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The Decline of Flying Insects

It is very easy to take the natural environment we enjoy on our country walks for granted, but scientists are continuing to report a worrying trend. Flying insects, including pollinators like bees and butterflies, continue to decline in numbers, despite schemes across Europe to support them. Perhaps we all need to do our bit in supporting these winged-workers to ensure the sustainability of our green surroundings…

big buttefly count chart image copyEarlier this year I took part in the Big Butterfly Count. I love taking part in Citizen Science projects; schemes that only ask for an hour of your time to observe and report your sightings in your local green spaces. The findings not only help scientists understand trends in animal and plant populations, but also help to inform which conservation projects are most needed and most effective.

The Big Butterfly Count takes place every summer (in July and August), with participants asked to count butterfly sightings for just a 15-minute period. More than 60,000 people took part in 2017 and the results are just out. The challenging British summer weather played a big part in the life of butterflies this year. July and August were dominated by unsettled weather and above average rainfall (the classic curse of the school holidays!). Overall it was one of the wettest UK summers for 100 years. And this after six months (January-June) of above average monthly temperatures, which encouraged butterflies to emerge earlier than usual.

Small Tortoiseshell 2The combined impacts of this topsy-turvy weather were to reduce the numbers of butterflies seen during Big Butterfly Count 2017, both because the abundance of some species was reduced by the summer weather and because others had come out early and were already past their peak numbers when the count started. Despite an amazing 550,000 individual insects being spotted during Big Butterfly Count 2017, the average number of individuals seen per 15-minute count was the lowest recorded since the project began in 2010. I was lucky enough to spot a Comma and a Small Tortoiseshell, both of which appear in the top 10 most abundant butterflies this year. You can see the full results at http://www.bigbutterflycount.org/2017mainresults

This week also saw the release of results of a study in Germany, looking into the abundance of all flying insects in the last 27 years. While it is well documented that butterflies and bees have been disappearing in Europe and North America, this study in PLOS ONE is the first to document that flying insects in general are suffering a steep decline.

The results suggest flying insects have declined by 76% over this period. The study is based on measurements of the biomass of all insects trapped at 63 nature protection areas in Germany since 1989. While the study did not pinpoint a reason for the drop, researchers said many nature reserves are encircled by farm fields, and that pesticides could be to blame. Researchers are concerned because insects are important pollinators and also a key part of the food chain, serving as meals for birds, bats, reptiles and other small creatures.

bee on flowerWhatever the causal factors responsible for the decline, they are having a far more devastating effect on total insect biomass than has been appreciated previously. The scientists stressed the importance of adopting measures known to be beneficial for insects, including strips of flowers around farmland and minimising the effects of intensive agriculture. The full study can be found at http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0185809

Such a large and widespread problem can feel daunting to us as individuals, but scientists are also clear that every one of us can make a difference in some way. If you have a garden, look out for seeds and plants marked with the RHS Perfect for Pollinators symbol, recommended to support bees and butterflies. If you want to really do your bit, then try to make sure you have flowering plants throughout the season, from early spring through the late autumn, to support as many insects as possible. You might also want to install an insect house in one corner of your garden, to provide some much-needed shelter and space for hibernation.

You could also help scientists and conservationists by offering some of your time. There are plenty of opportunities to take part in Citizen Science projects. The Big Butterfly Count 2018 starts on July 20, while Friends of the Earth run the Great British Bee Count each year (https://www.foe.co.uk/bee-count). If you are willing to give a little more time, then look up volunteering opportunities with your local Wildlife Trust. Whatever help you are able to give, big or small, I know our countryside’s tiny winged-workers will be really grateful.

20 October 2017
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