A book which proves the planet simply can't do without insects

Beetle that can survive being eaten by a frog… Not to mention the cockroach that lives for two weeks after being beheaded — as revealed in a book which proves the planet simply can’t do without insects

  • The water beetle Regimbartia attenuata can escape death even if eaten by a frog
  • One estimate claims there are an astonishing ten quintillion insects in the world 
  • However, Oliver Milman reveals insect numbers are dropping quickly in a book
  • The number of British butterflies has nearly halved in the past 50 years 
  • NATURE

    THE INSECT CRISIS   

    by Oliver Milman (Atlantic £16.99, 272 pp)

    Astonishingly, there are ten quintillion insects in the world (that’s a ten with 18 zeroes after it) — if you believe one estimate.

    A single swarm of mayflies can number 80 billion, thickening the air so much they show up on weather radar.

    Gather together all the termites on the planet and they’d weigh more than all the birds.

    Then again, this supply of insects isn’t so surprising when you consider the demand. Just a single swallow chick needs 200,000 of the things to feed itself into adulthood. But the supply is drying up.

    Author Oliver Milman reveals insect numbers are dropping quickly in new book The Insect Crisis  (file image)

    Author Oliver Milman reveals insect numbers are dropping quickly in new book The Insect Crisis  (file image)

    As the title of Oliver Milman’s book implies, insect numbers are dropping so quickly that we could be heading for trouble. If climate change and loss of habitat combine to de-bug our world, life might get rather tricky.

    Putting the important ecological stuff to one side for a minute, losing our insects would be a shame simply because they’re amazing. The Dracula ant can snap its jaws shut at 200 mph, the fastest animal movement on Earth. The American cockroach can run at 50 body lengths per second, the equivalent of you doing 210 mph. Oh, and it can survive for two weeks after being beheaded.

    Dragonflies cope with winds that would bring down the most advanced helicopter; aphids can produce young that already contain babies (effectively giving birth to their own grandchildren); and there’s a species of butterfly that has an eye on its penis. Meanwhile, the Hercules moth (wingspan as wide as a dinner plate) has two false eyes on its bottom to confuse would-be predators.

    Talking of rear ends, the water beetle Regimbartia attenuata can escape death even if eaten by a frog — it swims through the stomach and crawls out of the frog’s bottom.

    But my favourite fact in the book is that Nato has trained bees to sniff out explosives. Apparently, they’re even better at it than dogs.

    So it’s no wonder that insects have so many fans. Walter Rothschild (of the banking family) had a collection of fleas in tiny costumes, including a bride and groom. Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain both collected butterflies, while the specimens of said insect at Harvard University’s zoology museum were organised by none other than the novelist Vladimir Nabokov. The museum still has his ‘genitalia cabinet’, holding the accumulated organs of various male butterflies.

    But for years now, motorists around the world have been noticing that their windscreens, which used to get splattered with so many insects they looked like sheet music, are curiously clean. The anecdotes seem to be backed up by scientific surveys.

    Author reveals the water beetle Regimbartia attenuata can escape death even if eaten by a frog ¿ it swims through the stomach and crawls out of the frog¿s bottom (file image)

    Author reveals the water beetle Regimbartia attenuata can escape death even if eaten by a frog — it swims through the stomach and crawls out of the frog’s bottom (file image)

    The number of British butterflies has nearly halved in the past 50 years. Glowworms are down three-quarters since 2001 — their larvae need snails to feed on, but the snails themselves need damp conditions and we’ve had too many hot, dry summers. Similarly, insect-eating birds such as swallows and warblers are in decline.

    What’s causing the problem? Apart from climate change, farming practices come in for criticism.

    Modern pesticides can make insects more prone to disease, and farmers often strip out the weeds (such as nut grass and the plant known as ‘sticky willy’) which insects need to survive. Even hedges are ripped out to create more room for crops.

    It’s not just farmers, either — homeowners want manicured, weed-free lawns, and their gardens account for more space than farmland does.

    Of course, as usual the science is far from simple. Some experts question the data, pointing out that while bee numbers are down in Europe and North America, they’re up in Asia and South America. Even where insects are being lost, that’s no threat to wheat, rice or maize, which are all pollinated by the wind.

    THE INSECT CRISIS by Oliver Milman (Atlantic £16.99, 272 pp)

    THE INSECT CRISIS by Oliver Milman (Atlantic £16.99, 272 pp)

    But the disappearance of bees would be bad news for all sorts of other things, from strawberries and plums to melons and broccoli.

    One biologist (the American E. O. Wilson, who died on Boxing Day) predicted that a world without insects would mean a world without fish, mammals, birds, amphibians, plants or fungi. The British expert Dave Goulson agrees that ‘most of life on Earth would disappear’, adding that, ‘if there were any humans left they wouldn’t be having much fun’.

    Thankfully for those who fear we might be heading for such a scenario, the public already seems to be aware of the problem.

    ‘Twenty years ago,’ says one U.S. entomologist, ‘if I got a call from someone with bees in their backyard they’d want to know how to kill them. Now they want to know how to help them.’

    So what can we do? The scientist Stefanie Christmann has spent years persuading farmers in countries as diverse as Uzbekistan and Morocco to plant herbs or fruit in the unused spaces at the edge of their fields. It can be difficult to convince them, but once the crops start to produce an income, the farmers tend to change their minds.

    And the general public? For a start we could turn off any lights we don’t need to have on — many of the moths who circle them hypnotically end up dropping dead from exhaustion.

    But there’s another idea which will doubtless find favour with quite a few people: don’t mow your lawn so often.

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