Our destiny depends on the survival of insects

Marcus Byrne is old enough to remember how scores of nocturnal insects used to splatter on his windshield.

Now, decades later, there’s far fewer dead bugs. “And that’s pretty worrying to me,” says the professor of entomology and zoology at Wits University.

It’s been described as a snowstorm of moths and that’s how Byrne remembers it too.

“Driving at night required skill and the tenacity, despite the temptation, to not switch on the windscreen wipers, which would then smear the moth blotches into a greasy mess,” entirely obliterating the view of the road.

In recent years, scientists have coined the term the “windshield effect” to describe insects’ disappearance. 

Byrne says there’s now good scientific evidence to show that insect numbers are in decline. “We also have very powerful anecdotal evidence from citizen scientists – you and me – that insects are in decline.”

For him, the most dramatic anecdotal evidence is the disappearance of the swarms of nocturnal insects that used to be attracted to lights at night – headlights, porch lights or brightly lit petrol station forecasts.

The insects are still there, Byrne says, “but not in the overwhelming numbers that awed or frightened us years ago”, says the scientist, whose work has shown how lost dung beetles navigate their way home by looking at the Milky Way.

It’s like losing the dark skies and our view of the Milky Way. “We won’t miss these things if we never knew them, but another part of our natural heritage has slipped away, barely being noticed.”

There’s a lot more to this story.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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