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“Insects have survived the last five mass extinctions our planet has faced; but this time is different”

Dave Goulson (born 30 July 1965)  is Professor of Biology (Evolution, Behaviour and Environment) at the University of Sussex. Specializing in the ecology and conservation of insects, particularly bumblebees, Goulson is the author of several books, including Bumblebees: Their Behaviour and Ecology (2003), Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypses (2021), and more than 200 academic articles. In 2006 he founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, a charity that aims to reverse the decline in the bumblebee population.

Last May, he dedicated a bit of his time to talk with This is My Earth.

Good morning Dave, and thank you for allowing us to talk for a while about your books and research. Can you tell us why did you choose insects?

Good morning This is My Earth. I don’t know. I was drawn to them. I was fascinated by them from an early age; when I was 5, 6, and 7 years old, I collected caterpillars and kept them in jam jars and plastic boxes. I used to collect lots of them, feed them, and turn them into moths and butterflies. I felt it was very cool. I started collecting butterflies, something I’m a bit embarrassed to say today, as it is not an acceptable hobby anymore, but in the late 70s, that was a common thing for kids. 

Did you find them fascinating?

Somehow, all this work I put into on them helped me understand them and increased my interest in their existence. I find insects really interesting, and I’ve never grown out of that kind of childish interest; and I’m very thankful for having managed to build my career around my hobby.

Sometimes You have said that one of your goals is to fight children’s fear of insects. How is it going so far?

(Laughing) There’s It’s a long way to go. Well, you know, most people don’t like insects and rarely think about them. If they encounter them, they are usually frightened of them. And I think even the names we’ve got for insects, like bugs or creepy crawlies, don’t seem very attractive. And I think most people associate insects with diseases, and stings and bites, so when something does buzz near them, they try to kill it, which is very sad from my perspective. 

Why is that so?

Most insects don’t come and plan to sting us; most of them live their lives and do their business. And we need them; they do vital things for us, but they are never appreciated for that. So I have a very long way to go persuading everyone to love insects ー which is a bit optimistic at this point ー but I keep trying, and that’s why I’ve written my books and recorded videos about that subject. 

Do you write your books for people who don’t like insects?

Generally speaking, I think people who read my books are already aware of how essential insects are and probably love them too. Those people who would never be going to buy my books are the ones I want to convince about insects. I still don’t know.

Perhaps because there is a very long distance between insects and humans in evolutionary terms and features, we don’t find an easy way to connect with them rely on them. How far apart are we in biological terms?

Our common ancestors are the same, that’s a fact; we just have to go somewhere in the oceans a long way back in time, something like 500 million years ago. But I would say that regardless of how alien and different they may seem to us, all of the creatures on our planet Earth deserve the right to live, whether they do something useful or not.

Most of them were here before us…

Most of them have been here for millions of years, probably a lot longer than we have. I kind of feel we should be more respectful with the rest of life on our planet; just because we have the power to destroy it, surely that doesn’t give us the moral right to kill other creatures or to decide which ones should get go extinct. 

Why in some of your conferences and lectures you have stated that “insects are a book of biodiversity”?

Insects comprise more than two-thirds of all species that we know of and there are suspected to be many millions more, as there are many species on the planet we have not yet been able to identify. In a sense, our planet is essentially the planet of insects. They have been the most successful, dominant life on the planet. An alien visiting would have described Earth as the planet of insects more than a human planet. Insects outnumber humans by a billion to one. However, we humans are doing our best to change that, as numbers of people are rising and number of insects are rapidly decreasing. 

You have been raising awareness about the rapid extinction of insects at an alarming speed in the last century. How did we get here so fast?

Clearly, nobody was planning to get where we are; at least, nobody with a clear mind would have wanted us to be in this climate-crisis situation. Evidence tells us that the human population has grown dramatically in the last century as technology has kept evolving, I believe, as humans, we thought we were invincible. We thought we were so clever that we could find technological fixes to all sorts of problems we were creating with our messy way of progressing. Everything is built as if we can go on forever, which is kind of nuts, as it is very clear that the planet has limits on how many people it can support. We now know that we can’t continue having the lifestyles we’ve been having, especially in the West. But nonetheless, we continue living as if this was possible. Are we really facing that? When will we accept having less? Eating less? That refusal to face facts is a big part of the reason why we are here. 

How should we persuade people about it?

I think we should persuade people to re-evaluate our position in the world. I can blame some of it on religion. In the Bible, it is said that God gave us dominion over the animals to do as we see fit, and well, if you believe that, then basically you might think the planet and its resources are your own, and animals are just there for your benefit. I think this attitude has prevailed for the last 2,000 years, and we somehow need to change that. We are part of nature, and our health is connected to the rest of living things’ health on our planet. 

How fragile are insects in the face of global warming compared to other animals?

It is really hard to generalize because there are so many of them. Some of them are actually thriving, particularly those with fast breathing systems, such as worms, which can take advantage of human civilization and human waste. So insects such as mosquitoes or cockroaches are doing really well, basically because they can breathe fast, they can adapt fast, they can move fast. So they are quite adaptable, and they can develop resistance to pesticides or move north as temperatures get hotter. These examples are a small minority within the insect community. A vast majority of insects are much slower to adapt and to move. For example, bees are really having a hard time. 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p08lwfx3

Insects have survived the last five mass extinctions our planet has faced, so some of them must be very tough; but this time is different, as the whole climate is changing dramatically fast for them. The main difference now is that insects live in tinier populations, living in the islands of habitat surrounded by all sorts of threats from human civilizations, such as hostile factories, cities, highways… So, once they decide to move gradually towards the North as the temperature gets hotter, they have to face many more threats than in other periods in history. Their challenge now is to move from one safe island to the next, and that’s very difficult for these creatures, so we see lots of insects that are, in fact, stocked and cannot move for their own survival. Climate change is, in a sense, the final straw for lots of species already very exposed to pollution, pesticide exposure, habitat loss, and a bunch of other man-made factors.

What do you mean by the “final straw”?

Insects are very adaptable, and they have survived and endured for thousands of years, but many of them won’t be able to cope with what’s coming. We have created a deadly combination of problems. 

Are bumblebees more threatened than the rest of the insects?

It’s hard to compare because we are still learning and discovering lots of new insects. But what we do know is that bumblebees are essentially specialists in living in colder climates. In that sense, they are quite unusual. Most of the insects are much more abundant in the tropics than anywhere else. But bumblebees don’t live in the tropics. Most of them can be found in alpine regions, mountain areas, and even in the Arctic Circle. They are adapted and manage quite well to keep themselves warm in cold weather. But that adaption is not so useful as it warms, and they are literally overheating. They can’t cope with hot weather. All the evidence shows that bumblebees are disappearing from the warmer margins of their ranges. The projections are that many European species of bumblebees will go extinct if we reach two degrees warmer, and that seems quite likely. That means that most bumblebees won’t be able to live in Europe anymore, and there isn’t really anywhere for them to go northwards, so that will be the end for them, unfortunately.

How much time left do we have?

It depends on how fast things warm up. It’s very hard to predict, but we are talking about a small number of decades. 

What is the public’s opinion response to your articles and books, such as Silent Earth, Gardening for Bumblebees or The Garden Jungle?

I think that people who are engaged with this issue are very concerned about it, and many of them get involved and try to do something about it, often small-scale things like turning their gardens into insect-friendly spaces, or they get involved in local campaigns. That is great. Particularly when you explain to them how important insects are and how delicate our situation is, people get worried. But most people haven’t got that message at all. Most people have no idea that insects are really important and that our survival depends on them ー and of course, they don’t read my books.

Is that the main challenge of the environmental movement as a whole?

I think so; we have to become mainstream and persuade the majority of people that the environment matters. It seems obvious to our readers and to us, but somehow we haven’t delivered this message to the majority of the world’s population. They seem busy doing other stuff, thinking of economic growth, paying the bills, and going to watch a football match, and they have absolutely no idea that these huge environmental problems are going to make their life and their children’s lives much harder. I think if people knew that, they would be horrified, and they would do something. But probably, if they hear things like that, they would rather dismiss them; they would not try to listen to these tree-hugger/leftie speeches… and I think it’s absolutely nonsense not to listen to cold facts.

In 2017, I was one of the scientists who signed up for this global letter highlighting all the problems we have created on our planet. Pretty much all the scientists on Earth agree on these issues. We all agree that we have crossed the boundaries of what our planet can support, and catastrophe lies ahead.

And what was the response to that?

Governments paid little attention. And I think these messages are not really delivered to a general audience, so people don’t really get them unless they really try to. 

Being a professor at the University of Sussex, what can you tell us about the response from academia?

My colleagues are very encouraging. Some of them are also interested in insects. My university is pretty strong in its environmental approach, so I feel very comfortable teaching there. However, it is true that, more broadly, I think there are some scientists who don’t really think it’s the role of scientists to get involved in politics. I think this is not the correct approach. If, as a citizen, I see how we are destroying the planet and I want to do something about it, I deserve the right to do so.

Is that something new?

Traditionally scientists have been focused on writing boring papers that are only being read by other scientists, and keep their heads down and not stand up in public. They didn’t talk to the media nor become influential voices in societies. But the world has changed, and I think science needs to change with it.

What about your students? Have you seen any changes in the last years?

Yes, there’s definitely a youth movement; I think there is far more awareness, especially from those under 25 years old. There are organizations and movements such as Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future… there are a lot of young people who feel really anxious for their future, as well as angry with us, the old folks, who have made such a mess and don’t seem particularly keen to fix it. We could say that the human race is waking up, but that being said, there are still a lot of young people who are not engaged in the environmental movement. 

How can gardening insects help us heal our broken relationship with nature?

Gardens in urban areas play a crucial role. For example, kids can learn about nature and play with it, so they don’t grow horrified by insects. In my ideal world, kids would grow fond of nature and insects. From early on, children would learn how to grow food and learn about the enemies of nature. I think this basic understanding of how nature works is probably the most important thing we can teach. And yet, in the UK’s education, kids learn very little about it. I would like to see a global city-rewilding strategy combined with a proactive educational system. Part of the problem is that teachers don’t know much about nature. Perhaps we need to offer training opportunities for teachers; maybe we could send them to the fields, to hold insects with their own hands and teach them about biodiversity. That would help to heal our relationship with nature and that of new generations. We are part of nature.

Why would anyone want to create an insect-friendly garden with all the mosquito plagues and oubreaks we are facing in Europe summer after summer?

I think the answer lies within the question: If you build a successful and rich garden in terms of biodiversity, you will see how nature finds its own balance. There are many other insects who love to eat mosquitos, for example. In my case, I grow lots of fruits and vegetables in my garden. I would say we are almost self-sufficient. I don’t use any pesticides, and we do get small outbreaks on the crops, but I don’t spray them, I just wait, and almost every year, within a week or two, they are all eaten by predatory insects and birds, but mainly ladybugs and so on. So it’s all about balance. Most of the pesticides we’ve created are based on the idea that we can fix the unbalance we have made, and we shouldn’t be surprised if, as a result of that, nature adapts and more plagues and problems are being created. 

In the case of mosquitos, they need cold water essentially. So, in your garden, you would need to encourage the insects who actually feed on mosquito larvae, so you won’t get lots of them. I’m afraid there will always be mosquitos though.

It sounds that one of the main problems in our environmental struggle is that we are racing against time. Do we have the same perception of time as an insect?

(Laughing) I haven’t got a clue of what goes on in an insect’s mind and how they perceive time. Probably they are very different from us, as their brains are fundamentally much smaller. I don’t suppose they think about it, although their lives can be very long, even several years. I often wonder if I would be bored spending ten years slowly chewing my way through a tree trunk in total darkness, doing nothing but eat, like a beetle. Do they get bored? Presumably not, but it sounds pretty tedious to me. 

You have mentioned several times how fantastic flower adaptation processes have been throughout history, particularly when finding a way to become more attractive to insects. Should conservationists and biologists grow to become more attractive and adapt to the environment, as flowers do?

Somehow we need to improve. The whole environmental movement needs to be more successful in engaging people. Scientists are often very poor communicators to the general audience, as this is not part of our training. We are used to data, evidence, and writing very dry scientific articles, but nobody teaches us how to engage with the public in a big way. It is also easy to lose people’s interest if you are too doomed and gloomed; some people might be turned off. But maybe that is why I’m talking to This is My Earth now, to reach a bigger audience. We need millions of people. 

What do you think of projects such as This is My Earth?

I do think that we need to set aside much more land for nature to thrive. I’m a big supporter of Edward Wilson’s ideas. I think the whole half-Earth idea is excellent, and it is achievable if we want to. It might sound crazy, but how can we set aside half of the Earth? But actually, if you look at it, we could. So, what This is My Earth is doing is on the right side of things, and we need so much land.

Can you tell us a moment in which you really felt anger recently?

I think one of the moments in which I felt frustrated in recent years was when I started working on pesticides, which was about ten years ago. We published some research showing how some types of pesticides are harmful to bumblebees. We got this huge backlash from this giant chemical industry lobby. They have social-media trolls, and their mission is to carry out personal attacks and spread misinformation. They’ve tried to undermine my credibility as a scientist and destroy my reputation. I’ve never encountered anything like that. I’m used to it now, but it was very nasty, and I was not ready for that.

Can you tell us about a moment of success?

I had a lot of emails from people saying they had read some of my books. People who didn’t know about insects now feel like gardening, stopped using pesticides, and enjoy watching butterflies and bees. It’s beautiful to see you are making connections and making an impact. 

Also, some years ago, in 2016, I started a charity called Bumblebee Conservation Trust. One of the early things we did was restore a wildflower meadow. It was astonishing to see how quickly nature can recover; in just one year, we turned wasted land into an area full of biodiversity with tens of thousands of bumblebees and flowers. 

Are you optimistic about the future?

No. In my last book Silent Earth I dedicate a chapter to talk about what the world will be like in 60 years and I can tell you that the panorama is not very encouraging. But giving up it’s not an option. I’ve got children; I don’t want them to inherit a depleted Earth. So I will do my best. 

Are things really changing?

They do, but the changes are too slow. Look at this absurd war in Ukraine. Who is celebrating it? Fossil-fuel industries. It’s very hard to be optimistic, but we will keep on fighting. Every little action makes a difference.

Thank you very much for your time. 

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A visit to TiME’s first biodiversity hotspot land purchase

“Please, Nestor, please continue to point out the orchid flowers,” I cried almost breathlessly to the CEO of Neotropical Primate Conservation (NPC) while we climbed up the land TiME had just purchased. “You know we both need these stops so we can catch our breath.” Nestor Allgas and I were trying to keep pace with…

TiME ∙ Nov 25

1 min read

Protecting megafauna and raising money for conservation

This piece was published in our March 2017 newsletter:

TiME ∙ Nov 21

4 min read

Ivory Belongs to Elephants

Since the dawn of humanity, we have been actively fighting nature: drying swamps, cutting down forests, using strong pesticides (such as DDT) and hunting wildlife to extinction (think of the dodo, Tasmanian tiger, passenger pigeon and many, many more). Today, experts believe that we are facing a sixth mass extinction, which is entirely attributable to…

TiME ∙ Nov 20

6 min read

Gold in Africa – an interview with Henry Gold, TiME board member

For TiME’s February 2017 newsletter we interviewed board member Henry Gold, co-founder of Canadian Physician for Aid and Relief (CPAR)and TDA Global Cycling: You worked in Africa for quite a few years. Can you tell us what kind of work you were doing? I’m trained as an engineer, but in 1984 I quit engineering and…

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