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Rise and fall of insect populations directly linked to the weather

Insect populations exhibit extreme sensitivity to variations in temperature and precipitation, spotlighting the plight of insects in the face of adverse weather conditions and climate change.

A new study led by the University of Würzburg demonstrates that abnormal weather events, occurring consecutively or in combination over several years, can significantly deplete insect populations.

Unusually dry and warm winters diminish insect survival probabilities, wet and cold springs impair hatching success, and cool, wet summers obstruct the reproductive and foraging activities of bumblebees and other flying insects.

However, insect populations that reside in sufficiently large and high-quality habitats, marked by the presence of native plants and high structural richness, are more likely to withstand these adverse conditions.

Rethinking insect conservation strategies

In light of the findings, the authors strongly advocate for the establishment of more high-quality habitats to preserve the myriad insect species.

The significant decline in insect populations mandates urgent efforts to protect high-quality habitats across diverse landscapes. This includes agricultural, traffic, and settlement areas.

The repercussions of climate change necessitate a transformation in scientific thinking and conservation practice, emphasizing the creation of resilient ecosystems.

Studying insects and the weather

The genesis of this important study traces back to the spring of 2022, when Professor Jörg Müller of Würzburg noticed an unusually high number of insects in forests and meadows. This observation was particularly intriguing given the prevalent narrative of the declining insect populations globally.

“The data from the study show that there was a dramatic collapse in 2005 and no recovery in the years that followed,” says Jörg Müller, who is Professor of Animal Ecology at the Biocentre of Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU). So could the large amount of insects he “felt” in 2022 be real?

This sparked a rigorous analysis led by an interdisciplinary team, involving re-examination of the data from a study by Dutch researcher Caspar A. Hallmann in 2017.

Hallmann’s research had illustrated a staggering 75% decline in insect biomass in German nature reserves from 1989 to 2016. The interdisciplinary team incorporated freshly procured weather data and evaluated the impacts of weather anomalies on various life stages of insects.

The rigorous analysis confirmed that the climate fluctuations post-2005 were predominantly detrimental to insects. However, the team discovered that the favorable weather conditions in 2022 were conducive to a surge in insect biomass, thereby corroborating Professor Müller’s initial observations.

A call to action

Professor Annette Menzel of the Technical University of Munich emphasizes the urgent need to acknowledge that weather fluctuations caused by climate change are the principal driver behind declining insect populations worldwide. The pressing circumstances necessitate immediate and enhanced efforts to safeguard insects, emphasizing high-quality habitats and ecological balance.

“We need to be much more aware that climate change is already a major driver of the decline of insect populations. This needs to be thought about much more in science and conservation practice,” says Annette Menzel, professor of ecoclimatology of the Technical University of Munich.

Professor Müller also proposes the initiation of a comprehensive insect biomass monitoring system aimed at regularly tracking the fluctuations in insect populations. Such a system would contribute to nuanced analyses and informed conservation strategies.

The novel insights and strategies emerging from this research underscore the critical intersection between climate resilience and biodiversity conservation. The scientists involved in this study urge swift, collective action to counteract the dwindling insect populations and preserve the delicate ecological balance integral to our planet’s well-being.

The collaboration between renowned universities and national parks has not only brought to light the intricate dynamics governing insect populations, but has also paved the way for innovative, sustainable solutions to mitigate the impacts of climate change on biodiversity.

This report, published in the journal Nature, was a collaboration among the University of Würzburg, Bavarian Forest National Park, TU Dresden, Berchtesgaden National Park, TU Munich, and the University of Zurich.

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