Dozens of researchers from around the globe have united to create a comprehensive roadmap for insect conservation and recovery, including pesticide reduction, threatened species conservation and citizen science initiatives.
Some of the threats facing these small yet vital critters, such as pesticides, habitat loss and climate change, have been known for years, yet efforts to address them have been scant at best.
The international call to action, published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, was motivated by escalating revelations about human impacts on insect abundance and diversity, alongside fears of an insect apocalypse.
“Even more alarmingly,” says Australian co-author Lizzy Lowe from Macquarie University, “the vast majority of insect systems are not well studied, so the [full] impacts that our actions are having are unknown.
“Because insects are so vital for healthy ecosystems, it’s essential to know what is impacting their populations and how we can work towards sustainable, biodiverse insect populations into the future.”
Some of the critical ecosystem services insects provide include pollination, pest and weed control, water purification, breaking down organic matter and nutrient recycling.
Bees have been singled out as the most important living beings on Earth, necessary for pollinating 70% or more of food crops and enabling plants to reproduce that in turn feed fauna – yet up to 90% have disappeared, putting many species at risk of extinction.
The roadmap advocates immediate, mid- and long-term actions.
Immediate actions comprise a cluster of eight “no regret” solutions that will benefit society and biodiversity either way; they encompass insect-friendly practices in habitat management and urban growth that are “effective, locally relevant and economically sound”.
Agricultural measures – possibly the most important – include replacing pesticides and fertilisers with ecological alternatives, diversifying crops, integrating natural systems to create micro-habitats and providing incentives for insect-friendly farming.
Funding education and outreach programs will help facilitate these measures, tailored to farmers and land managers, as well as to decision makers and the general public. Such programs could also breed a new generation of citizen scientists and insect conservationists.
Improving restoration and conservation programs is earmarked, particularly for vulnerable species, as well as reducing invasive species, harmful imports and light, water and noise pollution.
To inform these actions in the mid-term, funding for research and taxonomy training is needed to forage through insect collections, identify new species, prioritise and list vulnerable, threatened and endangered groups and tackle key threats to biodiversity.
In the longer term, the roadmap includes the need for public-private partnerships to help protect and create insect habitats and manage threats. A global monitoring program is recommended under an existing body such as the United Nations or International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The UK is very good at insect conservation, says Lowe, pointing to a comprehensive Buglife campaign.
Australia needs such an initiative to promote a coordinated response to conservation, she adds, where many species are not even identified, let alone registered on the threatened species list – not to mention the impact of recent bushfires.
“We hope that bringing all of the factors in the road map together will guide individuals, businesses and governments in how to conserve insects now and into the future.”
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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