Is it time to ditch the fly swatter and bug spray?
Entomological doomsayer extraordinaire Dave Goulson says so. Goulson is the go-to expert for the New York Times , the Guardian , the Financial Times , et al., on the purported disappearance of the world's insect populations. And he's out with a new book warning us that we have one last chance to escape ecological Armageddon.
In Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse, Goulson laments mankind's "chemical onslaught on nature." He says it's a crime "akin to genocide." And unless we immediately follow his prescriptive advice — banning modern pesticides but not highly toxic organic pesticides, eating less meat, and generally adopting the radical environmental movement's agenda — we are all doomed.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, but facts and evidence are not Goulson's strong point. He rose to international prominence a decade ago as one of the loudest voices warning us about collapsing honeybee populations. This was dubbed at the time the "Bee-pocalypse." Goulson also made his name pressing for the European Union's 2013 ban on the "neonic" pesticides that environmentalists claimed were responsible for the bee genocide.
The Bee-pocalypse was utter fiction . Honeybee populations have been rising in the EU, North America, and every habitable continent on the planet since neonics were first commercialized in the mid-1990s. A year later, we learned that Goulson was a central player in the "BeeGate Scandal ," in which activist scientists conspired to precook the conclusions of their studies to create a "stronger scientific basis" for the EU ban.
Subsequently, Goulson has attached himself to one supposed apocalypse after another: wild bees, bumblebees, birds. He was co-author of a 2017 study finding a dramatic 76% decline in the biomass of flying insects in German nature reserves over 27 years. It's largely this study that provides the flimsy basis for Goulson's latest apocalyptic claims. Among other deficiencies, the researchers often failed to sample the same sites in comparison years, making the findings all but meaningless. They also used traps that only captured insects when they were flying — activity that is highly variable depending on temperature.
Even apart from such fatal flaws, it is absurd to assume that this tiny geographic area of Germany, one of the most densely populated landscapes in the world, is representative of the planet. To support his global decline thesis, Goulson is forced to rely heavily on an even worse study, a 2019 meta-analysis by Francisco Sanchez-Bayo and Kris Wyckhuys that was widely criticized by the scientific community for its numerous flaws and transparent bias (the authors only included studies found with a keyword search of "decline," automatically excluding studies showing stable or rising populations).
The only other global insect study yet undertaken, by Roel van Klink, did indeed find declines, but not at the catastrophic rate claimed by Goulson. Although Goulson cites the study, he fails to mention key findings that blow a gaping hole in his case against modern agriculture and pesticides — namely, that insect populations stopped declining in the United States 20 years ago and are actually increasing in agricultural areas.
Van Klink's finding of global declines, even if moderate, was the least convincing aspect of his study, given the sparse to nonexistent data for the vast majority of the Earth's surface. The researchers included only a handful of studies for all of Asia, Africa, and Australia and hardly any for the insect-rich equatorial regions, including only one in the Amazon.
Finally, Goulson completely ignored the conclusions of the most thorough and comprehensive wide-area study to date. That being a 2020 analysis led by biologist Matthew Moran of insect population trends in the continental U.S. over four decades. Moran's analysis showed some insects in some areas declined while others increased. In aggregate, insect populations in the U.S. are stable and have been for 40 years. As Moran concludes, "The apparent robustness of U.S. [insect] populations is reassuring."
One more environmental apocalypse bites the dust. Unfortunately, Goulson continues to be cited no matter how many times his predictions fall flat.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Biotechnology. Find Henry on Twitter @henryimiller.