Science, Sensationalism, and the Lessons of ‘Insectageddon’

When I was growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, long before we spent our evenings drawn to the soft glow of electronic devices, I would sit down in my grandparents’ backyard on summer nights and watch the air twinkle with fireflies. They allowed me to catch a few in a jar, so I could study their tiny anatomy amid brief bursts of light from within. But I was always made to set the insects free to continue their light show — or, frankly, to become food for frogs, spiders, and other creatures of the night.

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Fast-forward 20 years and I was teaching science to preschoolers, indulging my nostalgia with a lesson on the Lampyridae family of beetles, commonly known as fireflies or lightning bugs.

My budding scientists learned to pronounce the word “bioluminescence” — the chemical reaction inside a firefly’s abdomen that produces light — and I had them fashion a model firefly using a soda bottle for a body, with pipe-cleaner antenna and construction-paper wings. We lit it up from the inside with a glow stick. The kids especially loved getting the “mark of a firefly” — a dab of glow-in-the-dark paint on the forehead meant to simulate the bugs’ light-emitting enzyme — and lining up in the dim park bathroom to see the radiant dots in the mirror.

What I didn’t realize until later is that fireflies were no more real to these kids than dragons or unicorns. Most, their parents told me, had never seen one. It’s now another 20 years later, and where fireflies were once abundant where I live in Central Texas, I went years without seeing them. Last year’s spring rains supposedly boosted populations, but I still only caught a few flashes here and there — a couple of lonely bugs signaling, perhaps in vain, for a mate amidst the darkness.

I had this all in mind when I recently read about a review of studies published in the journal Biological Conservation charting a catastrophic decline of insect populations worldwide. I was primed to take it at face value, and apparently, other journalists were, too, with sensational headlines ricocheting around the globe. Some called it “insectageddon.” Others wrote of a looming “insect apocalypse.” The Guardian, one of the first news outlets to cover the story, declared that “plummeting insect numbers threaten ‘collapse of nature.’

Meanwhile, entomologists and ecologists around the world took to Twitter, blog posts, and editorials to point out serious methodological flaws in the research, and to refute the study’s doomsday findings. Among these was Atte Komonen, a senior lecturer in the department of biological and environmental science at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. In a response published in the journal Rethinking Ecology, Komonen and colleagues worried that the unsubstantiated claims pinballing across the globe could diminish public faith in science, and even undermine efforts to address the real stressors that many of the planet’s insects face.

“The problem is real, insects are declining in many regions,” Komonen told me. But, he added, insects are not going to vanish globally in 40 years. “It’s dramatic, over-exaggerated, and it reduces the credibility of … conservation science — or any other science for that matter.”

Indeed, according to Manu Saunders, an ecologist at the University of New England in Australia, the flawed review and poorly considered media hype gave the false impression that we have a handle on the state of the world’s insect populations when, in fact, we really don’t. “Widespread, consistent insect declines are a real concern,” Saunders noted in a critical analysis published in the May/June issue of American Scientist. “Yet there is little published evidence that worldwide decline of all insects is happening.”

Journalists ignore these nuances at the peril of everyone, she and other experts told me. That’s because when the real picture eventually emerges — a picture inevitably filled with boring things like caveats, counter-evidence, and a good deal of lingering uncertainty — the public’s understanding of science, along with their faith in its practitioners, will have once again been undercut.

The first wave of Insectageddon stories hit in late 2017 after publication of a study suggesting a 70 percent reduction in flying insect biomass — the total volume of such insects — over 27 years at nature reserves in Germany. The next round came a year later in response to a study that discovered a precipitous drop in insects the Luquillo rainforest in Puerto Rico between 1976 and 2012, accompanied by reductions in the populations of the lizards, frogs, and birds that feed on them.

That was followed by the Biological Conservation review published earlier this year, in which two Australian researchers — Francisco Sánchez-Bayo, a research associate in the school of life and environmental sciences at the University of Sydney, and Kris Wyckhuys a professor of biology at the University of Queensland — analyzed data drawn from the Germany and Puerto Rico studies, along with 71 other studies of insect decline.

“As each study came out, the surrounding hype grew,” Saunders wrote, “filling broadcast and online platforms for popular-science news with a heady mix of hyperbole, anecdote, and speculation.”

With its global scope and unusually dramatic language, the Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys review was a natural catalyst for sensationalist headlines. Based on their analysis, the authors characterized the state of insect biodiversity in the world as “dreadful.” “Almost half of the species are rapidly declining,” they wrote, “and a third are threatened with extinction.” The main driver of the decline, according to the researchers, is loss of habitat to intensive agriculture and urbanization. Other contributors include pollution from sources such as pesticides, fertilizers, and industrial chemicals; biological threats from pathogens and invasive species; and climate change.

They concluded that unless humanity changes its ways, “insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades.”

Absent change, the authors of a recent study suggested insects were doomed worldwide. And yet, experts I talked to expressed surprise that the study passed peer review. Visual: Cavan via Getty

Lead author Sánchez-Bayo said he and his co-author were concerned that scientists who reviewed the study prior to publication would ask them to tone it down. But they didn’t. “That means to us that they agreed with us,” he said. To him, the impending collapse of insect life and the ecosystems they support warrants all the drama he can muster, so that both researchers and the public sit up and take notice. “[We need to] make them realize that it is a problem and we’ve got to handle it.”

And yet, experts I talked to expressed surprise that the study passed peer review. Many of the earlier studies examined in the Sánchez-Bayo meta-analysis were “localized and skewed toward particular taxa,” Saunders wrote in her critique. Several critics also noted that in reviewing the scientific literature, the authors deliberately sought out papers on insect declines, quite possibly overlooking research showing stable or increasing populations. (Sánchez-Bayo said that he and his colleague included other research as well, but the criteria for selection wasn’t clear.)

“The problem to me is that they are mixing really miscellaneous studies,” said Komonen. You could use that information to do a qualitative overview, he said, “but if you want to do this exact prediction of the extinction rate and what are the reasons behind [it], it’s just — you can’t do that. It’s impossible.”

The other key issue, Saunders suggested, is that the researchers based global predictions on limited data from just a few regions, predominantly Europe and parts of the U.S. She also pointed out that the review covered about 2,900 species — a tiny fraction of the estimated five million species of insects on Earth. “The most studied groups are bees, beetles, and butterflies,” she said. “For the vast majority of the rest of the species of insects in the world, there’s just no data and no one’s studied them.”

Biological Conservation later published a letter critical of the study, as well as the authors’ rebuttal to that criticism. In an email, the journal’s editor in chief Vincent Devictor credited the study with initiating a “very useful debate.” But, he wrote, “the merits of the study were unfortunately overshadowed by the critics (most of them justified).”

Chris Thomas, a highly regarded expert on biodiversity loss and species decline at the University of York in the U.K. and one of authors of a critique of the Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys meta-analysis, was unequivocal in his assessment: “It is a dreadful piece of science,” he told me. “It’s really bad.”

The journal itself was also negligent, he added, for having published the paper in the first place.

But Thomas also laid blame on the press. “I’m pretty cross with journalists,” he said. “I mean, not in an angry sense. But I mean in a dissatisfied sense with journalists who either didn’t inquire more, or did inquire but went with this more exciting-sounding story anyway. And I just don’t think it’s in people’s — in our long-term interests for the rational interaction of humanity with the planet — to behave in that way.” (He did not name names.)

Of course, some journalists reported the story with more nuance — though some did so sooner than others. Within a week or so of the latest Insectageddon flare-up, the science writer Ed Yong published a well-balanced account in the Atlantic. After reading that, Brian Resnick, a science reporter with Vox, did additional research on the study’s shaky methodology and updated his previously published story, noting the changes at the top of the article. “Corrections and changing things can feel scary,” he said. “But I always feel like as a journalist you can’t pretend you don’t know something.”

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But these examples were exceptions in the science press, not the rule — and that’s part of the problem, Saunders said. The story the media often misses is far more complex — and in some ways more dire — than the sensationalist fodder they frequently prefer to peddle. While the studies behind the Insectageddon story don’t provide evidence that all six-legged life on Earth is doomed, Saunders said, they do provide a window on how humans can impact biodiversity more generally.

“That humans are changing the Earth in damaging, often dangerous, ways is undeniable. Forest clearing, pesticide overuse, agricultural intensification, and fossil-fuel production have severe effects on ecosystems, including the smallest of animals,” she wrote in American Scientist. But if we hope to reverse that damage, she told me later, we need to be talking much more about the cavernous gaps in our knowledge about how all insects are responding.

That means journalists need to look beyond the hype and easy narratives to convey the messiness and uncertainty of scientific enquiry. Saunders, who trained as a journalist before returning to school to become a scientist, said she understands that sensationalism grabs people’s attention. But she also noted that by misrepresenting the science, we are gradually eroding the public’s ability to trust scientists at all.

And that has implications not just for bumblebees and lightning bugs (and yes, fireflies are on the decline, researchers think most likely due to light pollution and habitat loss), but for society’s ability to comprehend and rationally respond to a growing battery of civic debates with deep science at their core — from vaccines and GMOs to climate change and artificial intelligence.

“Science can’t be represented as absolute truth and simplified little sound bites,” Saunders told me. “That’s not what science is, and it could never be that.”

Teresa Carr is an award-winning, Texas-based journalist with a background in both science and writing, which makes her curious about how the world works. She is a former Consumer Reports editor and writer, and a 2018 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. In 2019, she began penning the Matters of Fact column for Undark.

Teresa Carr is a Colorado-based investigative journalist and the author of Undark's Matters of Fact column.