Many people love ladybirds, earthworms, bumblebees, butterflies and other bugs and the vast majority of people understand that invertebrates are essential for healthy ecosystems. But people generally don’t spend a lot of time either thinking about the huge debt we owe to our pollinators and water cleaners, or considering how dreary life would be without the wild buzz, flutter and sparkle of invertebrate life. Only when they are gone from our lives do we then miss them.
Because we spend little time thinking about the small things that run the planet, we neglect them. Science, policy and practice treat invertebrates as superfluous detail when in fact they are fundamentally important. I covered some of the effects of this neglect in my recent blog ‘Is it ‘cos I is small?’. I referred in that blog to the fascinating report by the Environmental Funders Network “Where the Green Grants Went 6”. Working with the EFN we have undertaken a more detailed analysis of the grants reported to them by funders that were for specific species of animals or groups of species of animals (they did not break down spending on plants).
For bugs (exempting moths and butterflies) UK based grants and trusts invested around the planet just 4p per species, this is not even enough to buy a matchbox to home an earwig. Moths and butterflies fare better at £5.98 per species but the real winners are mammals at just under £600 per species, well ahead of birds at £55.
Obviously big mammals, such elephants, water voles, squirrels and tigers, have a cute appeal (OK, tigers less so in very close proximity) but if this money was being used as overseas aid there would be an outcry over the unjust distribution of funds. Without the invertebrates the other species will disappear, for they are dependent on a food chain provided by invertebrates both via pollination activities and simply by being eaten. They also depend on invertebrates to break down and reduce waste that would otherwise accumulate and harm life (we will not delve deeper into this substratum now, perhaps a future blog topic?).
Even in agriculture we rarely stop to consider how essential invertebrates are to a healthy diet. We pollute soils with pesticides and nitrates, despite this being the home of the very earthworms who maintain soil structure, aeration and fertility! Pesticides are sprayed over fields, ignoring the impacts on the spiders and ground beetles that are the natural predators in this ecosystem. We sow Neonicotinoid coated seeds, mindless to the damage that this may be doing to the bees, butterflies and hoverflies that we want to be pollinating this and surrounding crops – our seven-a-day. Only when the crisis is obvious to everyone is action taken.
The recent flooding of the Somerset levels has led to mass fatalities within the earthworm population as well as the more noticeable damage to property. Farmers in the area are now very concerned that they have dead, compact soils and are trying to find ways to replenish earthworm stocks. Sourcing earthworms to aerate the land is likely to be difficult because the flooding tolerant and deep soil burrowing species are not commercially available, Brandling worms (Eisenia fetida) and similar are only of use in compost piles and dung heaps. Farmers may be able to collect worms from banks and higher fields in their vicinity and introduce them into their fields, but recolonisation of a whole field will still take many years.
When we lose the invertebrates we realise how essential they are. If they disappear it will not be just the simple matter of losing the chirp of crickets or the buzz of bees, it will be the loss of our wildflowers and massive price hikes for fruit, and even chocolate and coffee. Wimbledon without strawberries, just cream, and a countryside that will be just bland green.
The way money is currently distributed for work conserving the animal kingdom would be akin to all the overseas aid being poured into the pockets of a select few and not providing development for the masses.
Buglife can help to fix the neglect of small animals by speaking out on behalf of invertebrates and ensuring that they are considered much more frequently by people. To save invertebrate populations funders and other decision makers must increase the resources available for conserving our natural environment and make the distribution of funding more egalitarian.