Michael S. Engel is a paleontologist and entomologist at the University of Kansas.
The National Butterfly Center in Mission, Tex., encompasses 100 acres of subtropical bushlands along the banks of the Rio Grande. It’s a refuge for more than 200 species of pollinating butterflies, as well as thousands of other species — flowers, birds, mammals and countless other insects.
The administration’s plan to build a border wall through the sanctuary will effectively destroy it. But such a loss will strike many as insignificant. Butterflies — so graceful and frail — seem almost a luxury rather than a necessity. Surely, the disappearance of a few more won’t make any difference in the long run?
We now know that this is not true. Similar losses have played out time and again to the point at which our insects are in decline. Ecosystems are much like the game of Jenga: You pull too many blocks from the tower, and it collapses. We remove one biological reserve here, we extirpate a series of species there, we pollute, we fragment, we introduce invasive species, all to the point of eventual catastrophe.
“How brittle in reality are all the things whose permanence is never questioned.” These words from the great 20th-century explorer Freya Stark are supremely fitting for our blatantly blasé attitude toward biological diversity and its conservation. Most of us take it for granted that those species we rely upon daily will always be around.
Recent studies, however, have revealed precipitous declines in insect abundance that foretell the possibility of considerable extinction, the so-called insect apocalypse. It is peculiar, given our interdependence, that there has been no great swell of concern regarding the impending possibility of a world in which insects are a shadow of their former selves, or gone entirely. Many, presumably, think “good riddance.” Who needs roaches, mosquitoes or filthy flies? And, what if we lose some butterflies, bees and beetles along the way? Surely, we gain more by ridding ourselves of these pests? Do they really matter?
It is dangerous to set an entire group of organisms apart from all others when referring to their impact on the broader economy of nature. In these matters, everything is intertwined. Among all of life’s creatures, insects are some of the most vital, whether we notice their many services or not. By the sheer fact of their staggering diversity and vast ecological connectedness, insects are interwoven into the fundamental functions of virtually every ecosystem. An insect apocalypse is our apocalypse.
Had the headlines specified that plants or mammals or birds or fishes were about to go extinct, we can be sure that considerable alarm would arise. We understand, for example, that we need plants for food, medicines, natural products, oxygen and any other number of basic life functions. These same plants need insects to such a degree that the absence of the latter makes our world untenable. If we lose insects, then we would simultaneously lose enormous percentages of our plants, as well as swaths of birds, mammals, freshwater fish and countless other groups.
Consider just one of the myriad ways in which insects support our survival. Of the nearly 300,000 species of flowering plants, around 90 percent of these rely on an animal pollinator to complete their reproductive cycle. Approximately 200,000 species of animals provide this critical service, 199,000 of which are insects, pollinating everything from our heavy contingent of crops to mighty forests, deserts, prairies, tundras and everything in between.
As insects are disappearing, plants everywhere are experiencing a diminution in natural pollination. Without these critical animal species, the basic reproduction of these plants would be compromised and, for many, would grind to a halt. These plants are our foodstuffs (every third bite of food is the product of such pollination), the timber for our homes, the source and templates for many of our pharmaceuticals, and the natural products from which we derive so many other materials. The world’s forests generate the very oxygen we breathe.
Beyond pollination services, insects are also the food of many birds, mammals and fish — their lives sacrificed to sustain those of tens of thousands of other more conspicuous species — species that in their own way go on to support us. In such a fashion, even pests such as mosquitoes are necessary to sustain life. Without insects, all of these would perish. Insects underpin, often unseen and ignored, the essential processes of our world.
We can no longer afford to be cavalier about saving those species with whom we share this world, including insects. Our indispensable pollinators, most of whom are insects, are disappearing. Our Jenga tower is teetering, and the brittleness of our reality is becoming more apparent.
Choosing to save the National Butterfly Center is a microcosm of the larger choice we face in saving ourselves. We need to become disentranced when it comes to insects, awakening to the reality that our very lives are dependent on their success and survival. The loss of insects confronts us with famine, economic turmoil, pandemics and the toxification of our atmosphere. Anything that jeopardizes insect success undermines our own.