In conversation with Dave Goulson: The Plight of Bugs and Insects
“The lever pullers of the world” according to David MacNeal, author of Bugged, the integral role played by insects and bugs in the grandeur of a balanced ecosystem is often overlooked. They don’t demand attention and when they do, it usually comes in the form of a pesky fly seemingly set out to aggravate at all costs. What is so important about this multitude of minute creatures?
I was lucky enough to speak to Dave Goulson, a Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex. Dave is vastly experienced in ecology, having had over 300 scientific articles and seven books published, many centring around the conservation of bumblebees and other insects. However, his love of Bees is not limited to words on paper. Dave founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006 which now has over 12,000 members.
It is first crucial to understand why insects must be protected. These invisible workers provide services such as waste disposal, provision of food, fibre and other resources that make our lives worth living! As well as actions they carry out, insects and bugs hold up the base of the food chain by providing meals for fish, birds and mammals. In many cultures, they are also considered a delicacy by humans and can be fashioned into many tasty dishes. There have also been utilised for a number of medicinal purposes. So, it’s clear that insects pull their weight which makes it even scarier to find out that their numbers are rapidly declining.
In the UK alone, the flying insect population has declined by as much as 60% in the last 20 years. Dave outlines a number of factors as to this sudden slump in numbers. “Habitat loss, pesticide use, climate change, invasive species, foreign diseases and light pollution all play their part. In the UK modern intensive farmland is a hostile environment for wildlife.” Sadly, not every farm habitat is as welcoming to insects as our own is.
Dave continued: “Huge monocultures of crops [on these farms] are drenched in poison. There are few flowers for pollinators and when a bee does manage to find one it is often contaminated with multiple pesticides.” I was unaware of the alarming rate at which insects were being wiped out before Dave opened my eyes to the gravity of the situation. “Insects are becoming extinct every day. At a very crude global estimate, we are losing about 16 insect species per day, though often those extinctions may not be detected for decades, as nobody is counting most insects.” The most frightening part of this information is that as the planet’s natural resources begin to dwindle the extinction rates will accelerate and the figures will keep stacking up. There are fears that in as little as 30 years as many as 40% of the planet’s species could become extinct, including bees and ants.
One thing is certain, we need to act now. Dave spoke about the ways in which regenerative, organic farming methods can help in the fight against insect extinction. “Insect populations cannot recover unless we stop repeatedly spraying chemicals designed to kill them,” he said. “Organic farming demonstrates that it is perfectly possible to grow an abundance of healthy food in a sustainable way. I would also like to see a shift towards smaller farms, growing a greater diversity of crops. There is plentiful evidence that smaller farms are both more productive and more biodiverse due to this increase in crop diversity.”
It is comforting to know that our own regenerative practices are helping the plight of our insects both out on our 100% organic pastures and in our market garden. Wherein our ‘no-dig’ priority means insects are rarely disturbed. Dave suggested a number of individual ways in which each of us can fight against insect decline. “My book Silent Earth lists a catalogue of actions for gardeners, politicians, farmers and others can take. But anyone with a garden can take simple steps like growing some insect-friendly flowers to provide bees with food and reducing mowing to create shelter and encourage bugs to inhabit the area. Please DO NOT buy or use pesticides in your garden and even consider starting a campaign for your local council to protect wild areas in parks and stop using pesticides. Pesticide Action Network provide amazing advice and support for such matters.”
Dave had three more nuggets of advice. “Buy organic food whenever you can. Next time you get the chance, choose to vote for a politician that takes environmental issues seriously. Spread the word by telling friends and neighbours why we should look after bees and other insects.”
I’m so thankful to Dave for providing the facts behind the widespread decrease in insect numbers. Knowing that this pandemic could be counteracted through the adoption of more organic farming techniques reiterates the importance of making choices as a consumer that encourage the spread of the organic movement.