With growing awareness of an impending insect extinction crisis, Jack Williams, manager of Milnthorpe’s Lakeland Wildlife Oasis, urges people to appreciate the small creatures with a big role in the existence of all life on earth

HAVE you been troubled by headlines this year such as ‘Apocalyptic Insect Decline’? Or did you turn the page, thinking that a few less annoying flies would be no bad thing?

That's an understandable reaction if you think of insects as those irritating things that land on your picnic, invade your house and buzz infuriatingly against your windows. However, it is surely time for a rethink, and rebrand, of our insect neighbours.

Insects really are incredible. With almost one million described species (approximately 98 per cent of all animal life), insects outnumber all other life forms on Earth, outweighing humanity alone by 17 times. And they’re vital for our survival.

Essential for the proper functioning of every ecosystem on the planet, they underpin thousands of terrestrial and freshwater aquatic ecosystems across the globe. They pollinate flowers, control pests, clear waste, cycle nutrients in our soil and act as a food source for everything from birds to mammals to fish; the foundation of every ecosystem we rely on.

They are disappearing at a calamitous rate.

Wildlife monitoring indicates the planet is at the start of a sixth mass extinction in its history, with huge losses already reported in larger animals that are easier to study.

But insect life is disappearing up to eight times faster than the more obvious birds and mammals, with huge repercussions for the rest of us.

With a third of insect species already endangered, overall they are declining by 2.5 per cent a year. If that doesn’t sound much, in just 10 years we will have a quarter fewer insects, in 50 years only half left and in 100 years none, precipitating a catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems long before then.

With no one particular reason for the decline, it’s been described as “death by a thousand cuts”. Factors include climate change, habitat loss, intensive agriculture and chemical pesticides and fungicides.

Butterflies, moths, bees, wasps and dung beetles are among the most at risk, along with freshwater dependent dragonflies and damselflies, stoneflies, caddisflies and mayflies.

Pause to imagine the impact. Insects pollinate 75 per cent of all flowering plants, as well as crops making up over a third of the world’s food supply. No insects equals no food chain, no other species, and, ultimately, no people.

Or imagine a world with no hardworking dung beetles and decomposers breaking down and removing animal and plant remains and waste. The resulting toxic, virulent sludge would soon be, let’s just understate, ‘unpleasant’ (and deadly).

Just as we have had a significant hand in creating this impending catastrophe, we can also offer a helping hand out of it, but we must act now. We have a growing collection of exotic insect ambassadors at the Oasis and we’re developing habitats to support local insect abundance and diversity, which we’ll monitor with a site-wide census.

With 16 million gardens in Britain, lots can easily be achieved right on your doorstep. Follow organisations like Buglife’s great tips for creating an insect friendly, pesticide-free haven: from bee-friendly flowers to woodpiles for beetles and centipedes, and ponds for aquatic invertebrates and dragonflies.

Lobby your local MP or the environment ministry direct to ban agricultural pesticides and neonicotinoids which impact non target species, devastate bee populations, and contaminate water courses. Avoid polluting harsh household chemicals. Most supermarkets stock ecologically kind alternatives like Ecover.

If we all play our part, maybe we can turn around those terrifying headlines. We need to, our future depends on it.