18 April 2019

Beware alarming warnings about the ‘insect apocalypse’


In 2006, a considerable amount of US-based beekeepers noticed that large numbers of bees were abandoning their colonies, leaving the queen bees and an inadequate number of bees behind. This phenomenon was named Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and was initially blamed on genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). When this suspicion wasn’t substantiated scientifically, the blame was shifted to neonics (short for neonicotinoids) which was a relatively new class of insecticide.

Thousands of news articles and opinions were published in the wake of the so-called “Beepocalypse”, and some neonics were banned in Europe as a result. In the United States, legislators chose not to proceed with blatant bans. In the end, the cause of the 2006 colony declines were detected to be multifactorial, with many believing that viruses were the cause. In fact, bee populations have been on the rise in North America, Europe, and the world for over a decade.

The Washington Post published Call Off the Bee-pocalypse: US Honeybee Colonies Hit a 20-Year High’ and Believe It or Not, the Bees Are Doing Just Fine. But most major news outlets ignored the fact that they had been fuelling a false narrative, with wild claims going unchecked. The number of reasoned and balanced pieces was depressingly low.

However, as much as it is valuable to learn from the past, it is even more important to apply that knowledge to similar situations.

It feels like a turn back in time as the “Insect Apocalypse”, or “Insectageddon” is now making waves. Readers and viewers who do not invest the time of reading into the topic will see headlines such as “We have a new global tally of the insect apocalypse. It’s alarming.” (Vox, February 2019), “We’re causing an insect apocalypse” (Mail & Guardian, February 2019), “How to stop an insect apocalypse” (Deutsche Welle, March 2019), “APOCALYPSE WARNING: Insect population must be saved or ‘LIFE WILL DISAPPEAR’” (Express, February 2019), “The Insect Apocalypse is here” (New York Times, November 2018).

These headlines all originate with a study titled “Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers” by Francisco Sánchez-Bayo, from the School of Life & Environmental Sciences at the University of Sydney. Bayo predicts a spiralling decline of the global insect population, which will result in the collapse of the entire ecosystem. He claims that we have seen a 2.5 per cent annual loss over the last 25 to 30 years. “It is very rapid. In 10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left and in 100 years you will have none”, Bayo told The Guardian in February.

The Spanish scientist believes that the cause are neonicotinoids (the same compounds that were said to cause the Beepocalpyse) and the insecticide fipronil. He also targets agricultural intensification: “That means the elimination of all trees and shrubs that normally surround the fields, so there are plain, bare fields that are treated with synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.”

The disappearing of all insects by 2119 is a bold claim, which has lead Clive Hambler and Peter Alan Henderson from the Department of Zoology of the University of Oxford to submit a critique titled “Challenges in Measuring Global Insect Decline” to Biological Conservation (the journal that published the Bayo study), in which they raise some fundamental questions on the methodology.

Strikingly, Bayo’s research reviewed a total of 73 studies, but singled out only those that showed a decline in insect population. The Oxford researchers also accuse Bayo of “false statements on the lack of data for ants”.

Hambler and Henderson also address the “red lists” in their critique, through which Bayo claims species as extinct, when in fact they’re just disappearing regionally. This phenomenon can happen through changes in weather, and makes the insects regionally absent, not globally extinct.

It’s worth pointing out that estimates regarding the number of insect species range from 2 million to 30 million, making claims about the global decline of insect populations based on some species dubious at best. Adding to that, it is very difficult to assess the number of wild insects. The clue is in the name, they’re “wild” and not easy to count.

Most strikingly of all, the Bayo study misinterpreted research that it thought it to be in support of its theory. Three studies that he cites in support of pesticides being the only cause of insect decline do not actually say that.

One thing is certain: insect populations aren’t researched enough to make indicative statements about global insect declines. And yes, it does take time and effort to read into the subject matter before making judgement calls, or even legislating based on them. Journalists in particular have a duty not to get carried away.

Especially because the mistake was made once before.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Bill Wirtz is a policy analyst for the Consumer Choice Center.