Energy adviser and environmental researcher Peter Gudde has noticed a fall in the number of bugs
Sitting in my garden last weekend taking advantage of the last days of what has been a generally hot, dry summer, I would have expected more interruptions from flying critters.
In previous years, the wasps usually start becoming noticeable around late spring when they try to scrape wood off my garden table for nest building. By late summer, most have done their work for the colony so become delinquent, get drunk on overripe apples then blunder around make a general nuisance of themselves. But this year, no wasps and very few other insects compared to other years.
I know it’s become a clichéd observation, but I cannot recall a year where the wind screen of my car has been so bug-free. And since the occupational hazard of a cyclist is the unwitting ingestion of insects, I have only had one incident this year when a bee got stuck under my helmet (yes – a bee in my bonnet!) causing me to stop to remove said beastie before it stung me.
But are personal anecdotes and reminiscences of a time when you could not move round a pub garden for wasps be backed up by objective evidence? And if this year is part of a longer-term decline in the insect population, so what?
Listening recently to a talk by a bug specialist, it made me realise just how important insects are to our survival. Insects carry out a wide range of really important stuff that keeps human and living kind going.
Opinion varies, but it is estimated that up to 90 per cent of the world’s 250,000 flowering plant species and three-quarters of the 100 crop species that generate most of the world’s food need pollinators. We tend to focus on bees for this vital role. Certainly, they are really important with the United States and Australia trucking bees around to ensure their crops like almonds, soft fruit and squashes are successful. Although bees have the highest profile and are prolific pollinators, other insects play this important role. Alongside butterflies and moths, others with a more malign reputation like flies, gnats and mosquitoes are key players.
Insects are part of Nature’s recycling process of decomposition, breaking down the dead stuff to unlock the minerals and energy-rich nutrients so that organisms can use them again. They do the tidying up of decaying matter, allowing bacteria and fungi to start the process of building up the carbohydrates and proteins for the food chain to be sustained.
Insects are part of the direct food chain for many animals and plants. Certainly, our common garden birds, especially the young chicks, would not survive without insects in their diet. Our amphibians and mammals like frogs and hedgehogs also enjoy an insect diet.
We, too, consume a very common insect-based product, honey, eating about 35,000 tonnes a year in the UK.
But, with rising concerns about the impact on our health of traditional meat production coupled with its contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, new products using insect protein are being developed. Earlier this month for example, children in Wales were the first to try a lunchtime spaghetti Bolognese based on insect protein produced by a home-grown company. The use of insect protein could become a sustainable food staple in years to come.
So, for once I will acknowledge, albeit a little grudgingly, the value of wasps, flies and even mozzies to our lives.
We should be really concerned if this year’s absence is part of a global trend since Life depends on them.