Silent Spring Continued

By Birgit Müller, Sainath Suryanarayanan, Katarzyna Beilin, Susanne Schmitt, Tony Weis, and Serenella Iovino

The recent article by Hallmann and others about a more than 75 percent decline in the biomass of flying insects in Germany over the past 27 years has received considerable media attention and sparked discussion among a number of fellows at the Rachel Carson Center. If such a huge share of the insects in Germany has disappeared, then this is certainly not an isolated phenomenon that is unique to Germany.

This poses many urgent questions: What is the situation like in other countries and regions of the world? What is the impact of this violent narrowing of life, of disappearing insects, on flowers and fruits, on insect-eating birds, and on insects that become “pests” resistant to human-made chemicals?

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Pesticide use in a vineyard. Photo by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health [Public Domain].

Already in the mid-1940s, biologist Rachel Carson had become concerned about the effects of synthetic pesticides, many of which had been developed through the military funding of science after World War II, and through the postwar conversion of munitions manufacturing plants. Carson investigated hundreds of individual incidents of pesticide exposure and the resulting human sickness and ecological damage. She stated emphatically that “[t]he obligation to endure gives us the right to know.” She was a pioneer in explaining the problems of the bioaccumulation of toxins. Carson attributed the decline in bird populations—which she famously communicated through the warning of a “silent spring” without birdsong—to their consumption of insects that had been exposed to potent toxic chemicals.

More than 50 years later, we have to acknowledge that her concerns and her warnings have not been sufficiently addressed. While the vast majority of insects are invisible to most of us, their disappearance should be of concern to everyone. Insects are essential components of all ecosystems, which is something that many take for granted. The news of massive insect declines in Germany comes on the heel of well-documented declines in populations of beneficial insect pollinators, such as honey bees, bumble bees, and monarch butterflies. The daily news cycle tends to jerk us from one outrage to the next, and we believe that as scholars of environmental studies, there is a challenge and a responsibility to try to find ways to bring sustained public attention to underappreciated issues like this, upon which the very nature of life on Earth depends. As a group of humanists and social scientists, we are also motivated to ask critical questions about the lifestyles, institutions, and policies that are fueling this decline (and the dangers this entails), and about those ways of caring—individually and collectively—that can make a better world possible. To quote Rachel Carson again: “We are challenged, as we have never been before, to prove our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.”

After scanning the literature it seems clear to us that the subject of insect biomass is understudied. What seems to have attracted more interest among researchers is the subject of diversity in insect populations (we still know only a fraction of the species that are out there) and the menace of specific insect invasions to human interest (e.g., vectors of disease, crop “pests”). Even review articles focusing on the link between pesticide use and insect populations are fragmentary. This is obviously not a field that has received much research funding; it undoubtedly pales in comparison to the research funds devoted to developing insect-killing chemicals.

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Monarch butterfly, Butterfly Place in Westford, Massachusetts. Photo by Liz West [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

We contacted two prominent entomologists in Munich, Andreas Segerer and Martin Baehr (both from the Zoologische Staatssammlung München) who confirmed that the findings of the Hallmann et al. study reflect broad patterns they have seen firsthand in their own areas of study. The numbers of butterflies and beetles in the populations they have studied have drastically diminished over the last 25 years. They conveyed their feeling that “there is no simple answer to a simple question” to make sense of the phenomenon. What they are certain of, however, is that the disappearance of insects is driven by human activity—the result of a mix of climate change, agricultural practices, chemical use, fragmentation of habitat, and associated effects of other nonhuman antagonists of insects. Segerer quoted the UN Millennium Ecosystems Assessment of 2005 as warning that there is a strong consensus among biologists that chemical overload is menacing insect populations worldwide. He also emphasized that the destruction of insect diversity had already started in the nineteenth century and that entomologists were aware of it even then—though it has greatly accelerated since, especially with the rising use of pesticides from the 1950s onwards.

Segerer and Baehr told us that they had been warning the public for decades about insect loss, but their voices have not been heard. In their words: “Our figures and statistics did not attract any attention; we hope to reach more people when we tell stories about insect love and loss.”

As such, we suggest joining forces and interrogating together the fate of insects in our home countries and countries of research, and presenting a range of snapshots through an engaging blog series. Since many of us are not specialists on insects, we want to reflect together on the type of questions we need to ask those who would know better, and those who should know better.

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Honey bees in the US Department of Agriculture People’s Garden Apiary. Photo by US Department of Agriculture [Public Domain], via Flickr.

We invite submissions of stories collected from contributors’ home countries about the experiences of those—entomologists, gardeners, beekeepers, farmers (amateur or professional)—who care about insects as living creatures. We want to help raise the voices and profiles of people who are able to see these problems, and who have been conscious and attentive of insects (which have been mostly invisible to almost everyone else). We want to highlight the immense role played by diverse varieties of insects, without whom most flowering plants would cease to exist, food webs would collapse, and the biophysical fabric that holds together various human and other-than-human lives would unravel. We would like to know from potential contributors, in academia and beyond, how the insect populations you have interacted with over the last decades have fared. Do you share the experience of German entomologists, and the growing concerns that beekeepers are voicing all over the world?

As we envision the chain of losses in a world without insects, we also want to focus on insect friendly lifestyles, such as “take it out, do not kill it” techniques, new aesthetics for lawns, insect-friendly gardens and parks, and most importantly land used for agriculture, which in turn relates to dietary change and choices. By means of art and narrative, we want to extend ethical concern to insects. We invite all interested parties to integrate a regard for insects into their research objectives and to think together with us of written forms and visual media that we could use to make their predicament visible.

This is a unique opportunity to collect stories about insect love, disappearance, and survival from a global perspective, rooted in very local experiences. We will share these stories of loss in a new series on Seeing the Woods. Further, we hope to create a virtual exhibition as an outcome of this initiative. We believe that this a crucial environmental issue that demands much wider attention. We also believe that this intervention would honor Rachel Carson’s legacy and, in a way, help continue her life’s work.


Please send submissions to Bmuller@msh-paris.fr

There is no fixed deadline for the moment. Submissions will be received on a rolling basis.

To read the entire series as it originally appeared, click here.


Series Blog Posts

Searching for dung beetles in the cow pastures outside Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico. Photos courtesy of Josué Boche.

Tracing Landscape Change through Dung Beetles

By Olea Morris
In some ways, the dung beetles and I had a lot in common! Working as a volunteer on a farm in the highlands of Veracruz, Mexico, I was assigned the very unglamorous but important role of tending to the manure of the animals raised there.

Portrait of an Insect Lover: Alexandra Magro

By Birgit Müller
I met Alexandra Magro this spring, at the first Grand Conference of the French Academy of Sciences entitled “Insects: Friends, Foes, and Models.” I had contributed a presentation of the blog series Silent Spring Continued at the poster session, hoping to attract insect lovers ready to tell me their stories of love and loss.

Insects as Inspiration

By Jan Goedbloed
My name is Jan, I am now 67 years old. I studied biology between 1969 and 1976, and then could not find a job. I helped start a bird hospital, and then worked as an educational assistant in a natural history museum where I tried to incorporate nature meditation.

Mosquitopia Part 3: Key Reasons for Killing Mosquitoes

By Marcus Hall and Dan Tamir
Human health: First and foremost, despite the many and important reasons for saving mosquitoes, or at least saving certain mosquitoes in certain situations, there remains a dire need to eradicate these creatures—even when it means undertaking extreme measures to accomplish this goal.

Sparrow illustration from Pictorial Monograph of Birds (1885) by Numata Kashu (1838-1901). Digitally enhanced from our own original edition.

Mosquitopia Part 2: A few Reasons for Saving Mosquitoes

By Marcus Hall and Dan Tamir
We must remind ourselves that we are ultimately battling disease, not mosquitoes, and that there may be more effective, more economical, more ethical ways to do this than mosquito control. Malaria once emanated from swamps and bad air, though with more evidence it became clear that mosquitoes were the vectors of this disease.

Mosquitopia Part 1: Killing Mosquitoes? The Pros and Cons

By Marcus Hall and Dan Tamir
Global warming is ushering us into a new mosquito epoch.  Ready or not, mosquitoes are coming faster than before; both indigenous and non, disease-carrying and not, human-biting and not. What are we to do with these buzzing creatures, and what has already been done with them?

In Conservative Bavaria, Citizens Force Bold Action on Protecting Nature

By Christian Schwägerl
Alarmed at steep declines in insects and wildlife, Bavarian voters backed a referendum aimed at changing destructive farming practices and repairing damaged ecosystems. Now, Bavaria’s initiatives are inspiring other German states to move to stem the loss of biodiversity.

The Schaus Swallowtail

By Irus Braverman
Thomas Emmel, now a retired University of Florida professor, directed the captive breeding project for more than twenty years. Establishing the program cost $50,000 (“these butterflies are damn expensive,” says Kierán Suckling5), obtained largely from federal sources.


Make Meadows, Not Lawns

By Rosamund Portus
When we think of extinction, we tend to think of a few iconic species, such as the woolly mammoth or the dodo. Although none of us today has ever laid eyes on one—at least not a living specimen— we still mourn their loss.

The Bellflower Specialists

By Eunice Blavascunas and Alie J. Zagata
I grew up in Switzerland, in a family of natural historians. I often say that I grew up in a sleeping bag because my family went camping in the wilderness most weekends and throughout the summers.

The Last Kindred Spirit of Moths and Butterflies

By Susanne Schmitt and Birgit Müller
We are standing in a hallway across from a hidden treasure: the world’s largest collection of butterflies and moths, holding about 13 million specimens. Some parts of the collection date back to the 1760s; some historic sections have been carefully gathered and annotated by the likes of explorer and zoologist Princess Therese of Bavaria (1850–1925).

Fifty Years Ago, Cockchafers Belonged to Spring…

By Birgit Müller and Susanne Schmitt
We met Ernst-Gerhard Burmeister at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology where he has dedicated most of his professional life to the amazing collection of over 25 million zoological specimens, one of the largest natural history collections in the world.

Where Have All the Insects Gone?

For many of us, engaging with insects doesn’t extend much beyond swatting away flies and mosquitoes, or calling on bigger and braver friends to deposit unwanted “visitors” outside. And yet, as E.O. Wilson observed, it is we who are the visitors in “a primarily invertebrate world.”

Insect Portraits

Specimens of Parnassius apollo in a collection case at the Zoologische Staatssammlung München. Photo by Susanne Schmitt.

Insect Profile: The Apollo

To read the entire series as it originally appeared, click here.