Professor David Kleijn, ecologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, talks about the change in people’s feelings towards insects. The relationship has traditionally been anything but pleasant, but Prof. Kleijn notes that things are improving.
“When I speak to people in the public about insects, they are generally positive and think insects are important,” he said.
One catalyst he notes is the increase in reports of catastrophic declines in insect populations, tracing the tipping point back to a landmark 2017 study conducted by Dr. Caspar Hallmann, an ecologist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
The estimate of a shocking decrease of more than three quarters of the flying insects in German nature reserves over the past three decades made headlines and seemed to spark the public imagination through relatable images in media reports such as the “windshield phenomenon”, with far fewer insects having over the course of the year the decades windshields hit.
A host of other studies followed, adding to the body of evidence, including research into the decline in insects killed on windshields.
But even before that, public perception had changed due to the increasing recognition of essential functions of insects, from pollination to the breakdown of waste.
Prof. Kleijn notes the change since research into pollinators began two decades ago: “Back then, nobody was interested in these bees and everyone was interested in birds and plants; now it’s the other way around. ‘
However, Prof. Kleijn says that this better understanding must lead to a wider public awareness of how everyday activities can affect biodiversity.
He points out the increasing number of paved gardens and pristine roadsides, which he believes avoid biodiversity in the Netherlands. “People are worried about insects and now they like insects, but they are still turning their gardens into stone deserts and failing to see the context.”
Prof. Kleijn is leading a comprehensive EU-wide project called SHOWCASE, which aims to better communicate the benefits of insect biodiversity by connecting with networks of farmers and citizens, science communication specialists and nature conservation NGOs.
The emphasis is on targeting the agricultural sector, which is seen as a major threat to biodiversity from the intensification of agriculture and key to wider public acceptance given the vast amount of land and role at the heart of the food industry.
Activities include speaking at farmer collective meetings, hosting webinars and using social media channels, and actively engaging farmers and the public in studying biodiversity through methods such as counting butterflies and bees on farmland as well a voting contest favorite side of the road.
Part of SHOWCASE will investigate whether people who are involved in biodiversity monitoring develop an increased affinity for nature. “Everyone assumes that exposure to biodiversity makes you more positive about it. However, this still has to be tested, ”said Prof. Kleijn.
The team will assess whether farmers’ attitudes change in Spain, Sweden and the UK when they use a modified version of the Vlindermee app developed by Dutch Butterfly Conservation to track butterfly species. “We use them as an umbrella type,” added Prof. Kleijn. “If (users) are interested in these, they will likely appreciate other species as well.”
He stressed that new ways of communicating about biodiversity are needed that also take into account feedback on people’s needs, with scientists focusing on long-term environmental outcomes that are often at odds with farmers’ pursuit of profit.
“We’re starting to think about the stories in order to get in touch with different stakeholders,” said Prof. Kleijn. “Should we mainly talk about money or the beauty of nature? And how does it differ between countries? ‘
One strategy is not to start from the point of view of how useful different insects are for people, says Prof. Kleijn, “but how beautiful they are, how fascinating they are and really tell their stories” in order to get people interested before they deal with the benefits they bring – an approach his team recently used to communicate the reappearance of the carder bee with brown ribbons (Bombus humilis) in the southern Netherlands.
SHOWCASE hopes to back this up by uncovering win-win scenarios that demonstrate that agricultural approaches to improving biodiversity result in equal or better material gains for farmers while benefiting ecosystems.
Prof. Kleijn points to an example already discovered by other researchers that showed no adverse effects on yield over time when farmland at the edge of fields was replaced by wildlife habitat.
One of his studies not only showed a similar return on investment in leeks from managing wild pollinators versus focusing on crop quality, but also that yields increased with greater biodiversity, even if there were dozens already.
“It was an interesting finding and completely surprising to me,” said Prof. Kleijn. “We’re not talking about the difference between two and four species because then I have an understanding of what they might do.” This underscores the importance of human involvement in conservation, as there may be all sorts of as yet unknown effects of additional biodiversity.
Prof. Kleijn emphasizes, however, that communication on biodiversity is ultimately about finding ways to convey more than just direct returns on money. The message has to be: “If you are concerned about the environment you leave with your children and grandchildren, the health of your neighbors, and if you really want to make a product that you are proud of, this is the way to go. ‘
Dr. Pedro Cardoso, an ecologist at the University of Helsinki in Finland, agrees that attitudes towards insects and other invertebrates have improved, and the recent influx of studies “has set the alarm bells” – even if people are still frequently dealing with pests or disease link vectors.
“The public is more aware of the importance of maintaining healthy populations of everything, not just the large animals,” he said. This is a change from a study he co-authored a decade ago that found a lack of public knowledge about the services provided by invertebrates among seven barriers to their protection.
“Something is changing even within scientists,” said Dr. Cardoso. “Most researchers, even in conservation biology, realize that there are insects.”
He pointed to increased activity in public communication, including through museum exhibitions around the world and the increase in civic science activities such as “Bioblitzes”, which are intended to provide a snapshot of the species in a particular area.
In his own BIODIV ISLAND-CONT project, which focused on similarly vicious spiders rather than insects, elementary school children came to the Finnish Natural History Museum at the university, where Dr. Cardoso is curator to learn more about spiders and the spiders project.
The shift in attitudes towards invertebrates was also reflected in the launch of the first EU initiative on wild pollinators in 2018 to combat their decline. “It’s only a small part of what’s important, but it’s a start,” said Dr. Cardoso.
At the same time, funding for invertebrates stays “day and night” compared to the much higher amounts for vertebrates and it could take some time to filter through, he said. A recent study found a six-fold difference in investments between animal-related projects under the EU Life Program between 1992 and 2018, a 468-fold increase per vertebrate species.
Dr. Cardoso doesn’t ask for specific quotas, but says the huge gap that exists needs to be addressed, while it would be interesting to see a full study of how attitudes have changed in different countries.
“We also need to see the ban on the use of insects to scare and disgust candidates and audiences on reality TV shows.”
Professor Simon Leather, Harper Adams University, UK
Professor Simon Leather, an entomologist at Harper Adams University in Newport, UK, said he feared the world is still a long way from understanding the importance of insect protection.
“There is a growing dynamic, but we need to invest more,” he said. “Funding and media attention, including popular television programs, is still heavily focused on vertebrates – especially mammals, which devour a significant portion of research and charity funding,” he said.
In addition, Prof. Leather refers to the overemphasis on language in the media such as “killer bees” and “murder hornets”. “We also need to see the ban on the use of insects to scare and disgust candidates and audiences on reality TV shows,” he added.
He said that much more training in entomological skills as well as ecology is needed in secondary schools in universities as well.
In the meantime, Dr. Hallmann, who co-authored the 2017 study, encourages that public engagement has improved and people have started to really understand the importance of insects, but that this needs to go much further.
“I think people should be much more aware that no ecosystem can exist without insects and that this goes well beyond what we have identified as ‘ecosystem services’,” he said.
The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you enjoyed this article, you can share it on social media too.