Celebrating Insects

It’s a serious concern that insect populations seem to be plummeting in many parts of the world.  Studies have shown that populations of European butterflies have halved since 1990, honeybee colonies have fallen by 59 percent in North America since World War II, and populations of British moths are dropping by 30 percent per decade.  Recent stories such as this from Germany, where 75 percent of flying insects have been lost in the last 25 years (and that’s in nature reserves!), and in Australia are representative of the situation in many countries.  It doesn’t take a biologist to know that insects are a key part of the ecosystem.  Around 60 percent of birds rely on them for food. Around 80 percent of wild plants depend on them for pollination. If they disappear, ecosystems will be put under serious strain or even collapse.  Certainly when I visit home in Norfolk, England, the dearth of insects, particularly large flying insects, is striking, and it should be no surprise that species such as shrikes, which feed predominantly on flying insects, have declined dramatically.

Fortunately, in China, large-scale intensive agriculture and the associated widespread use of insecticides, is not yet a standard feature of the landscape.  And it shows in terms of the insect populations, even in urban areas like Beijing.

A couple of years ago, I met Nial Moores (of Birds Korea) in the Chinese capital during his stopover on the way to Seoul.  We squeezed in a few hours of birding along the Wenyu River, a good birding site within easy reach of the airport.  As we began our walk along the south bank of the Wenyu, Nial immediately commented on the vast columns of insects, perhaps 10-20m high,  that were dancing over the river bank, remarking that he hadn’t seen anything like that for decades.

On my local patch, just a few minutes walk from my apartment, I can personally vouch for the fact that insect populations, especially biting insects, are healthy!

TT insect bites, shunyi
An hour on the local patch on a July evening can be punishing!

Fast forward to last weekend and I was roaming the alpine meadows at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain.  As well as seeing some great birds such as Himalayan Cuckoo, Large Hawk Cuckoo, Grey-sided and Chinese Thrushes, Siberian Blue Robin and Green-backed Flycatcher to name a few, I was overwhelmed by the sight and sound of the insects.  I was so struck by the diversity and abundance that I wanted to capture the scene by recording the sight and sound.

Fortunately I had my recording equipment with me and I spent a few minutes just sitting in the grass and recording the “sound of the meadow”.  At home, if I close my eyes and play this track, I am transported back and I instantly feel myself relaxing…

For several years I’ve been ‘digiscoping’ birds using my iPhone and Swarovski ATX95 telescope with a special Swarovski adaptor.  It’s a wonderful set-up, easy to use and quick to switch from observation mode to video mode.  Combining the excellent quality video (4k) of the iPhone with the superlative optics of Swarovski, I’ve been able to achieve some remarkable results, whether it’s capturing record images of distant rarities, behaviour of Beijing’s resident birds or even Snow Leopards on the Tibetan Plateau.

It had never occurred to me to try to digiscope insects..  but when a Hummingbird Hawk-moth was seemingly in a pattern of returning to the same flower time after time, I thought I’d give it a go.  The meadow at Lingshan was teeming with insect life and I was surrounded by opportunities, whether it was bees, butterflies, moths or beetles.  Within half an hour, and experimenting with the slow motion feature on the iPhone, I had achieved some pleasing results for a beginner.

So, in celebration of insects, here is a short compilation.


I’d love to hear about insect populations in your areas.  Please leave a comment if you know of any good links or resources.  In the meantime, let’s hear it for the insects!

6 thoughts on “Celebrating Insects”

  1. I also live close to the Wenyu and this time of year I see frequent spraying of neighborhoods and parklands presumably for mosquito control. The other day someone saw the workers dumping an entire drum of insecticide into the sewer. It worries me that China’s insect populations will soon also be plummeting. Are there any discussions about controls? Any recommendations?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Melissa. It is common to see the local maintenance people spraying insecticide around housing developments and shopping malls… (although as I write this from a coffee shop in Shunyi, a Swallowtail butterfly has just flown by..!). However, dumping insecticide into the drains is a real worry and must be illegal. I’d encourage you or anyone who sees this behaviour to take photos and report to the local government. Despite the localised spraying for mosquito control, most agriculture here seems to be relatively small-scale and, although many farmers use relatively small amounts of insecticide, I simply don’t see the blanket spraying we experience in Europe. I’m not aware of any policy discussions here about insect populations but it’s certainly something that ought to be on the agenda, especially in the context of “eco-civilisation”, the term being pushed by the leadership for living within environmental limits. The Chinese like to learn about foreign experiences in a range of policy areas and learning what NOT to do is equally as important as learning the good things.

    1. Thanks Stig. Interesting initiative! Do you know if the museum has historical data with which to compare or is this a new project to provide a snapshot of the status of insect populations today? Either way, it’s a great way to involve the public in science! Thanks again, Terry

  2. The sound recording makes for a really calming and peaceful background sound to accompany work or study, except for the super loud bird at about 3min 20secs! 😀

    1. Thanks Michael.. yes, that Spotted Nutcracker flew in to the top of a shrub less than 10m away, called several times, then continued over the ridge.. the effect is like an alarm clock going off just as you’re dozing off…!

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