When you next make a cup of tea, I bet the last thing on your mind is how intimately linked it is to the insect world. Without our insect friends there would be no pollination of tea crops, no rich variety of blends to taste, and the end for our celebrated cream teas. A world without insects would be a world without tea; most offices would grind to a caffeine-deprived halt, the nation’s productivity would plummet, and our social world would implode. But this is the least of our concerns. A world without insects would be so much more worrying…
At any time it is estimated that there are some 10 quintillion individual insects alive. If you want to picture what this looks like, it’s a lot of zeros 10,000,000,000,000,000,000. And all the while that vast number is pollinating our crops, enriching and aerating our soils, and decomposing our waste. So what would happen if all of this actually stopped tomorrow – would we be celebrating the end to all insect-borne diseases, or rushing headlong into ecological Armageddon?
Around 80% of the world’s plant life is made up of flowering plants; that means they need to have pollen transferred from the male to female parts within a flower. Some of this is done by the wind, birds or mammals, but the vast majority is carried out by insects - bees, beetles and butterflies. Without pollinators, most plants as we know them would disappear. Okay, the non-insect pollinating plants would eventually take over, the conifers and ferns, but this would fundamentally change the ecology of much of the planet. And what about the food crops that form up to 90 percent of the human diet – rice, wheat, fruit, vegetables – or animal feed for our meat staples such as cows, pigs and chickens? These would all be lost without insect pollination, creating a domino effect on our food chain and major collapse of our ecosystems.
If we managed to overcome the loss of flowering plants and shortage of food, what about the problem of waste? Along with fungi and bacteria, insects are the major decomposers of organic material; that’s carcasses, dung, feathers, hair, fallen leaves or rotten wood. Can you imagine an environment with mountains of stinking waste outgrowing the speed at which it decomposes? Nutrients would stop being returned to our soils, harmful substances would not be broken down and we would be left drowning in decaying matter.
Oh, and if we managed to escape the pile-up of detritus on land, the nutrient run off into our oceans and lakes would trigger huge algal blooms, starving the water of oxygen and threatening our marine and freshwater life. It’s a pretty bleak thought. The truth is that most insects could live happily without us but we are helpless without them.
Fortunately, we are waking up to this fact and starting to take action to stop insect declines.
The problems are macro-ones - climate change, habitat loss, pesticide use – and won’t be resolved overnight. But the fundamental problem is cultural, and recognising that insects are a litmus test for the state of the planet is a major step forward. So let’s ensure our planning system creates more butterfly habitat than it damages, our agriculture restores bee populations through new incentives, and our land management increases the diversity of beetles by planting more trees - we’ll be acting in the best interests of our own health and wealth too. It’s time to put the kettle on and salute the less charismatic microfauna, the ones that really run the planet.
HuffPost UK Tech has launched HuffPost-Apocalypse, a project that aims to investigate what an apocalypse would mean for humanity, how we can best delay the end of the world, what the world will look like after we’re gone and what the best viable options for survival will be for anyone left. Join in the conversation with #HuffPostApocalypse on Twitter. To read more from the series, visit our dedicated page.