Flying Insects in Trouble: Vast Declines in North America


This has been a very sad time for pollinators. The rusty patched bumblebee (once found in this area) became the first bee species found in the continental US to be listed under the Endangered Species Act; six more species, all Hawaiian, have also been approved for listing. Last year, Yale University published a study showing dramatic insect declines all over the Northern Hemisphere.

Data was collected during the spring, summer, and fall. It showed that flying insects in the study sites have declined an average 76 percent over the 30-year survey period, with a decline of 82 percent in the summer months. The research was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The windshield test — can you drive without covering your windshield with dead insects? — shows us intuitively that the declines are here. Some species critical to the food web are declining even faster, such as winter moths (which would formerly provide protein for insectivores in winter, when protein was scarce). Insectivorous bird populations have begun to decline, as a group, and scientists are worried about our bat species, which are also valued insect predators. Predators of flying insects, when facing food shortages, are more susceptible to diseases as well.

In the wake of this crisis, many studies have shown that a wide array of pesticides are present in “bee bread” (part of their hives) and the six neonicotinoids (widely popular in chemical management within agriculture, greenhouses and florist providers) can last in the pollen and nectar for as long as 36 months, wiping out several generations of insects from the toxic burden of just one plant.

Bee on leafThere are other reasons for the declines. There are now cities where open fields used to be, and therefore less habitat. But studies show that insects can thrive within cities as long as they have their host and nectar plants. Unfortunately, they have not thrived alongside the new style of agriculture, which relies both on “Roundup Ready” seeds (a GMO product that resists herbicides), and drenching the fields with Round-Up (Active Ingredient: Glyphosate) and other herbicides to rid the area of weeds. Of course, the “weeds” are native plants that are critical to various species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), Hymenoptera (bee species) and other flying insects. Of these, the host plants are the most critical as there will be no adult insects if the larva are not nourished.

An abundance and diversity of nectar species is also needed. Native plants can do the job. In our area, asters, goldenrod species, blue vervain, lupine, joe pye weed, sunflower, milkweed species, pussy willow, NJ Tea and rudbeckia are all beneficial.

A great list of plants to grow that benefit pollinators is published by Xerces, the leading authority in invertebrate conservation in the United States. Another helpful guide is provided by the New York Botanical Gardens, a leading botanical resource with a wealth of information.

When we take simple measures such as buying untreated seeds for planting, buying organic plants for our gardens, supporting organic agriculture, and creating wildflower bounty where lawns used to be, we are taking meaningful steps against insect extinction. Beyond just learning to live with dandelions, we can celebrate the beauty of the plants that our pollinators need to live. We can arrange conservation easements on any rural acreage. We can encourage our county roads departments to plant native seeds; we can even make “seed bombs” from mud/compost and pollinator-friendly untreated seeds to throw into empty lots, as some urban activists have learned to do. Recently, I spoke to a representative of a local solar power company who is very proud of planting pollinator-friendly native plants around their solar panels in community installations. Teachers are increasingly including pollinator gardening in their curricula.

All these measures help us feel our kinship with the food web. Now let’s resolve to request the good open land policies from our political leaders that will give both people and our flying insect neighbors some hope.

Additional Resources:

Yale Environment 360, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies;
Three Decade Study shows Drastic Decline in Insect Populations.

Pollinator Conservation Resources, NE Region. (This is a wonderful guide to what plants to plant in this region to help pollinators!)

Environment section of the Independent (UK)

Spring 2017 article from on pesticides/bees

Endangered list on

Source of photos: Northeast Pollinator Plants

Grace Nichols has been a member of the Honest Weight Food Co-op since 2002. She has been a staff member, member-owner and a consumer at different times throughout the years. She is looking forward to seeing Co-op members continue to come together to protect Earth – from which all our precious food originates.