Ecological disaster looms unless we reverse Hampshire's insect decline now

Imagine a world without the gentle hum and buzz of bees and insects. Where butterfly wings no longer flap and crickets cease to chirp.

Chalk Hill Blue found on Portsdown Hill, by Micky Pape
Chalk Hill Blue found on Portsdown Hill, by Micky Pape

A new report commissioned by Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT), along with other southern wildlife trusts, has revealed that if insect declines are not halted, terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems will collapse, with profound consequences for all life on Earth.

The Trust protects wildlife in nature reserves stretching from Milton Locks and Farlington Marshes, in Portsmouth, to nature-rich meadows in the Meon Valley and Bishop’s Waltham.

From the rare Gilkicker weevil, just 4mm long and found only in Gosport, to the beautiful chalk hill blue butterfly, found on Portsdown Hill, our local wildlife is under threat.

Honey bees by Cat Bolado

The report, Insect Declines and Why They Matter, written by ecologist Professor Dave Goulson, from the University of Sussex, highlights the knock-on effect on insect-eating birds, bats, and fish, as well as the economic cost to society of broken ecosystems.

Pesticides, insecticides and herbicides used both industrially and in our own back gardens are to blame, along with development that has devastated natural habitats.

However, as well as revealing the urgency of the problem, the report also highlights a clear path to reversing the worrying rate of decline and suggests measures that could steer the nation off the path to ecological disaster.

The Trust believes coordinated and concerted action from government, local authorities, food growers and the public, could enable insect populations to recover and thrive once more, so they can fulfil their incredibly important roles in the ecosystems that support all life.

Prof Goulson says: ‘Insects make up the bulk of known species on earth and perform vital roles such as pollination, seed dispersal and nutrient cycling.

‘They are also food for numerous larger animals, including birds, bats, fish, amphibians and lizards. If we don’t stop the decline of our insects there will be profound consequences for all life on earth.

‘We know that the main causes of decline include habitat loss and fragmentation, and the overuse of pesticides.

‘Wild insects are routinely exposed to complex cocktails of toxins which can cause either death or disorientation and weakened immune and digestive systems.’

The worrying state of affairs is not lost on Richard Shaw, from Fareham, who quit his job as a paramedic to set up The Great British Bee Project.

He has been working tirelessly to reverse the potentially devastating effects of bee extinction by hand-rearing more than five million honey, bumble and European black bees throughout the UK.

‘Bees are very important with global pollination helping to feed one in three mouths,’ he says.

‘So if we help the bees then they will helps us.’

With a single honey bee able to pollinate more than 2,000 flowers a day, the role of the bee cannot be underestimated – leading Richard to do all he can to stop the rot.

‘We are rearing 3,500 queen bees every month, which will help to produce between 30,000 and 50,000 bees each month,’ he explains.

But while Richard is doing all he can to reverse the decline, he reveals that bees, like other insects, face a variety of battles to be able to thrive.

‘There is the lack of food available for bees. Pesticides, insecticides, disease, mites, lack of education for the general public as well as cold weather, all play their part,’ he says.

Clamping down on insecticides and pesticides is something we can control.

‘Most people know that by spraying nests with these poisons it kills bees,’ says Richard.

‘Even if one bee comes into contact with pesticides or insecticides this will kill all the bees when it returns to the hive.’

Dave Rumble is the senior policy and evidence adviser at HIWWT.

He believes we should all be pushing for reductions in the use of pesticides, and creating wilder networks in cities and the countryside.

‘Insects need all the help they can get and the latest research points to a worrying picture for these tiny, fascinating animals,’ says Dave.

‘Like many news stories, the antisocial behaviour of the minority gets the limelight: wasps and greenfly don’t appeal to everyone, but most insects quietly do their job of pollinating, keeping soils healthy, and providing food for other wildlife.

The report brings together current scientific research studies from around the world.

It shows:

n 23 species of bee and flower-visiting wasp have gone extinct in the UK since 1850

n The geographic ranges of many bumblebee species more than halved between 1960 and 2012

n Numbers of butterflies fell by 46 per cent between 1976 and 2017.

n Southern England experienced a 40 per cent drop in Garden Tiger moths between 1968 and 2007.

We are putting at risk some of the fundamental building blocks of life, according to Debbie Tann, the chief executive of HIWWT. She says: ‘The quiet insect apocalypse exposed in this report should set alarms ringing.

‘But, as the report highlights, the causes of insect declines are known and we can address them; insects and other invertebrates can recover quickly if we stop poisoning them and restore the habitats they need to thrive.

‘We all need to take action now in our gardens, parks, farms, and places of work.’

What you can do?

The Wildlife Trust report shows that in the past 100 years, natural and semi-natural habitats have been cleared at an accelerating rate to make way for farming, roads, housing estates, factories, lorry parks, golf courses and shopping centres.

Up to 17,000 tonnes of poison is broadcast across the UK’s landscape each year.

Much of this is associated with intensive farming, but the report also highlights the destructive capacity of domestic usage, where numerous insecticides, fungicides and herbicides are freely available from garden centres, DIY stores and even supermarkets.

The public has a key role to play by giving up pesticides in gardens and allotments and maintaining healthy soil with home-made compost.

The trust has called on domestic gardeners to mix flowers with vegetables to attract wildlife, such as caterpillar-eating birds and aphid-eating insects.

And shoppers can do their bit by buying locally-grown, pesticide-free fruit and veg.

The Wildlife Trust urges nature-rich building developments which make a positive contribution to nature’s recovery ‘as standard’.

Local authorities have been urged to phase out the use of pesticides in urban areas and to plant fruit trees and sow nectar-rich wild flowers in urban green spaces to provide food for pollinators and people.

New road verges should automatically be sown with wild flower mixes, the report also adds.

And farmers are being asked to trial alternative approaches to pesticides and herbicides.