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Misplaced fears could impact insect recovery, suggests Erin McDaid of Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust

Swifts, swallows and martins, an amazing group of birds that arrive on our shores to breed having travelled all the way from Africa, are for many an evocative and welcome part of a typical British summer, writes Erin McDaid of Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust.

Watching them as they soar overhead or swoop close to the surface of rivers or lakes to catch their insect prey is a joy, but the future of these symbols of summer is at risk due to the massive decline in insect numbers.

Across Europe there is increasing evidence that insect populations are in the midst of a worrying crash.

Honey Bees. Photo: Margaret Holland (49428121)
Honey Bees. Photo: Margaret Holland (49428121)

While there has been a lot of concern expressed over declining populations of honey bees due to their importance in pollinating many of the food crops we all rely on, the debate about the importance of abundant insect populations in sustaining natural systems as well as their pivotal roles as food for other wild creatures, especially birds, is less evident.

Hopefully, the public concern shown for the plight of bees can provide an opening for more discussion about the importance of other insects and can act as a spur to those of us engaged in efforts to turn around the crisis in our wider insect populations.

However, we must face up to the fact that the mixture of fear and loathing of insects felt by a sizeable proportion of the population could serve as a real barrier to changing behaviours and reversing the declines.

Ant. Photo: Jon Hawkins (49428117)
Ant. Photo: Jon Hawkins (49428117)

The fact that many people view insects as, at best, a nuisance and at worst, a direct threat and something to be feared, is perhaps best illustrated by the level of reaction to another creature which makes an appearance each summer ­— the flying ant.

The panic that ensues in certain quarters each summer when flying ant day arrives, with people reaching for the ant powder, kettles of boiling water and a raft of potions to destroy ants’ nests, highlights that we have a long way to go before people embrace the value of all insects.

Yet insects are key building blocks of our ecosystems, helping to recycle waste to build soil fertility, keep pest species in check, and provide vital sustenance for many of our most beloved birds, mammals and other wildlife ­— as well as playing a crucial role in pollination.

Ants nest. Photo: Mark Robinson (49428119)
Ants nest. Photo: Mark Robinson (49428119)

The hysteria around flying ant day, which is in fact a series of days, when queen ants leave their nest to mate before establishing new colonies, is perhaps partly driven by sensational headline writing; but the number of people who dash to clear the shelves of powerful poisons to take action against insects, which will literally disappear within days as the male ants die after mating and the queens take up residence in new nests, indicates that the headlines are largely reflecting a deep-seated disconnect with nature that will take some effort to overcome.

As I read responses to a question posed on a local Facebook forum, what should I do about ants’ nests?, I was horrified to spot a seemingly serious recommendation that the poster should dig up their lawn, douse the nests in boiling water and then replace their lawn with plastic grass.

Talk about an over-reaction.

Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust. (2682719)
Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust. (2682719)

Other suggestions ranged from deploying petrol and powerful disinfectants ­— all of which pose much more danger to people in this context than the ants.

I was sad to realise so many people are unaware that ants are an important part of our wildlife and my heart sank at the prospect of swifts, swallows, martins and other birds desperately searching for vital food to feed hungry chicks or to build up their reserves for the return journey to Africa while down below those precious ants were being poisoned, poached and pummelled into the ground.

For details of how you can help turn around the plight of our insect populations visit nottinghamshirewildlife.org/action-for-insects

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