Where are the bugs this summer? Experts say fewer insects worldwide could create problems we can’t swat away

MADISON, Wis. — While monarch butterflies and bees have been making headlines, the world is losing more bugs of all kinds to habitat loss, invasive species, pesticide use, and more human causes. 

You may have noticed that, for example, if you’re slapping more mosquitos away lately.  

“I have noticed that I haven’t been bitten like I have not had as many mosquito bites this year,” Lisa Briggs, a garden coach from The Bruce Company, said.  

That may seem like a relief over the summer, but hate to clip your wings — “while a lot of people think that’s a great thing, it probably isn’t,” UW Professor Daniel Young said.  

While the pesky bloodsuckers carry some disease, the entomologist said, their contributions, like those of other insects, tend to be overlooked.

“We consider bad as a function of us, right? So if it affects us personally, if it affects our cropping systems? Bad,” he said.   

Mosquito larvae are important to aquatic food chains, and they are “filter feeders, so they are getting rid of a lot of the stuff that’s in the water,” he said.

Worldwide, all kinds of insects have been on a steep decline. 

“Depending on the study over the last 20 years or so, most of the studies that have looked at insect biomass have reported anywhere from… about a 40 to about a 75% loss,” said Young. 

“That hits us right in the grocery store.”  

It’s not just mosquitoes we can notice in Wisconsin, but also dragonflies, deerflies, horseflies, black flies, stable flies, and of course – pollinators. 

“There would be bees and beetles and wasps all over those flowers, and now I may see one or two things,” the professor said. “A lot of people would think like pollination where that hits us right in the grocery store.”  

RELATED: ‘Monarchs are in big trouble’: Butterflies being listed endangered internationally a call to action for local conservation, expert says  

According to Briggs, that could come back to bite us.  

“I want to say around 60% of our food requires pollination,” she said. “And so that is super important when you think about the fact that so much of the human diet depends on flowering, those flowers being pollinated so that they can produce seed for things like apples or peaches or that kind of thing.”  

“It could have a pretty devastating effect,” Briggs said. 

Can you save enough to make a difference in the long term?”   

According to Professor Young, we may be more in the “salvage” than the “save” stage when it comes to widespread solutions.  

“You’re about 100 years too late,” he said, “the question can’t be ‘can you save it?’ because you can’t, it’s already unsaved. The question is ‘can you save enough of it to make a difference in the long term?’”

Habitat loss is a huge factor, and some efforts have been made — but Young said urban and agricultural development has eliminated so much habitat that restored areas like Wisconsin prairies are often too isolated.  

“If they’re sitting out there all by themselves surrounded by acres and acres and acres of corn — that’s good that’s done, but it really doesn’t help establish that connectivity that’s so important for populations to have genetically,” he said.  

“We’ve lost a lot of corridors that groups of species use to find one another, mating, and then populations get smaller and can’t maintain their genetic diversity in those situations,” Young said.  

He said there are prairie seed mixes people can buy and plant to encourage native pollinators to visit the area and diversify more urban or residential areas.  

Another problem zapping the bug populations is insecticide use. 

That’s something Briggs said gardeners can fix by being more thoughtful about what bug spray they use and which species are in the line of fire.  

“(It’s) how to use a pea shooter instead of a bazooka,” she said, “because most insecticides are broad spectrum, so they’re going to kill anything.”  

Perhaps most important is getting people to understand the contributions insects make to the environment and how important it is they don’t buzz off.  

“When you go up to Devil’s Lake, right, you want to experience the lake, the trees — but you don’t want bugs bothering you — well, then you don’t have an ecosystem,” Young said.  

“So, understanding that insects are an integral part of nature if you want to go out and enjoy nature understand that you’re out in their territory as well,” he said.