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How scientists are trying to save the insects that make life possible

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Insects often get a bad rap - like mosquitoes, roaches and flies - even if there are ones that people seem to enjoy like butterflies and lightning bugs. There are more than a million insect species on the planet, and entomologists say some populations seem to be declining at alarming rates. Now scientists are trying to determine what needs to be done to save these tiny creatures that prop up life on Earth. Harvest Public Media's Teresa Homsi reports.

TERESA HOMSI, BYLINE: It's pretty rural just an hour south of Detroit. That's where Tom Wassmer is crouched down on a farm in a pasture in Adrian, Mich., staring intently at some insects in cow manure.

TOM WASSMER: See? That's tiny. That's one that becomes very numerous later in the year.

HOMSI: Wassmer is a biology professor at Siena Heights University. And he's pointing at a nondescript dung beetle no bigger than a grain of rice, with a shiny black head and a matte brown body. Wassmer says the beetles help turn useless poop into nutrients, improving soil quality and preventing diseases. Without them, he says, dung could sit on the ground surface for years.

WASSMER: And it would pile up. You would probably see no grass anymore.

HOMSI: This valuable but often unrecognized service saves the U.S. cattle industry an estimated $380 million a year. But Wassmer says he's concerned to see how vulnerable the beetles are to threats. Reports detail staggering declines of all sorts of insects, even those thought to be abundant, while other studies suggest insect losses may be exaggerated. Even so, the data has now caught the attention of the National Academy of Sciences, which plans to launch a study on insect populations next year. Robin Schoen, the head of the academy's board on agriculture, says the research would help inform solutions that can slow or reverse losses.

ROBIN SCHOEN: It is very important to understand what's happening and that we need to get a handle on this sooner rather than later.

HOMSI: Insects make up around 80% of all animal life. Christie Bahlai, a computational ecologist at Kent State University, says the metrics used to quantify population changes are extra tricky with insects.

CHRISTIE BAHLAI: Percent decline kind of implies stable population, and insects are really prone to boom and bust. What I tend to do is use sort of a long-time average, but you can also critique that, too.

HOMSI: The drivers of declines are extensive. Climate change, habitat loss, light pollution and the widespread use of pesticides have made a lot of our environment unwelcoming to insects. And people don't exactly love bugs.

ZACH SHUMM: The attitude towards a lot of insects is, here's this insect I found. How do I exterminate it - things of that nature.

HOMSI: Zach Shumm is an insect diagnostician at Iowa State University. He says very few species are actually problematic.

SHUMM: They're kind of like the foundational organisms on the planet, you know? Without insects - same as if I said, without soil and microorganisms in soil - humans don't really exist in the long run.

HOMSI: He says insects feed birds and fish, pollinate crops. And insect predators like wasps regulate species that can be destructive to farms. And then there are the decomposers, like the dung beetles on Rebecca Deline’s farm. Deline says she didn't think much about dung beetles before now, but she's never viewed insects as pests.

REBECCA DELINE: Everything has a purpose. Without them, we would be lost.

HOMSI: While the numbers of declining insects are troubling, researchers say insects can be resilient. They point to a successful short-term recovery of the once-endangered monarch butterfly as an example. It bounced back when its habitat was protected. They're hoping the same can be true for other insects on the decline. For NPR News, I'm Teresa Homsi in Adrian, Mich.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Teresa Homsi
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