Bugs Matter – more citizen scientists needed to survey how Northern Ireland’s insects are faring

A citizen-science survey, led by Kent Wildlife Trust and Buglife, has found that the abundance of flying insects in the UK has plummeted by nearly 60% over the last 17 years; highlighting a worrying trend and the crucial need for insect-focussed conservation research, nationwide.

The 2021 Bugs Matter findings, which are published in a report released by Kent Wildlife Trust and Buglife (Bugs Matter 2021 Full Technical Report) show that the number of insects sampled on vehicle number plates by citizen scientists across the UK reduced by a staggering 59% between 2004 and 2021. These findings are consistent with research which has widely reported declining trends in insect populations globally.

Insect counts differed across the UK, but there was no positive news for insects in any of our nations. England suffered the greatest decline with 65% fewer insects recorded in 2021 than in 2004.  Wales recorded 55% fewer insects, whilst Scotland saw the smallest decline, still with 28% fewer insects in 2021 when compared to 2004 figures.  Unfortunately, there were too few surveys conducted in Northern Ireland to analyse and draw conclusions. The observed declines are statistically significant and are indicative of a worrying pattern.

Consequently, the Bugs Matter team cannot say with any certainty whether insect populations across Northern Ireland are experiencing similar declines as are being evidenced across the rest of the UK, although it is likely to be the case.  There is a vital need for more citizen scientists to take part in the Bugs Matter survey across Northern Ireland, not only to understand how Irish insect populations are faring, but also to help inform conservation efforts.

The Bugs Matter project, led by Kent Wildlife Trust and Buglife, and supported by a number of other wildlife conservation organisations, is one of the UK’s few citizen science surveys of insect abundance that generates important long-term data.

Inspired by the ‘windscreen phenomenon’ (a term given to the general observation that people are seeing fewer insects squashed on the windscreens of their cars today compared to several decades ago), Bugs Matter enlists the help of the public to monitor the health of the UK’s insect populations.  The concept is simple: before making an essential journey in a vehicle, clean the number plate. After each journey, count the insects squashed on the number plate using a ‘splatometer’ grid, which is posted to you when you download the free Bugs Matter app. A photo and count details are submitted via the app.

Insects and other invertebrates are critical to a healthy functioning environment. They pollinate most of the world’s crops, provide natural pest control services, decompose organic matter and recycle nutrients into the soil. Without them, life on earth would collapse.

Counting insects not only gives an estimate of the abundance of insect life in our towns and countryside, but also a measure of the health of our environment.  Insects are essential to supporting and maintaining a healthy environment, so when their numbers fall that is an indication that nature is in trouble.

Insect numbers can also show where wildlife is recovering, and so Bugs Matter can be used to measure how the work of conservation organisations and others is helping nature’s recovery.

Download the Bugs Matter app to take part in this year’s survey, from 1 June to 31 August 2022. Taking part is quick, free and easy.

The results from these ongoing surveys inform a growing requirement for conservation research, policy and practice targeted at insects in the Northern Ireland.

Matt Shardlow, Chief Executive Officer at Buglife, said:

“This vital study suggests that the number of flying insects is declining by an average of 34% per decade, this is terrifying.  We cannot put off action any longer, for the health and wellbeing of future generations this demands a political and a societal response, it is essential that we halt biodiversity decline – now!”

Paul Hadaway, Director of Conservation at Kent Wildlife Trust, said:

“The results from the Bugs Matter study should shock and concern us all. We are seeing declines in insects which reflect the enormous threats and loss of wildlife more broadly across the Country. These declines are happening at an alarming rate and without concerted action to address them we face a stark future. Insects and pollinators are fundamental to the health of our environment and rural economies. We need action for all our wildlife now by creating more and bigger areas of habitats, providing corridors through the landscape for wildlife and allowing nature space to recover.”

The Bugs Matter team thank everyone who took part in 2021 and hope that more citizen scientists will take part in Northern Ireland in 2022 to enable the collection of enough significant data for comparison.

Notes to editors |

  • Across the UK, 5,215 individuals signed up to the Bugs Matter app in 2021, of which 710 participated in the survey, recording a total of 4,778 journeys.
  • Bugs Matter is supported by RSPB, Gwent Wildlife Trust, Somerset Wildlife Trust, Essex Wildlife Trust and the Monksgate Fund.
  • The survey is based on the ‘windscreen phenomenon’, a term given to the anecdotal observation that people tend to find fewer insects squashed on the windscreens of their cars now, compared to the past.
  • A recent global review by Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys (Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers, 2019) revealed that 41% of insect species are in decline and a third are at risk of extinction. Four main drivers are linked to these declines: habitat loss, pollution, pathogens and non-native species and climate change. The Bugs Matter citizen science survey will generate vital long-term data that is needed to fully understand the threats to insects in the UK and inform appropriate conservation measures to combat them.

There are many other ways in which people can help reverse insect declines:

    • Using alternatives to peat can help reduce CO2 emissions and slow the impact of climate change on insects and our environment.
    • Put away the spray – by eliminating or reducing our use of pesticides, we can stop the decline of thousands of insects in an instant.
    • Be less tidy – you can help the insects in your garden by letting the grass grow longer and sowing wildflowers. If every garden had a little patch for insects, collectively it would probably be the biggest area of wildlife habitat in the world.
    • Watch your footprint – climate change is a growing threat to a wide range of wildlife, including insects. Buy your food from local suppliers, use your local shop, or grow your own vegetables. Not only will this reduce your carbon footprint, it will also help small food producers to compete with big food and farming businesses.
    • Join an organisation such as your local Wildlife Trust or Buglife. Charities like these do vital work to protect and restore our most important wildlife sites, restore lost habitats at scale and reconnect our countryside through initiatives like B-Lines, lobby government for stronger laws to reduce pesticide use and work to improve the quality of waters in our rivers and streams.

Buglife |
Buglife is the only organisation in Europe devoted to the conservation of all invertebrates our aim is to halt the extinction of invertebrate species and to achieve sustainable populations of invertebrates. Invertebrates are vitally important to a healthy planet – humans and other life forms could not survive without them. The food we eat, the fish we catch, the birds we see, the flowers we smell and the hum of life we hear, simply would not exist without bugs. Invertebrates underpin life on earth and without them the world’s ecosystems would collapse. www.buglife.org.uk

Kent Wildlife Trust |
Kent Wildlife Trust is the county’s leading conservation charity with more than 31,000 members and over 1000 registered volunteers. We manage and protect over 9000 acres of land across more than 80 different sites and nature reserves, alongside 3 visitor centres. We work closely with local communities, landowners and partners to protect and improve habitats in the countryside, coast and town for the benefit of the wildlife and people of Kent. The charity also campaigns against inappropriate and damaging development; and educates and inspires young people to help secure a more sustainable future and create a Wilder Kent.

Visit our website here: kentwildlifetrust.org.uk/