised when we see wildlife disappearing.

These neonicotinoids have got a lot of attention because they are particularly toxic to insects like bees and it takes just three billionths of a gram of one of those things to kill a honeybee and we’re applying hundreds of thousands of kilos of them to the landscape every year, so it’s undoubtedly contributing to it, to the loss of our insects. But they are just part of the whole system of farming which is entirely dependent on one type of pesticide or another and that’s what we need to look at I think.

CURWOOD: Just another detail on neonicotinoids. I gather that they’re not exactly being sprayed on the insects that are being lost, but they’re in the ecosystem. How does that work?

GOULSON: So neonicotinoids are usually used as seed dressings. The farmer buys seed pre-coated with a layer of insecticide and he sows the seed in the ground and they’re water-soluble. They dissolve in the damp soil and they’re supposed to be sucked up by the crop plant and they spread to all of its tissues which sounds like a kind of neat system if you’re a farmer. It protects the plant against insect pests.

The trouble is if it’s a flowering crop they go into the pollen and the nectar and then when the bee comes to pollinate the crop, something like oil seed rape, canola, sunflowers, the bee gets a dose of neurotoxin. But there’s more to it than that, because it also turns out that the bulk of the insecticide doesn’t get taken up by the crop at all, it’s just going into the soil and accumulating in the soil, leaching into streams or being taken up by the roots of wildflowers or hedgerow plants growing near the crops.

So, we’re finding these chemicals turning up in places we didn’t expect them including the pollen and nectar of wildflowers. So, there was a recent study showing that 75 percent of honey samples taken from all over the world contain neonicotinoids, showing just kind of the scale, the ubiquity of these chemicals, that basically if you’re a bee anywhere in the world, the chances are your food contains neurotoxins that will kill you at really tiny doses, and that surely can’t be a good thing.

CURWOOD: Now, aside from the neonicotinoids, you point out that there are a whole bunch of other chemicals that might be implicated in this dramatic decline. What kind of chemicals are we talking about?

GOULSON: So, there are other insecticides. Things like pyrethroids and organophosphates. Probably the listeners out there, these things don’t mean very much, but organophosphates are pretty horrible. They were actually developed in Germany in the Second World War with the aim of killing people. Most of them have been banned but there are still some that are used in farming.

There are lots of fungicides. The fungicides, you think well they’re not going to harm insects, but actually some of them have this strange effect . . . of they knock out the detoxification mechanism of the bee. So although the fungicide itself isn’t poisonous . . . if an insect is simultaneously exposed to a fungicide and an insecticide, the insecticide is effectively much more potent. It can be up to a thousand times more toxic, and then the herbicides just get rid of the weeds so there are no flowers apart from the crop if that flowers.

So, although they may or may not be poisonous to the — to the bees directly, if they get rid of their food then that’s just as bad, so it’s this kind of cocktail, the poor bees, you know, they’re going out there, they’re struggling to find food and when they do find food it’s got a mixture of pesticides in it. And so, you know, we shouldn’t really be surprised that bees and other flying insects aren’t doing so well.

CURWOOD: So, this is data that was gathered in Germany. I’ve noticed in the US, for example, where I live, that I don’t see lightning bugs anymore, and black flies seem to have a much shorter season in Maine and so forth, but what about the tropics? Is there a similar sort of decline there?

GOULSON: The tropics are different in many ways that there’s still more natural habitat left generally not in all but in most places like the UK and Germany. Essentially everything is managed land. You have some wilderness left in the United States and in Germany in the UK we have none. It’s all farmland or cities and little tiny nature reserves scattered amongst them. So, there’s no reason to really believe that it wouldn’t be similar in most of Europe, in the developed world, but in the tropics we don’t know.

Clearly there’s massive habitat loss going on right now in tropical countries, that we still seeing these devastating loss of tropical forests that for all my life, we’ve been talking about how we really need to stop cutting down the trees. That these rainforests are teeming with life, that they’re vital for regulating the climate and all sorts of other things, and yet sadly, you know, we’re still hacking them down to create oil palm plantations and to grow soybean in Brazil and so on. So, my guess is insects are declining there too but I couldn’t tell you whether the pace of change is the same or different.

CURWOOD: So E.O. Wilson, the biologist at Harvard University, famously once said and I think this is a paraphrase, that if we lost the ants, just losing the ants, we would lose humanity. What do you think this huge loss of insects means for humanity?

GOULSON: If we lose insects we’re doomed, I know this sounds overly dramatic but we absolutely are. Life on Earth would be utterly changed. We wouldn’t be able to grow our crops. Dung would build up in the fields. Life on Earth would essentially cease, so we absolutely have to take this really seriously, and it’s something that I find enormously frustrating that we seem to live in a world where people are very detached from the environment. They don’t know where their food comes from, they — they seem to not realize that actually even if you live in a city, we are part of the environment, we depend upon the health of ecosystems to provide us with places to grow our food, to provide clean air and clean water and so on. And that a healthy environment should be our number-one priority.

Forget the economy, forget the health service, forget the rest of it. None of those things will matter if we don’t have a healthy environment because everything else will collapse, and I find it really — it drives me nuts that politicians on the whole don’t often talk about the environment. It gets very little attention and we’re always worried about short-term economics and so on, but actually we need to think slightly longer-term and look after the planet.

CURWOOD: Professor, what could be done to slow this trend, this rapid loss of insects?

GOULSON: I’d love to see a major rethink of how we produce food. This idea that we need these great big fields full of monocultures of crops. There are other ways of growing food. I’d love to see it move towards small-scale production, get more people back onto the land and small farms producing food for local consumption.

We should really tackle food waste because we grow all this food at huge cost to the environment and then we throw away about a third of it, which is absolutely insane. We eat too much meat. If we could convince people not to eat so much beef in particular then that could massively reduce our footprint on the planet, so there are things we could do but they all require buy in from significant numbers of people, you know, one or two environmentalists like me banging on isn’t going to do anything.

We need the majority of people on Earth to change their ways and that’s a pretty difficult thing to achieve.

CURWOOD: Entomologist Dave Goulson is a professor and biologist at the University of Sussex in the UK. Thanks so much for taking the time with us today.

GOULSON: My pleasure.

PLOS ONE: “More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas”

The Guardian: “Warning of ‘ecological Armageddon’ after dramatic plunge in insect numbers”

Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service.

ACTION ALERT: Monsanto’s Pesticide Found in 1/3 of Hawaiian Honey
We Need to Ban Toxic Pesticides in America

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) / US House of Representatives

(August 16, 2018) — Last week, a California jury awarded former school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson $289 million in damages, linking his terminal cancer to the use of Roundup, the most popular weedkiller in the world.

Yesterday, the Environmental Working Group released a report that found unsafe levels of Roundup in many of our favorite oat cereals, oatmeals, granolas, and snack bars. This is unacceptable.

This threat is hitting home here in Hawai’i as well. A recent study [See below] found Roundup in about one-third of the honey sampled from stores in Kauai, and in 27% of the hives sampled island-wide.

The pervasive presence of harmful pesticides hurts our bees, our food, and our aina.

In our islands and in the rest of the country, we must find alternative solutions for farming and landscape maintenance—so we can move towards banning these harmful chemicals at last.

Protecting the planet is one of our sacred responsibilities, and one that I will always champion. Help me take this fight to Congress.

Mahalo for raising your voice on behalf of a clean, healthy future.


Roundup Found in 1/3 of Kauai Honey on Store Shelves
Jessica Else / The Garden Island

(August 6, 2018) — Kauai bees are bringing more than just pollen back into their hives when they return from foraging, according to a recently released, peer- reviewed study published by Kauai scientists.

Glyphosate, also known as Roundup, was in about one-third of honey sampled from store shelves on the island. It was also found in 27 percent of the 59 hives sampled island-wide.

“I did the scientific study to answer the question: Are there pesticides in the environment and how (is it spread),” said Carl Berg, who authored the study with researchers Peter King, Glenda Delenstarr, Ritikaa Kumar, Fernando Rubio and Tom Glaze.

He continued: “Yes. We did find it here on Kauai in the honey from the hives and on the shelves in the store, and it’s closely correlated to large-scale agriculture, which we would assume would be the largest users of Roundup.”

Roundup is also used to control weeds on Kauai’s golf courses, resorts and along the highway, and Berg said those could all be locations where the bees are getting the glyphosate, depending on the location of the hive.

The study also looked at concentration of the herbicide in honey and found the highest concentrations on the Westside, with numbers as high as 179 parts per billion in a sample from a hive.

There is no tolerance limit for glyphosate in honey in the United States. In the European Union, the tolerance level is 50 parts per billion.

“Kilauea is rural and suburbs and open forest and there were no pesticides (in samples) there,” Berg said. “Koloa — it’s suburbs and golf and resort and agriculture and suddenly we get 33 percent of our samples have glyphosate in them.”

The study kicked off with a 2015 science project Kumar did, looking at glyphosate concentration in honey. After she left the island to go to university, Berg continued the research.

He used a new technique called the ELISA technique, developed by Rubio, which is a testing method that is more cost effective than the $500 per sample cost of the traditional testing methods.

“We were looking at glyphosate in water and found it was really expensive to do the tests for glyphosate,” Berg said.

With a more cost-effective way of testing for the pesticide in honey, Berg and his fellow researchers tested the 59 hives and mapped them using geospatial mapping.

They were able to assign land use to the foraging areas around the hives they sampled, which is about a 1 kilometer radius from the hive, and map what type of activities were occurring around each of the hives sampled.

It was Westside hives, closest to seed company and large-scale agriculture operations, that had the most glyphosate. And those hives had the highest concentration of the pesticide in their honey.

Berg said the study wasn’t meant to address questions about the effects of glyphosate in honey or attack any industry. He just wanted to find out if the chemical is being transferred off the fields where it has been sprayed and into the hives and then the honey humans eat.

“Seed crops are using a lot of pesticides,” Berg said. “You can choose where you put your hive and you can draw a circle around where you want to put your bees and see what’s in the circle.”

While Berg and his colleagues have been studying honey and testing for glyphosate, results from a 2014 state-led and County of Kauai commissioned study of the island’s bee pollen showed none of Roundup’s active ingredient.

That’s because the researchers didn’t test for it. Danielle Downey, the state’s apiarist at the time, advised against it.

“She’ll tell you she didn’t test for it because the bees don’t react to it,” said Scott Enright, chairperson of the Department of Agriculture. “Danielle gave them (Hawaii’s bees) a clean bill of health.”

Berg says he wasn’t out to answer the question about the effects of glyphosate on bee health or human health, but to answer the question about the presence of the chemical in hives.

The County of Kauai paid $15,000 for the 2014 study of pollen and wax in hives, but its question was a little bit different than Berg’s. The study looked at the presence of restricted use pesticides in pollen and asked whether the bees were being adversely affected by agriculture pesticide use.

In 2017, Enright reported on the study to County of Kauai.

“The study shows this is not the case,” he told the Kauai County Council during that report.

The 200 individual samples from the 2014 study did show trace amounts of restricted use pesticides like fipronil, which is found in pest control products, though.

While the broad strokes were given to the County of Kauai and announced in public, the data and specifics of the study were given only to the beekeepers who participated in the study.

That’s because it would put the beekeepers’ businesses in jeopardy if it were to be released there were trace amounts of chemicals in their honey.

“It was always stated that we weren’t going to release everybody’s results to the public,” he said.

Downey doesn’t work for the Hawaii DOA anymore: she’s moved on to other apiary-oriented projects, but confirmed each of the 25 participants were provided with complete results of their samples when analysis was done.

“I can say that from the earliest planning stages, protecting the privacy of the beekeepers who agreed to participate by providing pollen samples for the study was of the utmost importance for the project,” Downey said.

Jessica Else, environment reporter, can be reached at 245-0452 or at

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