While the plight of mammals and birds commands the world's attention, insects are quietly but rapidly disappearing. Michael McCarthy explains why their loss is bad news for the planet
It is a realisation that may be dawning at last: the importance of the little things that rule the world. The great American biologist, E O Wilson, said insects were world-rulers, but although they play a central role in maintaining ecosystems and the whole web of life, most insects have long been viewed with distaste or even revulsion as creepie-crawlies (apart from butterflies, which have been viewed as something akin to honorary mini-birds).
But the recent alarms in Britain, Europe and America about the fate of the honey bee – colonies have been crashing in increasing numbers – have started to open people's eyes to insects' importance in a more general way, says Matt Shardlow, director of Buglife, the Invertebrate Conservation Trust.
But it is only the beginning of an understanding, he says, and much more is needed if we are to take the action necessary to preserve our populations of insects and other invertebrates, the creatures without backbones which make up the majority of animal life, including snails, worms and spiders (spiders being arachnids, not insects).
The population declines among invertebrates in general and insects in particular are now greater than among any other group of living things, greater than declines in mammals, birds and plants. Yet although people get excited about endangered pandas, or eagles, or orchids, endangered insects generally remain below the level of their perception, Mr Shardlow says.