Gainesville, Florida – Entomologist Akito Kohara’s message is straightforward: We cannot live without insects. They are in trouble. And there is something we can all do to help.
Kawahara’s research focused primarily on answering basic questions about moth and butterfly evolution. But studies raising the alarm about the sharp decline in insect numbers and diversity are increasingly haunting him.
Kohra witnessed the loss himself. As a child, he would collect insects with his father every weekend, often traveling to a famous oak outside Tokyo whose fallen sap attracted thousands of insects. There was the first to see the national butterfly of Japan, the mighty Purple Emperor, Sasakia Charunda. When he returned a few years ago, the oak was replaced by a housing project. S. charonda numbers are in sharp decline nationwide.
While scientists disagree on the severity of the problem, many of the findings indicate a general trend downward, with one study estimating that 40% of insect species are at risk of extinction. In response, Kawahara turned his attention to increasing people’s appreciation of some of the world’s most misunderstood animals.
“Insects do a lot for humanity,” said Kauhara, associate curator at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity of the Florida Museum of Natural History. “In the United States alone, wild insects contribute an estimated $ 70 billion to the economy each year through free services like pollination and waste disposal. This is unbelievable, and most people have no idea.”
Insects maintain flowering plants and decorative pins in most of the land-based ecosystems, and provide food sources for birds, bats, freshwater fish, and other animals. But they face a barrage of threats, including habitat loss, pesticides, pollution, invasive species and climate change. If human activities are the driving force behind Kohra’s decline, then people can also be part of the solution.
In an opinion article published in a special edition of Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, Kawahara and his collaborators are identifying easy ways everyone can contribute to insect conservation.
If you have a lawn, reducing mowing can give the insects a boost. Kohara suggests setting aside 10% of your landscape for insects, either by replacing the monoculture with native plants or simply leaving the space uncultivated. These miniature nature reserves provide important habitat and food tanks for insects, especially if they are kept free of chemical pesticides and herbicides, he said. The benefits that garden keepers get include fewer garden work and fewer expenses.
“Even a small spot can be very important for insects as a place to nest and get resources,” said Kohara. “It’s a springboard that they can use to move from one place to another. If every home, school, and local park in the United States turns 10% of the grass into a natural habitat, that would give the insects an additional 4 million acres of habitat.”
If you don’t have grass, you can still help by growing native plants in pots in window boxes or in porches and patios.
The lights dimmed
Nocturnal light pollution has risen since the 1990s, doubling in some of the world’s most biodiverse places. Artificial lights are powerful attractions for nocturnal insects, which can exhaust themselves to death by turning lamps or falling prey to predators that spot an easy target.
You can give bugs a hand – and reduce your electricity bill – by turning off unnecessary lights after dark and using amber or red lights, which are less attractive to insects.
Use insect-friendly soaps and sealants
Chemical pollutants in car wash soaps, outside buildings, and in seals containing coal tar can damage a variety of insect lives. Kawahara recommends replacing them with biodegradable soaps and soy-based sealants. In winter, handling rock salt with salt-free formulations is safer for both insects and pets.
Be an insect ambassador
In the United States, insects have historically been portrayed as devouring crops, vectors, and the hallmarks of poor sanitation, although the vast majority do not harm humans. Kohara said that rethinking your stereotypes about insects and gaining a better understanding of their beauty, diversity, and roles is a first step in helping others appreciate them as well.
Kohara said he remembers notable schoolchildren on a trip to collect insects, where a student found the stag beetle, a huge insect with a huge jaw – “one of the coolest and most fascinating insects.”
The student wanted to step on the beetle, thinking it was a cockroach.
“The other students were terrified, too,” Kohra said. “When I saw it, I was stunned. If this was Japan, children would demand to be the first to get it and keep it as a pet. The juxtaposition of those cultural reactions was amazing.”
He cited the media’s characterization of giant Asian hornets – which originated when he saw the drink sap from an oak tree outside Tokyo – as “killing wasps” as another example of how framing insects as dangerous or disgusting has the potential to elicit strong reactions from the public.
As a remedy for unfounded fears, Kohara said, you can take a walk in the fresh air to hunt down local insect lives or adopt pet bugs, which is a simple and inexpensive way to introduce kids to science. Documenting what you see on platforms like iNaturalist not only helps you learn more about your discoveries, but also provides data for scientific research.
These small steps have the potential to cause immediate changes to the planet’s insects, Kohara said.
“The best way for a quick change is for everyone to get involved. As individuals, we can all do these types of activities right away.”
The article’s co-authors are Lawrence Reeves of the University of Florida, Jesse Barber of Boise State University and a research fellow at the Florida Museum, and Scott Black of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.