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UK insect decline and extinctions

Insects provide vital goods and services for wildlife, food production and human health, and their decline threatens important natural processes. Despite some insects being in long-term decline, a few species are showing stable or increasing trends. Insects can respond to interventions quickly. This POSTnote summarises the evidence for insect declines in the UK, the drivers of trends, and interventions to support the recovery of insect populations.

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Insects play a pivotal role in natural processes that support other living organisms, and human health and well–being. Roles include pollination, pest and weed regulation, decomposition, nutrient cycling, and provision of food for wildlife and humans. They can also be agricultural pests or transmit disease. Insects are key indicators for monitoring ecosystems and concerns about insect decline have arisen following studies showing large declines in insect abundance and biomass. However, the trends for global insect populations remain largely unknown, although studies in Europe have found insect abundance or biomass declined between 38% and 75%.

The UK has more data than many countries due to its long-term recording schemes, natural history collections, citizen science engagement and insect research community. Emerging labour-efficient methods can help data collection through remotely monitoring larger areas, but current data are limited by gaps in what is measured and how. The data shows the UK has experienced extinctions and declines in abundance, biomass and distribution of insects. Declines in abundance or distribution have been seen in bees and hoverflies, butterflies and moths, beetles, and freshwater insects, but some species are increasing in biomass. There are a variety of drivers behind insect decline, such as habitat loss, chemical use and climate change, and their impacts differ across habitat, species and time.

Key points in this POSTnote include: 

  • There have been documented declines in insect species and populations. Generalist species are less likely to decline than more specialised species. The impacts of this on ecological processes are poorly quantified.  
  • The UK has unparalleled data from long-term monitoring, but it is limited by gaps in what is measured and how. There are few long-term data sets with abundance data.  
  • Drivers of decline, such as habitat loss, are common across insect groups and can interact to cause combined pressure on populations. However, environmental changes can benefit some species while negatively affecting others.  
  • Interventions, such as habitat creation, may play a role in halting declines, but the scale and types need careful consideration.  

Acknowledgements 

POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

Matt Shardlow, Buglife* 

Chris Hartfield, NFU* 

Professor Simon Leather, Harper Adams University  

Luke Tilley, Royal Entomological Society  

Dr Claire Carvell, CEH* 

Dr Ben Woodcock, CEH* 

Professor Roy Helen, CEH* 

Dr Jamie Alison, CEH* 

Dr Isaac Nick, CEH* 

Dr David Roy, CEH  

Dr Gary Powney, CEH* 

Dr Marc Botham, CEH* 

Professor Richard Pywell, CEH* 

Dr Charlotte Outwaite, CEH, University College London*  

Dr Lynn Dicks, University of Cambridge, University of East Anglia, EKLIPSE, Conservation Evidence, IPBES* 

Professor Simon Potts, University of Reading* 

Dr Tom Breeze, University of Reading* 

Dr Deepa Senapathi, University of Reading* 

Sir Charles Godfray, University of Oxford  

Professor Alfried Vogler, Imperial College London 

Dr Julie Ewald, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust  

Dr John Holland, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust  

Dr James Bell, Rothamsted Insect Survey* 

Dr Chris Shortall, Rothamsted Insect Survey*  

Dan Blumgart, Rothamsted Insect Survey* 

Professor Jeff Ollerton  

Professor Steve Omerod*  

Dr Richard Gill, Imperial Collage London* 

Margaret Ginman, Bee Farmers association  

Professor Jane Memmott, University of Bristol  

Dr Kath Baldock, University of Bristol, Northumbria University  

Ben Sykes, Ecological Continuity Trust  

Professor Jane Hill, University of York  

Professor Chris Thomas, University of York* 

Professor Mark Brown, Royal Holloway University of London* 

Dr Deborah J Steele, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, UK* 

Professor Dave Goulson, University of Sussex* 

Dr Christopher Hassall, University of Leeds* 

Professor Bill Kunin, University of Leeds* 

Richard Fox, Butterfly Conservation*  

Seirian Sumner, University College London  

Don Monteith, Environmental Change Network  

Jon Curson, Natural England* 

Andy Brown, Natural England* 

James Philips, Natural England*  

Jon Webb, Natural England* 

*Denotes people who also acted as external reviewers of the briefing

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Channel website: https://www.parliament.uk/post

Original article link: https://post.parliament.uk/research-briefings/post-pn-0619/

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