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A decline in flying bugs sounds good for humans, but it's bad for the environment


Summertime is fast approaching. That means more bugs. But a new study from the United Kingdom shows a dramatic decline in the number of flying insects - 60% since 2004. While fewer buzzing, biting bugs may appeal to some people, it could spell environmental disaster in the future. Matt Shardlow is the CEO of BugLife, a conservation group which conducted the study. He joins us now.

Thanks for being with us, Mr. Shardlow.

MATT SHARDLOW: Hello. Thanks for having me very much.

SIMON: Please help us understand that number and the perspective - 60% drop over 17 years.

SHARDLOW: I mean, it's 60% of our wildlife effectively because invertebrates are absolutely critical to ecosystem health. They support our wildflowers through pollination, fertilize the soil through burying dung and other matter into the ground. They keep our rivers clean. And they provide the food to all the other animals that we see in the countryside. So losing 60% of them in just 17 years is a pretty big crisis.

SIMON: And what are some of the reasons for why it may have happened?

SHARDLOW: Well, it is bit complicated because we're dealing with thousands of flying insects here. But we think that there's some clear patterns in that data. So we're seeing bigger impacts in the southern parts of the U.K. And that's where the habitats are most fragmented and also where climate change is starting to hit most already.

SIMON: May I ask, how do you get the data? It can't be easy to count flying bugs.

SHARDLOW: Absolutely difficult. What we've done here is built on a scheme that was first piloted by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, actually, in the U.K. in 2004. And they got their members to go out and clean the number plates on their cars, drive a journey, record that journey and then count the numbers of insects that had hit the number plate of the car.

SIMON: Number plates are license plates in the U.K.

SHARDLOW: Yeah, that's right. Yeah. We've updated that a bit. And BugLife, which is the insect conservation charity in the U.K., and Kent Wildlife Trust, which is a local wildlife charity - we have both put together a new app so that it's much simpler. But basically, the principle is the same.

SIMON: What would be necessary to reverse the decline, or is it too late for that?

SHARDLOW: It's never too late. Really what we need is repair to the landscape. So we need connectivity. So what we're promoting and the most cost-effective way to do this is to put stepping stones of wildflower-rich habitat back into the countryside. So you'll create corridors across the landscape where you're restoring the sorts of habitats that those invertebrates need to move. And if we can get them to move again, start so that they can actually adapt and respond to climate change, then they've got a chance of surviving climate change. If we don't adapt our landscapes in this sort of way, then they're in real trouble.

SIMON: Mr. Shardlow, this summer, when some of us feel a bug biting at the back of our neck and begin to...


SIMON: ...Go like that, should we think twice?

SHARDLOW: Well, you're not going to damage the population by doing that. So these aren't the sorts of things that we need to worry about when we're talking about the health of the environment. That is about habitats, maintaining the quality of habitats, getting a better distribution, restoring habitats and also making sure that landscape is safe generally. And that's reducing things like light pollution that we know is impacting on moths and lots of other invertebrate populations, reducing the other pollutions, particularly pesticides. And the neonics, you know, which we've banned over in the EU and the U.K. because they damage bee populations - that is something that in America should be banned tomorrow. It's outrageous that they're still using neonics when we know that they're damaging bee populations.

SIMON: Matt Shardlow is the CEO of BugLife in the U.K. Thank you so much for being with us, sir.

SHARDLOW: Thank you very much.


Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.