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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

What Will Replace Insects When They're Gone?

This story is adapted from The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires That Run the World, by Oliver Milman.

What, though, if we don’t act quickly enough? If the fall of insects’ tiny empires causes whole ecosystems to unravel, toppling previously solid certainties about the way our world functions, what then?

It’s easy to foresee how diminishing supplies of certain foods and crashing wildlife populations will heap cascading suffering on the poor and vulnerable, given the lopsided nature of societies, and perhaps even stoke embers of resentment and nationalism as foundational resources become scarcer. It’s also reasonable to anticipate that we will reflexively grasp for a technological fix to the mess we’ve created.

Expectation is already being ladled upon projects, still in their infancy, to create genetically modified pollinators resistant to disease and chemicals or to fashion machines topped with tiny cannons that fire pollen at plants and therefore address some of the causes of the climate collapse. Other scientists have turned their ingenuity to replicating the form and function of winged insects—​researchers at Harvard University have devised diminutive robots that can swim before exploding out of the water into flight, using soft artificial muscles to harmlessly bounce off walls and other obstacles. Counterparts in the Netherlands have taken inspiration from the humble fruit fly, re-​creating the motion of their rapid wing beats in a robot with wings made of mylar, the material used in space blankets. The Delft University of Technology’s DelFly can hover, flip 360 degrees around pitch and roll axes, and accelerate to the speed of a human sprint within a few seconds.

Matej Karásek, a researcher working on the project, says he’s long been fascinated by the agility and spatial awareness of insects, even before he started working on the DelFly. “Whenever I walk outdoors and I see an insect I think ‘how are they able to do this?’ ” he says. Karásek’s robots aren’t an exact substitute for a fly or bee—​for one thing they have a 33-​centimeter (13-​inch) wingspan, making them 55 times the size of a fruit fly—​and the conundrum of carrying large pollen payloads without losing maneuverability means they aren’t quite ready to hum alongside the real thing. But there is confidence that day will arrive, drawn from the certainty many of us have that technology will eventually solve all of society’s intractable ills.

Perhaps the answer will be an army of larger hexacopter-​like drones, such as the fleet operated by US company Dropcopter, which autonomously pollinated an orchard of apples in New York for the first time in 2018. Or maybe the answer is a sophisticated robotic arm, which, using cameras, wheels, and artificial intelligence, can locate and hand-​pollinate plants without getting tired or bored like human workers. The US Department of Agriculture is funding one such effort, which, according to one of its leading experts, Manoj Karkee of Washington State University, promises to be a “genuine replacement for the natural pollination process” and is even “expected to be as effective or even more effective than natural pollinators like bees.”

Entomologists are instinctively disdainful of any suggestion that pollinating insects could somehow be matched by technology, even on a basic logistical level. Biologist Dave Goulson points out that bees are rather adept at pollinating flowers, given they’ve been honing their skills for around 120 million years, and that, besides, there are around 80 million honeybee hives in the world, each stuffed with tens of thousands of bees feeding and breeding for free. “What would the cost be of replacing them with robots?” Goulson asks. “It is remarkable hubris to think that we can improve on that.” To be fair to those devoted to appropriating the characteristics of insects for our use, there is widespread awe at the evolutionary brilliance of flies and bees and scant joy at the crisis that has brought us to the point where the meanderings of academic curiosity are being seized upon as possible salvation from our degenerate ways. When we consider technological solutions, we should perhaps spend less time judging the supply and more time judging the reasons why there’s demand in the first place.

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Still, a less abusive association with insects will have to include some new ideas. If we are to intensively farm smaller areas in order to surrender space to the wilds, the advance of vertical farming, with year-​round crops stacked in warehouses and shipping containers using LED lighting and hydroponics instead of soils and pesticides will potentially work well teamed with robotic pollinators if the original insect version demurs from the task.

Western societies may also have to grapple with the counterintuitive concept of eating insects as a way of saving them. The vast tracts of land we’ve turned into biodiversity deserts are in many cases not even directly feeding people—​a third of all viable cropland is used to produce feed for livestock, which themselves take up a quarter of the planet’s ice-​free habitat. Mealworms and crickets, both excellent sources of protein that can multiply to enormous numbers in tight spaces, are a less destructive alternative to traditional Western diets and would help ease agricultural-​driven pressures that blight insects, such as climate change, chemical use, and land degradation. “There are far fewer environmental problems when you eat insects. They are also delicious,” says Arnold van Huis, a Dutch entomologist who has dined on 20 species of insects, his favorites being roasted termites and locusts, deep-fried and served with chili.

One day, perhaps robot bees could help prop up our food supply, and a revolution in the way we eat could help slow the accelerating ruination of the world’s glorious archive of life. But our measures of success in averting the insect crisis should be set a little higher than that. After all, we aren’t going to witness the last insect blink out, as we will with the final northern white rhinoceros or Bengal tiger. Whatever further cruelties we inflict, there will always be insects somewhere, crawling on a windowsill plant box in Chicago, nibbling at the edge of a rice paddy in Vietnam, scurrying away from flames licking at gum trees in Australia.

The tragedy will be how impoverished we will become, environmentally, spiritually, morally. Bumblebees, it has been discovered, can be taught to play football, will give up sleep to care for their hive’s young, and can remember good and bad experiences, hinting at a form of consciousness. The violin beetle is remarkably shaped, as the name suggests, like a violin, and side-​on is almost invisibly flat. The monarch butterfly is beautiful and can taste nectar through its feet. We won’t lose every single thing, but that is of scant consolation when such marvels are being ripped away. “The future is a very simplified global biota,” says entomologist David Wagner. “We will have bugs, but we will lose the big gaudy things. Our children will have a diminished world. That’s what we are giving them.”

A penurious existence, one where the marrow of life has been sucked from the bones of our surroundings, of a becalmed countryside save for the machines eking food from the remaining soils, may be one of the better scenarios facing us if the crashing of insects’ tiny empires isn’t heeded. The latest research shows that the loss of bees is already starting to limit the supply of key food crops, such as apples, blueberries, and cherries. Insect-​eating birds are now declining not only in the featureless fields of France but even in remote parts of the Amazon rainforest. Many insect populations around the world are falling by 1 to 2 percent a year, Wagner and colleagues confirmed recently, a trend he describes as “frightening.” It can, and almost certainly will, get worse. This catastrophe will plunge to some sort of nadir, although we do not appear to be close to that point yet. We’re still on the downward slope, to somewhere.

Excerpted from The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires That Run the World. Copyright (c) 2022 by Oliver Milman. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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