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CLIMATE CHANGE

German bug watchers sound alarm to insect apocalypse

A group of 'quirky eccentrics' in the Rhine countryside has unlocked evidence of one of Earth's worth extinction phases and evidence of climate change.

German bug watchers sound alarm to insect apocalypse
A summer bee spotted in Friedberg in Hesse on Tuesday. Photo: DPA

For almost 30 years they passed as quirky eccentrics, diligently setting up their insect traps in the Rhine countryside to collect tens of millions of bugs and creepy crawlers.

Now the group of German entomology enthusiasts can boast a world-class scientific treasure: evidence of what is described as one of Earth's worst extinction phases since the dinosaurs vanished.

SEE ALSO: On heels of Bavarian victory, Germany plans insect protection law

Insects, which comprise two thirds of all terrestrial species, have been dying off at alarming rates, with disastrous impacts on food chains and habitats, researchers say.

The home of the Amateur Entomology Society of Krefeld on the Dutch border is a former school building where thick curtains block out the sunlight.

Inside in glass cabinets are stored thousands of butterflies, their wings bleached by time, along with exotic fist-sized beetles and dragonflies, brought back from around the world by amateur collectors.

Insects on display at the Amateur Entomology Society. Photo: DPA

Treasure trove

Traditionally “entomology was mainly about drying and collecting rare specimens,” says the society's president Martin Sorg, wearing John Lennon-style glasses, a multi-pocket jacket and sandals.

He and an army of volunteers have over the years gathered as many as 80 million insects that are now floating in countless ethanol bottles.

Each bottle contains the amount caught by a single insect trap over a set period, and each box represents a collection of such catches over nearly three decades.

“Since 1982, the traps we manufacture ourselves have been standardized and controlled, all of the same size and the same material, and they are collected at the same rate in 63 locations that are still identical,” explains Sorg.

The result is a treasure trove of quantitative data that dwarfs that of any funded university project, he says.

But if he is visibly proud of the society's research, the outcome terrifies him: in the test period, the total biomass of flying insects here has plummeted by 76 percent.

Quaint Sunday hobby

To demonstrate the rapid decline, a lab technician holds up two bottles: one from 1994 contains 1,400 grammes of trapped insects, the newest one just 300 grammes.

“We only became aware of the seriousness of this decline in 2011, and every year since then we have seen it get worse,” says Sorg, the man who sounded the alarm.

At the time, the news didn't make major waves outside ecological circles.

Concern about biodiversity loss focused mostly on large charismatic mammal species, and environmental monitoring such as that in Krefeld was considered a quaint Sunday hobby, largely ignored by the scientific community.

Also in 2011, just across the Dutch border, ecology professor Hans de Kroon was working on the decline of birds in the region.

He hypothesised that the birds suffered from a shortage of food, especially insects, but had no data to prove it.

“Then our German colleagues from Krefeld got in touch and said, 'we have the data, we've witnessed a strong decline, we are very concerned, could you analyse the data?'.

“That's how it all started.”

'Point of no return'

In the search for the cause, the landscape around Krefeld provides some clues.

In the distance, industrial chimneys billow smoke.

On one side of the road lies a protected nature reserve. On the other, a sugar beet field is being sprayed with pesticides by an agricultural machine.

“You see, protected reserves are not so protected,” says Sorg.

Across the border, Kroon says, “we must realise that here in western Europe our nature is getting smaller, the agriculture fields are very hostile to insects. There is no food, they get poisoned.

“And nature areas are also more and more isolated. Insects can't move from one place to another, it's too far away.”

Members of the association collect insects in October 2017. Photo: DPA

Although the exact cause for the die-off is not yet clear, he says, “the cause is anthropogenic, there's no doubt about it.

“It is our greatest fear that a point of no return will be reached, which will lead to a permanent loss of diversity.”

'Path of extinction'

The Krefeld research played a central role in a meta-study published by Francisco Sanchez-Bayo and Kris Wyckhuys from the Australian universities of Sydney and Queensland.

In February, they published the first synthesis of 73 studies on entomological fauna around the world over the past 40 years, listing places from Costa Rica to southern France.

They calculated that over 40 percent of insect species are threatened with extinction, and each year about one percent is added to the list.

This is equivalent, they noted, to “the most massive extinction episode” since the dinosaurs disappeared.

The main drivers appeared to be habitat loss and land conversion to intensive agriculture and urbanization, followed by pollution, mainly from pesticides and fertilizers, invasive species and climate change.

“The conclusion is clear,” they wrote. “Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades.”

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CLIMATE CHANGE

UPDATE: Greta Thunberg joins German climate strikes before vote ‘of a century’

Tens of thousands of climate activists including Greta Thunberg descended on German cities Friday ahead of the weekend general election to crank up the pressure on the candidates to succeed Angela Merkel.

UPDATE: Greta Thunberg joins German climate strikes before vote 'of a century'
Greta Thunberg and other climate activists in Berlin on Friday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Speaking at a rally in front of the Reichstag parliament building in the run-up to Sunday’s poll, Thunberg told cheering Fridays for Future youth supporters that they needed to hold Germany’s political leaders to account past election day.

“It is clearer than ever that no political party is doing close to enough… not even their proposed commitments are close to being in line with what would be needed to fulfil the Paris Agreement,” on curbing climate change, she said.

“Yes, we must vote, you must vote, but remember that voting only will not be enough. We must keep going into the streets.”

As Germany’s top parties hold final rallies ahead of Sunday’s vote, the Fridays for Future youth marches claim the political class has let down the younger generation.

“The political parties haven’t taken the climate catastrophe seriously enough,” Luisa Neubauer, who runs the group’s German chapter, said.

She said Germany, as one of the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases, had an outsize responsibility to set an example, with time running out to reverse destructive trends.

“That is why we are calling this the election of a century,” she said.

The race has boiled down to a two-way contest between Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, the moderate finance minister, and Armin Laschet from Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats.

Polls give Scholz a small lead of about 26 percent over Laschet at around 22 percent, with the candidate from the ecologist Greens, Annalena Baerbock, trailing in the mid-teens.

Despite the urgency of the climate issue for a majority of Germans, particularly in the aftermath of deadly floods in the west of the country in July, this has failed to translate into strong support for the relatively inexperienced Baerbock.

She told Die Welt newspaper that she hoped Friday’s rally would give her party “tailwinds” heading into the vote. “The next government has to be a climate government – that will only work with a strong Green party.”   

More than 400 “climate strikes” are planned across Germany, with the Swedish Thunberg, who inspired the movement, expected to speak outside the Reichstag parliament building.

Thousands gathered on the lawn there from late morning bearing signs reading “Climate now, homework later”, “It’s our future” and simply “Vote”.

“Climate is an important issue and if this continues things are going to get worse and worse,” 14-year-old pupil Louise Herr told AFP.

Gathering under the banners “We are young and need the world!” and “Everything for the climate”, the activists are arguing that “climate crisis is this century’s biggest problem”.

READ ALSO: Climate change made German floods ‘more likely and more intense’

 ‘Unfair burden’

The activists will be part of a global climate strike in more than 1,000 communities around the world, Fridays for Future said.

Their central demand is to limit the warming of the Earth to maximum 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) as laid out in the 2015 Paris climate accord.

The Paris agreement set a goal of reducing global warming by two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels with an aspiration to go further and cap the rise to 1.5 Celsius.

Despite Merkel’s vocal support of climate protection measures, Germany has repeatedly failed in recent years to meet its emission reduction targets under the pact.

In a landmark ruling in April, Germany’s constitutional court found the government’s plans to curb CO2 emissions “insufficient” to meet the targets of the Paris agreement and placed an “unfair burden” on future generations.

The Fridays for Future movement launched global school strikes more than two years ago arguing that time was running out to stop irreversible damage from the warming of the planet.


Demonstrators take to the streets in Berlin to call for urgent climate action. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Luca Bruno

In September 2019, it drew huge crowds in cities and towns around the world including 1.4 million protesters in Germany, according to organisers.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic put the brakes on its weekly rallies but the election campaign in Europe’s top economy has revitalised the
movement.

“The climate crisis cannot be solved through party politics alone,” Thunberg told reporters ahead of her appearance in Berlin.

“We can’t just vote for change, we also have to be active democratic citizens and go out on the streets and demand action.”

READ ALSO:

Greens as junior partner?

Around 60.4 million Germans are called to the polls on Sunday and most voters cite climate protection among their top priorities.

All three leading parties have said they aim to implement a climate protection agenda if elected, with the Greens presenting the most ambitious package of measures.

However the Fridays for Future activists have said even the Greens’ official programme falls short of what is needed to stick to the 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise.

The Greens want to end coal energy use by 2030 instead of the current 2038. They also want the production of combustion engine cars to end from the same year.

While the party is expected to fall far short of its ambition to win the election Sunday and place Baerbock in the chancellery, polls indicate it has a good chance of joining a ruling coalition as a junior partner under Scholz or Laschet.

By Deborah Cole

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