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Project Aims to Map What We Do and Don't Know About the 'Insect Apocalypse'

Krzysztof Niewolny / unsplash

Last November, the New York Times magazine made an ominous declaration: The Insect Apocalypse is Here. The story warned that insects, globally, could face extinction this century. And that would have far-reaching ramifications for other life on Earth, including us. But that’s not the end of the story.

A few months later, the Atlantic took a stab at the insect story, but their headline ended up with a question mark at the end: Is the Insect Apocalypse Really Upon Us? And then Gizmodo weighed in with this winner of a headline: Bug Scientists Squash ‘Insect Apocalypse’ Paper.

In short, there's been a lot of media attention focused on the plight of bugs lately, and there seems to be a lot of debate about their status.

The newly launched EntoGEM project aims to put that debate to rest by comprehensively mapping what we do and, perhaps even more importantly, don’t know about the status of insects.

David Wagner, an entomologist and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at University of Connecticut, says that it’s a hard question to answer, in part because there are so many insects.

“We're talking about millions of species,” Wagner said. “It's hard pegging data to those individual lineages or taxa or species.”

But Wagner says there another challenge, and that’s the fact that insects tend to go through boom-and-bust cycles, with good years and bad years. That makes it hard to distinguish long-term trends in the numbers of any given population or species.

“We can go out and we can measure how many grizzly bears we have, or how many cardinals are out there, and that's probably going to be more or less constant from year to year and we'll see steady declines or increases what have you,” Wagner explained. “With insects, you could collect that census data 10 years in a row and not really know if they were increasing or declining.”

And then there’s the fact that even if we had robust, long-term data about millions of insect species, we would need some way to pull all of that information together into a big picture. That’s where EntoGEM comes in.

“Systematic mapping is a technique to find all of the studies - published and unpublished - on a topic, and then describe them by their characteristics which we can use to identify knowledge clusters and knowledge gaps,” explained U Conn graduate student Eliza Grames. “So we're using that to identify all of these studies out there on insect populations and biodiversity trends so that we can get a sense of where we need to prioritize research.”

EntoGEM is a community-driven project, and Grames says the community can be as broad as people want it to be. Any concerned individual can suggest studies that should be included, and – with a little training – help make decisions about which studies are appropriate. \

“That includes professional entomologists, conservation biologists, grad students, and even people from nature centers, people who organize BioBlitzes, or just insect enthusiasts,” Grames said. “We've got it set up so that whenever we're finding and screening articles, multiple people will make decisions on the same article so that we can be pretty confident that we've made the correct decision.”

The screening process is due to begin in August, and Grames says they hope to have their database of studies complete by the end of this year. Then comes the process of analyzing all the data.

But Wagner says we don’t have to wait for that final analysis to start working on reversing the decline of insects.

“We don't know the magnitude, we don't know the rate. We don't exactly know where insects are declining, and what lineages. There’s a lot of questions left,” Wagner said. “But we do know they are in decline, and we probably know enough now that we can we can act and start making some important conservation decisions.”

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Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.