Insect Declines Threaten Ecosystems, but Solutions Offer Hope
Insects, including dung beetles, are essential contributors to our ecosystem, but their populations are facing alarming declines, according to recent research. A 2019 study from the journal Biological Conservation revealed that 40% of insect species are at risk of extinction, with some populations declining at rates eight times faster than mammals, birds and reptiles.
Dung beetles in particular play a vital role in maintaining a healthy environment. They break down cow manure, converting it into valuable nutrients and preventing it from accumulating on pastures. This service is reported to save the U.S. cattle industry an estimated $380 million every year. However, these invaluable insects are under threat, and concerns about declining insect populations are growing.
Kent State University Associate Professor Christie Bahlai, Ph.D., an expert at tracking insect populations, spoke to Nebraska Public Media about the issue. Bahlai is an applied quantitative ecologist and population ecologist in Kent State’s Department of Biological Sciences.
“They’re so numerous, and they’re so diverse,” Bahlai said when discussing insects with Nebraska Public Media. “So, when you're measuring one facet of the insect community, you're not measuring so many other facets.”
Bahlai said the metrics used to quantify population changes are complicated.
“Percent decline kind of implies a stable population, and insects are really prone to boom and bust,” Bahlai said. “What I tend to do is use sort of a long-time average, but you can also critique that, too, since the range of the (peaks and troughs) matters.”
According to a variety of studies, insect populations’ decline can be attributed to a variety of factors, including climate change, habitat loss, light pollution and the widespread use of pesticides. Despite this, many insects are unfairly labeled as “pests,” although they perform vital ecological roles, from pollination to serving as food sources for birds and fish.
While some insect species are thriving, there are promising practices that can boost insect populations. These include pollinator gardens, integrated pest management and habitat restoration efforts, like native wildflower plantings and prairie strips.