They don’t just bite, sting and buzz! Insects and why we need them

White-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) nectar feeding in Wiltshire garden, UK, September. - Nick Upton/2020VISION

The droning hum of a mosquito disturbing you on a summer’s evening as you try to sleep; the angry buzzing of a wasp as it lands on your jam; the line of ants steadily marching over your sugary kitchen worktop. Our relationship with insects is not always a happy one and for many of us, insects mean bites, stings, allergies and nuisance. And it’s common to want to get rid of them by swatting, spraying or squashing them. As a child, I remember my grandmother handing me her fly swat one summer and she’d watch on with an amused smile as I lunged and darted around her house in pursuit of houseflies and wasps. At the time it felt a justified swatting exercise and I remember looking with fascination at a wasp trap in a café garden that same summer – a graveyard of wasps floating several deep in warm beer, their striped bodies and wings showing clearly through the glass of the trap.

And for keen gardeners, the sight of lovingly tended vegetable plants stripped bare by colonies of caterpillars is too much to bear. A bottle of bug spray is a common weapon in many garden sheds.

But it’s been gradually becoming clear that insect numbers in the UK and worldwide have sharply fallen and that we have far fewer insects left. Twenty-three species of bees and flower-visiting wasps have gone extinct in the UK since 1850 and numbers of butterflies fell by 46% between 1976 and 2017.  And moths too are in decline with larger moths like the garden tiger moth dwindling sharply across the UK.

But does it matter?  Perhaps this means we’re free of the bites, stings and nuisance these tiny creatures give us.

A new report published by The Wildlife Trusts this week shows that there are serious consequences for wildlife and people if we continue to have what the report calls an ‘invertebrate apocalypse’.

Insects are essential. They are the world’s pollinators, pest controllers, food for other creatures such as birds, as well as nutrient recyclers. For instance, the dung beetle is a bit of an unsung hero of the animal world as it’s been clearing up poo for the last 65 million years, and without it the countryside would be littered with dung. Even annoying midges play their part in the web of life as food for bats and swallows. Some types of tropical midges are the cocoa tree’s main pollinators. It’s humbling to realise that without midges there would be no chocolate!

Behind these alarming declines of insects are the habitat loss so many species face. In addition, the widespread use of pesticides in farming as well as in our gardens and allotments is a major reason for insects dying out. The number of pesticide applications has approximately doubled in the last 25 years.

The Wildlife Trusts are calling for tougher regulation on the use of pesticides as well as on local authorities and businesses to create insect-friendly wildflower areas in parks, road verges and other spaces. And there are things we can all to do help. We can stop using chemical pesticides in our gardens, mow the lawn less to leave some areas wild, build bug hotels, grow nectar-rich wildflowers and maybe dig ponds to attract dragonflies,

So, it’s time to consign the fly swat and bug spray to history and give insects the respect they deserve.

Find out more about the insect report and what you can do to help these amazing creatures.