Phrases like ‘insect apocalypse’ undermine science, biologist says

Bugs, people and scientists are poorly served by headlines such as “insect apocalypse,” says a new paper co-authored by a Vancouver Island University biologist.

While insects are critical drivers of ecosystem function and the majority are under-studied, publicly misunderstood and face numerous environmental threats, the paper says: “doom and gloom messaging rarely works to galvanize public support, and strong negative messaging (e.g., apocalypse narratives) can undermine the credibility of science.”

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VIU biology professor Jasmine Janes co-authored the paper, published in BioScience in December, which took aim at media coverage generated by two studies, one in Germany and the other in Puerto Rico.

“The insect apocalypse is here,” wrote the New York Times on Nov. 27, 2018.

“Plummeting insect numbers ‘threaten collapse of nature,’ ” wrote The Guardian on Feb. 11, 2019.

“They made it sound like it was a global phenomenon,” Janes said in a telephone interview from Nanaimo. “It was presented as factual knowledge that every single insect species in the world is declining and we should all panic.

“But most of us agree that’s not actually the case and not every single insect is declining and it’s certainly not happening in every part of the world.”

Janes said scientists have documented the fact that people can become apathetic when faced with such dire news.

“They will just say: ‘What’s the point? Why should we bother when they are all going to die anyway?’

“That’s not the message we want to give people.”

The real message is more complex. While overuse of chemical pesticides is having an effect on all insects, not just the pests that are targeted, animal populations are never truly stable, and insects, with their enormous capacity to breed, can have wildly fluctuating populations.

And not all insect populations are reacting negatively to climate change. Some, such as the mountain pine beetle that has ravaged forests in the Interior, are doing well. Warmer winters mean more survive to infest more trees. “If you talked to someone in forestry, I’m sure they would likely say: ‘I don’t think all insects are declining,’ ” said Janes.

Species such as dragonflies, however, suffer when wetlands or ponds dry out in the heat, or are drained by humans. Dragonflies live as airborne predators on land, but their juvenile stage is spent in water as aquatic nymphs.

Jane said scientists and the media must be careful when looking to alert the public about ecological hazards that are not well documented.

While climate change has been well studied by scientists working in various disciplines and a wide variety of locations — from the tropics to deserts and ice caps — when it comes to insects, there hasn’t been the same sort of co-ordinated effort “to examine things on a global scale,” said Janes.

“What we have is individual researchers doing their own thing and looking to answer their own particular questions, which is great — we need that,” she said. “But we haven’t had a global effort to see if patterns hold up to the same questions in various parts of the world.”

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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