Sunday, 5 February 2023

Where have all the birds and insects gone - and should we care?

Anyone over 30 will probably have noticed (if they think about it) that there are a lot less insects, birds and other wildlife now than there used to be in the UK and Europe. 

When gardening now, I hardly ever find any insects these days and very rarely hear a bird sing (despite living in a small rural village), but when I was a boy, the skies were full of birds and the lawn and gardens were crawling with all sorts of insects.

I can remember driving at night when I was much younger (1980s) and always seeing hundreds of insects caught in the beam of the car headlights and they were also stuck to the windscreen of the car. These days, I am lucky if I see one moth on my windscreen in a month!

The weight of insects caught per trap per day in 63 nature reserves in Germany declined by 76% between 1989 and 2014, a decline which is, statistically speaking, highly unlikely to be due to chance (p<0.001) [Hallmann et al. 2017].

No one seems to care, but it is really very important for our health, our food production and our planet because we are not only killing all the wildlife on the planet but also the human race.

The tremendously powerful and rich chemical companies that sell fungicides, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and genetically-modified herbicide-resistant crops would like you to believe that it is all due to 'global warming', intensive farming and the reduction in wildlife habitat. Like a good magician or a bad politician, they try their best to divert your attention...

It is true that global warming can affect certain species - for instance, if the host plant and moth are using different cues to time their emergence – for example one using temperature and the other day length – then their timing may become unsynchronized, with potentially severe consequences for the insects and any animals that might feed on them.

Herbicides kill 'weeds'. Insects eat 'weeds'. Animals eat 'weeds'. Pesticides kill insects. These chemicals have become a lot more effective than they used to be too. For example, neonicotinoid insecticides are about 7,000 times more toxic to bees than DDT.

I am very concerned about the chemicals that we are spraying on our land which then find their way into our insects, plants and animals (including the ones that we eat). As an example, truly miniscule amounts of the widely used pesticides called neonicotinoids (1 part per billion in food) impairs the immune systems of bees, leaving them susceptible to diseases such as deformed wing virus. None of this is adequately captured by the regulatory process for pesticides, which focusses on short-term exposure of otherwise healthy organisms to single chemicals.

In the UK, farmers have to pay beekeepers to set up their bee hives around their fields of rape to pollinate their crops because there are not enough 'wild' bees any more.

In 2019 researchers from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) examined more than 715,000 records from volunteer nature observers and reported that the geographic range of bees declined by roughly one quarter between 1980 and 2013. The biggest losses occurred in the upland areas of Northern Britain with a fall of 55%, while species in Southern Britain fell by 25%.

There was a noted rise in 12% of wild species that are key pollinators for crops like oilseed rape used in a variety of industries. The belief is that this rise is thanks to farmers growing wildflowers on the borders of their crop fields and the 2013 UK ban on neonicotinoid insecticides.

Glyphosate is a widely used herbicide (weedkiller) and considered very useful by farmers, but is far from benign. It has proved to be far more persistent than was previously thought, and glyphosate is common in cereal-based foodstuffs such as bread, biscuits and breakfast cereals. A recent study found that more than 99% of a sample of 2,000 Germans had detectable glyphosate in their urine, with children tending to have more than adults [Kr├╝ger et al. 2016]. This is particularly concerning when coupled with evidence that those who are occupationally exposed to glyphosate have an elevated risk of developing a cancer called Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma [Zhang et al. 2019]. Studies have also found that low doses of glyphosate impair navigation and learning by honeybees, and also alter their gut bacteria [Balbuena et al. 2015; Motta et al. 2018].

Since humans (your children) are also ingesting these chemicals too, it could also be altering your gut microbiome, even if it is not directly poisoning us or giving us cancer just yet!

How can we help?

One way is to buy organic food whenever possible and try to buy from local farmers to support them (it should be cheaper and better quality too). Put up with a few holes in your cabbage and rejoice in the knowledge that you are saving the planet and possibly your children's lives too even if it does mean you now can't afford a Costa coffee every day. You only have one life and organic food is the best form of life insurance!

Avoid waste. Instead of discarding fresh unused food from the fridge every week, use what you have to make soups, stews and casseroles (keep tins of beans, etc. on hand in the cupboard or raid the freezer to add to it) or just freeze the leftover veggies. The less food we waste, the less food that is grown and the less farmland is needed. It is estimated that 40% of all food produced for human consumption is wasted (ref). You will also reduce your shopping bills!

Another way is to vote for politicians that are environmentally 'green' and want to legislate against the use of chemicals which are harmful to our wildlife and to us (but you should only support a politician that will ignore the generous party donations from the large chemical companies and actually do something - that is if you can find one!).

If you want to get the full (and alarming) true picture, I highly recommend reading this 2019 report from the UK Wildlife Trusts - Insect declines and why they matter by Professor Dave Goulson, Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society (FRES).

The dramatic decline of all wildlife (up to 75%+) in the last 25 years is an absolute scandal and much of the cause can be attributed to the unnecessary and careless use of herbicides and pesticides. Insects eat plants, birds and animals eat plants and insects and humans eat both plants and animals - therefore we eat herbicides and pesticides (it often has to be removed from our tap water by the water company too).

When a new drug/medicine is found, it must  undergo many thorough scientific tests before it is allowed to be used on humans. Why is it that we allow other potentially harmful products to be used extensively on our food and wildlife without the same extensive checks and preliminary cautious trials?

New medicine -> extensive testing ->  release -> constant monitoring
New pesticide  -> minimal testing   -> release -> blame global warming!


  1. Must be a European thing. In the central US, we cannot go into our yard without insect repellent otherwise you are swarmed by mesquites and flies. I've desperately been searching for a way to reduce their population even by a little.

    1. We have a lot denser population than central US!