“an intrepid journey across the front lines of one of Earth’s most treasured species’ battle for survival against rampant deforestation and the devastating practices of industrialized agriculture.”
We see insects in fleeting glimpses. They seem to teleport out of sight and disappear into miniature frames of perception. They are almost uncanny in their constant invisible presence, the crucial ecosystem effects of their lives masked by the microscopic level on which they operate. Monarch butterflies, as an aesthetically striking species, are likely to get attention where other insects that are equally important to ecosystem health do not.
Insects are more at risk of biodiversity loss partly because of their spectral presence in our lives. Larger animals, like mammals and fish, are visible at a glance, forming a visually familiar part of our worlds. It’s easy to run a conservation campaign around cute, fluffy mammals but insects often end up being swept under the rug
Conservation campaigns often centre around large to medium sized animals which are easy to make into stuffed toys and sold as physical representations of the campaign. But this strategy can lead to the symbol of the animal becoming more important than protecting the biodiverse ecosystem it lives in. In an Arctic Today article, Leanne Clare, senior manager of communications of the WWF’s Arctic Program explained that the real challenge comes from turning attachment to an animal into attachment to the whole region that animal is a part of. She mentions polar bears, which are not under imminent threat of extinction despite how the constant slew of campaigns to ‘save the polar bear’ would make it seem.
This might not seem like a big deal but it can have real consequences. Indigenous communities who often clash with polar bears, accuse the big environmentalist groups of protecting plants and animals while they ignore the needs of indigenous communities for hunting, food and protection against the bears. These communities are part of the arctic ecosystem and their activities are essential in maintaining balance. Indeed saving the polar bear has itself become symbolic of stopping global warming, as if conserving the creatures alone is enough to stop ice melt and sea level rise.
On a fundamental level we have a taxonomic bias towards cute animals. Zoologist Nathan Yaussy writes that it’s “hard-wired into our brains” to like animals that look like babies. Properties like big eyes, round heads, and short snouts make us think that an animal is cute enough to save. They must also show relatable behavioural qualities, like strength, cunning or beauty, to illicit the desire to protect them. Conversely negative associations with ‘slimy’ amphibians, ‘disease-ridden’ rodents and ‘annoying’ insects make us less likely to care about them. Some experts even argue that the money spent on the conservation of cute animals like pandas, could be better used elsewhere on species that hold more value in ecosystems and food chains. This is a controversial opinion, especially as conservationists often use the money donated to save popular animals in order to repair general ecosystem health and benefit less popular species. But the intentions of that view can probably be translated to ‘no animals should be favoured because of how they look’ - a message that we can all get behind!
Conservationists argue that marketing campaigns through megafauna is actually the best way to get the greatest total amount in donations for a struggling species. They argue that money they receive will go to the preservation of other animals more in need, not just the ones we donate to. Apart from being dishonest to donors, this technique also has unintended consequences including encouraging young conservationists to gravitate towards popular animals rather than those in need.
The popular animal bias hints at an element of environmental justice that is sometimes overlooked by conservationists: we are not saving the environment because of how it looks, we are saving it because of its inherent value. All living things have value no matter how they appear, hierarchies in the animal kingdom only distort the mission of conservationism. Rare plants are often prioritised over common flora by conservation groups but this approach fails to acknowledge that biodiversity decline is happening too quickly to focus on individual species over whole ecosystems. Species that seem too prevalent to be worried about can be wiped out very quickly if they are not protected properly.
This is particularly true for insects. In 2017, The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed 343 insect species as endangered, meaning that 5.7% of all evaluated insect species are endangered. A 2019 study reported that over 40 per cent of insect species could go extinct in the next few decades, with butterflies, bees and dung beetles most affected. These sort of facts are important but they are not the most effective way to get people excited about insect conservation. Caring for insects requires the sort of holistic thinking that recognises their importance and value beyond our usual standards of relating to animals on an aesthetic or behavioural level. Even the ant colony, which works together in metronomic harmony towards communal goals, is somehow less relatable than the fat panda that farts and falls out of its tree.
And so we have to approach relating to insects from a different angle. We can all relate to the flowers they pollinate, the food they provide for our favourite fluffy creatures and the comforting hum of insect activity that greets our sense in spring. Perhaps their most invaluable quality is the unseen labours of insects which include:
• Cycling of nutrients in soil
• Pollination of plants
• Seed dispersal
• Soil structure and fertility maintenance
• Control of the populations of other organisms
• Functioning as a major food source for other animals.
These functions are essential to life and prove their material value beyond the obvious intrinsic value that all life on earth holds. So if we want to ‘save the pandas’, we also have to save the insects that create the environments that pandas and our other favourite animals need to survive and thrive.
Insects are vital to ecosystem functions. They make up the building blocks of biodiversity, habitats and ecosystem services that we directly and indirectly rely on. But as with all living creatures, insects and other invertebrates are at risk if the ecosystems they symbiotically exist in are exploited. Whole ecosystems depend on these tiny creatures and as they disappear, we are starting to see the effects of their disappearance on larger species across different terrains.
Marine biodiversity loss is a major catalyst for species extinction and ecosystem collapse. Driven by the fishing industry, whose attempts to chase profits and meet global demands have led to the normalisation of unsustainable practices, marine biodiversity loss is accelerating at alarming rates. Overall, one-third of fish stocks are overfished, and another 60 percent are fished at their maximum sustainable levels. The second most damaging factor is coastal land and sea use change. Development along coastlines including offshore aquaculture, bottom trawling, and oil and gas extraction have altered habitats. Toxic pollutants in agricultural and industrial runoff poison coastal fish harvests. Not only does this affect marine invertebrates and crustaceans, on which whole marine ecosystems function, but ocean exploitation also affects threatens beloved marine megafauna like dolphins.
Agricultural practices are the biggest cause of land biodiversity loss, a loss that affects life at all levels. Beef, soy, palm oil and commercial timber accounts for over 70% of deforestation in the EU. Deforestation leads to displacement of species at best and extinction at worst. Pesticides and synthetic fertilisers eliminate essential ecosystem catalysts like milkweed and damage soil biology so it can’t support the plants and insects that form the foundation of these ecosystems. Agricultural runoff from these chemically contaminated soils pollute vital waterways that sustain animals and plant life.
To combat habitat loss and save insects, we need to preserve biodiversity hotspots such as primary rainforest, and regenerate damaged ecosystems. The Amateur Entomologists Society give a comprehensive summary of what is needed to conserve insect health in different habitats from grasslands to farmland. Supporting the Earth Law Center and other organisations looking to establish legal protections for forests and other natural habitats, setting up groups of rangers to patrol natural areas to end illegal destruction of habitats and supporting rewilding projects can all have huge impacts on ecosystem health for insects and beyond.
The regenerative agriculture movement is growing but it must grow further if we want to turn pesticide-filled, low-biodiversity farmlands into ecosystems that produce crops and allow animal species to thrive at the same time. Eliminating pesticides and synthetic fertilisers is the first step. Check out our interactive story, Grounded, to find out more about how we can break up big Ag and reform our destructive farming system
Biodiversity loss in our oceans is overwhelmingly caused by unsustainable aquacultural methods. We must campaign to convince restaurants and fishing companies to work with the aquaculture stewardship council, and other bodies to create sustainable aquaculture models. Organisations like Fisheries innovations Scotland are identifying knowledge gaps and educating fishermen on sustainable practices but there must be a movement within the fishing industry to find ways of switching to sustainable aquaculture whilst maintaining good wages for workers.
Sign up to the iNaturalist community and take pictures of flora and fauna to help supplement a global database of biodiversity and support local to global research projects. National Geographic’s citizen science page has a number of exciting projects to get involved in from bird watching and sky monitoring to field surveys on invasive plant species.