Insect Conservation

A photograph of the Mole cricket, _Gryllotalpa gryllotalpa_

The Mole cricket (Gryllotalpa gryllotalpa) may be extinct in the UK and has been made a priority for conservation under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP).

Why are insects worth conserving?

There are many reasons why we human beings want or need to conserve the wealth of species which share the planet with us, including insects, but most of these reasons can be grouped broadly as follows:

These are important reasons why we should want to conserve the diversity of life on Earth, but why should anyone be concerned about insects? One simple reason is that they make up about four fifths of all the animal biodiversity on Earth, with other invertebrates making up a large proportion of the remaining fifth. We could hardly pretend to be conserving biodiversity if we were ignoring most of it, and yet in the past insects received less attention from conservationists than other groups, such as birds, which consists of far fewer species.

Apart from the fact that insects make up a very large part of the world's biodiversity, there are an immense number of ways in which they enable other forms of wildlife, including plants, birds and mammals to survive. They also enable human beings to survive; for more information about this, the Insects and Man section describes some of the essential 'ecological services' (e.g. pollination of our crops) which they and other invertebrates provide. Their other services are less direct but we need them just as much. For example, insects are Nature's agents for the disposal and recycling of animal dung and the dead remains of plants and animals. Life as we know it could not exist without such recycling processes.

We also make use of insects in more direct ways and so we have another selfish reason why we need to conserve them. For example, as mentioned in the Insects and Man section, we depend on insects for products such as honey and we benefit greatly from the results of medical and other scientific research involving insects. Also, some species are bred for release as biological control agents, protecting our crops alongside naturally occurring enemies of pests.

As far as pleasure is concerned, most of us love seeing butterflies and other showy kinds of insect, and we can find immense fascination in other insects if we look closely at them. The childhood fascination in insects that many of us have experienced, but may have lost in adolescence, can be recaptured and fulfilled in our everyday surroundings. We need only to leave some space to allow insects in all their variety to share this planet with us.

Can't insects take care of themselves?

Insects in general, together with other invertebrates, are incredibly successful and adaptable. As a group, they will probably survive as long as Planet Earth can support life in any form, but many individual species are very vulnerable to rapid change due to human influence. This makes it impossible for them to survive within many of the localities which would otherwise provide them with suitable habitats. The problem is especially great for species that cannot move very far and that are therefore unable to recolonise habitats following chance extinctions due to short-term events such as adverse weather. Eventually, some species can become extinct across large areas, sometimes nationally and even globally.

So, the answer is that insects as a whole are very good at taking care of themselves, but that we human beings are destroying and isolating their habitats so much that we are depriving many species of the means to survive. This means that we need to identify and as far as possible stop or reverse the harm that we are doing. You can do your bit too, why not make an insect-friendly garden or become an entomologist?

Who does the work of conserving insects?

Several organisations include insect conservation as a specific aim, Historically, many tended to be smaller than those which focused mainly on the more popular kinds of wildlife, especially the birds. People are now becoming increasingly aware that insects and other invertebrates deserve far more attention, so that interest and activity in this area is growing rapidly.

In the UK, the main organisations which work specifically for insect conservation can be grouped into three categories:

Concerned mainly with the conservation of insects, invertebrates in general, or specific groups

Concerned mainly with the study of insects (or of specific groups of insects), but with conservation as a major aim

Concerned mainly with wildlife other than insects, but specifically devoting resources towards insect conservation

Several local entomological societies, based in various British counties and cities, also have a strong interest in conservation. Also, there are organisations, such as the British Arachnological Society and the Conchological Society of Great Britain & Ireland, which work for the conservation of invertebrates other than insects. In the USA, the Xerces Society is dedicated to invertebrate conservation nationally and internationally, but few other countries have any such societies.

Many organisations around the world are dedicated to the conservation of wildlife in general and a lot of them are increasingly recognising the importance of insects and other invertebrates. In Great Britain, the Wildlife Trusts are especially important as owners of nature reserves, as educators and as advisers to site owners. They form a federation of non-governmental organisations, each of which is the main conservation body for a county or a larger area (e.g. the whole of Scotland).

A few large landowning organisations in the UK (e.g. the National Trusts for Scotland and for the rest of the UK, the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Defence have policies for the conservation of wildlife, including insects, and they are achieving a great deal to protect and enhance habitats. They have other objectives which may not always be fully compatible with some of the aims of conservation, but they liaise with other organisations so as to try and resolve conflicts.

The UK government has several agencies with important roles such as commissioning field studies, managing national nature reserves and awarding grants to other organisations. These agencies include Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales.

Ways of conserving insects

The key to insect conservation is to protect and - where necessary - to enhance or create habitats throughout the landscape, so that even the least mobile species can find somewhere to live when conditions become locally unsuitable. More information about habitat conservation is available.

Even if their habitats are conserved, insects can be harmed by pesticides and other forms of pollution. Pesticides may sometimes be the only economically practicable means of controlling the small minority which are agricultural pests. Unfortunately, this often harms non-target species, many of which are beneficial to farmers and growers.

Harm from pesticides can be reduced by using methods such as integrated control, in which different methods are combined so as to minimise or eliminate the dosage. If pesticides have to be applied, they should be kept away from hedgerows, watercourses and other non-target habitats. (One of the greatest problems in recent years has been the contamination of watercourses with sheep dips based on synthetic pyrethroids, which are so potent that all invertebrate life is extinguished miles downstream from even a small incident. In the UK, the sale of these products was suspended in 2006 for this reason.)

Some people see the killing or taking of individual insects as a threat which could lead to extinction or a national or even global scale. This has certainly resulted from the hunting of several vertebrate species, but the risk is very much less for most insects. This is because they generally exist in far larger numbers than vertebrates and produce far more offspring, the vast majority of which die normally due to natural hazards. Collecting could, however, be a potential problem for a species which exists in exceptionally small populations and can be very easily taken or killed. If such a species is attractive to collectors - especially those who want to take large numbers for trade - there is sometimes a case for legal restrictions.

The UK authorities undertake a scientific assessment and consultation before they add any species to the protected lists. This helps to avoid unnecessary restrictions, which would seriously discourage people from studying insects and thus contributing knowledge, which is vital for conservation. The situation is unfortunately different in various other countries, in which far less selective laws have been introduced in recent years.

Although collecting is not a generally significant threat to insect populations, responsible collectors follow a voluntary code of practice, published by Invertebrate Link, the forum in the UK for invertebrate conservation. Under this code of conduct for collecting insects and other invertebrates, anyone who collects any species should always have a valid reason (not including commercial gain) for doing so. Also, the number of specimens taken should always be the minimum needed for the purpose. Endangered species should generally not be taken, even when this would be allowed under the law. Also, damage to habitats should be avoided as far as possible when insects are being collected or observed.

What can amateur entomologists do?

Amateurs have a wealth of knowledge about insects and their habitats, and this is essential for anyone who gives advice on the management of land, including nature reserves and other designated sites. Members of the AES can add to their knowledge by reading the Society's Bulletin and Invertebrate Conservation News and by making use of the AES forums. Also, with the strength of its membership, the AES is an effective voice, speaking on behalf of conservation to site managers, politicians and other people with influence.

Amateurs can help also by telling non-entomologists how important it is to conserve insect habitats throughout the landscape. Becoming active in a local wildlife trust is one of the best ways of doing this. Such organisations welcome people who can lead entomological field meetings or give talks on insects. A lot of help for speakers can be found in the sets of educational invertebrate conservation slide packs which have been published jointly by the AES and Natural England.