Review: "The Insect Crisis", by Oliver Milman

THE INSECT CRISIS: The fall of the small empires that rule the world, by Olivier Milman Anyone who owns a car has collected data on th...


THE INSECT CRISIS: The fall of the small empires that rule the world, by Olivier Milman


Anyone who owns a car has collected data on the decline of insects. Entomologists call it the “windshield effect,” a relatable metric neatly summed up in one question: When was the last time you had to clean bug splatter from your windshield? This ritual was once an inevitable coda for any long drive. Now, we’re much more likely to watch those same landscapes scroll through spotless glass, mile after empty mile.

The trend is more than anecdotal. When environmentalist Anders Pape Møller started systematically driving two Danish roads in 1996 and counting shards of windshields, many people dismissed his project as a lark. Twenty years later, the results showed something deadly serious: collisions with insects had decreased by 80% along the first road and by 97% along the second. Other scientists, using more conventional methods, have reported similar collapses everywhere from Puerto Rican jungles to nature reserves in Germany. News reports called the situation an “insect apocalypse” or even an “insectageddon”. Beyond the headlines, entomologists are frantically trying to figure out what’s going on and how to stop it.

These concerns are at the heart of environmental journalist Oliver Milman’s gripping, sobering and important new book. He, too, goes beyond the headlines, ready to embrace the complexity of the issue in a refreshing way. “It helps,” he writes, “to think of the bug crisis less as a single downward sloping line on a graph and more as a lot of different lines.” While many species are indeed in free fall, some are holding their own, zigzagging or – for pests like bedbugs that thrive alongside humans – are rising. Even more do not appear on the chart at all because no one has ever studied them. Of the estimated 5.5 to 30 million different insect species in the world, barely one million have been identified. Some will likely disappear before we’ve done the least to name them.

The blame for the crisis lies with broad threats to biodiversity such as habitat loss and climate change, as well as insect-specific problems related to light pollution and the widespread use of pesticides. But Milman draws particular attention to how industrial agriculture has turned once diverse rural landscapes into vast monocultures. Lacking hedgerows or even many weeds, modern single-crop farms simply lack the diverse plant life needed to sustain an insect community. As agricultural ecologist Barbara Smith says, “It’s as if the only food available is potato chips. Fries for everyone even if you don’t eat fries.

Milman has an ear for a good quote and a knack for explaining scientific research. He interviews dozens of experts, from beekeepers battling murder hornets in the Pacific Northwest to a biologist tracking the decline of beetles through chemical traces in the feathers of the birds that eat them. There are times when you feel like lingering on a story, but with so much pressing ground to cover, it’s hard to deny the book its rhythm. This omnibus approach also reveals something telling: the surprising number of scientists describing their findings as “alarming” or “frightening.” In other words, the people who know the crisis best aren’t just worried; they are afraid.

The unchecked decline of insects threatens massive crop failures, collapsing food webs, bird extinction and more. But as ecologist Roel van Klink observes, “Insect populations are like wooden logs that are pushed underwater.” Take the pressure off and they’re back up again, something Milman glimpses at the Knepp estate in Sussex, where restored, pesticide-free pastures and woodlands are buzzing with so much life they’ve become a tourist attraction. “If you squint a bit,” writes Milman, “responding to the insect crisis can be said to be surprisingly simple.” Doing things to help insects may not be necessary if we stop doing things that hurt them.


Thor Hanson is an author and biologist whose recent books include “Buzz” and “Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid”.


THE INSECT CRISIS: The fall of the small empires that rule the world, by Olivier Milman | Norton | 220 pages | $27.95

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Newsrust - US Top News: Review: "The Insect Crisis", by Oliver Milman
Review: "The Insect Crisis", by Oliver Milman
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