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The Insect Effect: Insect Decline and the Future of Our Planet

Both the number and diversity of insects are declining around the globe due to habitat loss, pollution and climate change. Without widespread action, many of these important creatures face extinction within the next few decades

By Thompson Earth Systems Institute

With an estimated 5.5 million species, insects are the most diverse group of animals on the planet. More than one million have been named by scientists — and many more have yet to be discovered. In fact, insects account for 80% of animal life on Earth.

Since many insects have yet to even be discovered, there may be benefits we don’t even know about yet.

While many insects can seem like pests, they provide a wide range of services to other plants and animals in our environment. In fact, a diverse range of insect species is critical to the survival of most life on Earth, including bats, birds, freshwater fishes and even humans! Along with plants, insects are at the foundation of the food web, and most of the plants and animals we eat rely on insects for pollination or food. For example, 96% of songbirds feed insects to their young.


If a dollar value was put on the services insects provide, this would equal roughly $70 billion in the U.S. alone. These services include:


  • Pollinating food crops and natural habitat: According to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, roughly 35% of the world’s food crops depend on pollinators to reproduce. That means you can thank a pollinator for about one of every three bites of food you eat. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 100,000 different animal species play roles in pollinating the 250,000 kinds of flowering plants on Earth, with insects like bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, flies and beetles being the most common. Additionally, some insects are natural predators to pests that may harm food crops.

  • Removing waste: Some insects are known as decomposers, meaning they break down dead materials like fallen leaves and animal carcasses and turn them into simpler materials, making nutrients available to primary producers like plants and algae. In other words, decomposers are nature’s own recycling system.


  • Controlling pests: Only a very small fraction of insects in the world are considered by humans to be pests, meaning they cause harm to people, plants, animals and buildings. While insect pest control costs the U.S. economy billions of dollars annually, this number would be much higher if it weren’t for the countless beneficial insects that serve as natural predators to pest species, like fire ants and mosquitoes. Additionally, some parasitic insects like small wasps lay their eggs inside pest species, driving their population down. To adequately control pests, we need beneficial insects.


  • Providing nutrition for wildlife: Insects are the primary menu item for many reptiles, birds and amphibians. If insect populations continue to decline, some food webs might collapse entirely.

We also depend on insects for silk, dyes, honey and medical and genetic research. But, aside from the services insects provide, they are simply fascinating animals that spark curiosity in humans, especially children. These incredible creatures exhibit many extraordinary behaviors that are unthinkable in other forms of life and have inspired technology that we use today, like drones! Take some time to really observe the insects in your backyard, what behaviors do you see that captivate you?


Since many insects have yet to even be discovered, there may be benefits we don’t even know about yet.

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