Here’s the situation:
…insects are dying off twice as fast as vertebrates, and their extinction rate is outpacing that of mammals, birds and reptiles eight times over. "Insects could be extinct within a century, scientists say" Kris Holt/Engadget February 11, 2019
Insects are the lynchpins of many ecosystems. 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 everywhere will collapse. - Ed Yong/The Atlantic “Insects Are In Serious Trouble” October 19, 2017
Bottom line: the terrestrial biosphere depends on insects and the insects are dying. Why is this happening? In a word: agriculture. First, habitat loss, followed by pesticides and fertilizer run-off. Invasive species and climate change are factors as well. But agriculture is the main culprit.
What to do? Three words: sustainable intensive agriculture. Sure, organic and local help in little ways - but the planet needs help in a big way. Organic and local require more land to produce less food and we need to shrink the terrestrial footprint of agriculture. The less land used, the better - at least as a general rule.
Here are some ideas for farmers, care of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service:
Know the habitat on your farm. Look for areas on and around your land that can support native pollinators.
Protect flowering plants and nest sites. Once you know where bees and other rpollinators are living and foraging, do what you can to protect these resources from disturbance and pesticides.
Enhance habitat with flowering plants and additional nest sites. Most insect pollinators love sun and prefer to nest in dry places. Add flowers, leave some ground untilled, and provide bee blocks (tunnels drilled into wood) to increase the number of native bees and other pollinators on your farm.
Exercise care with herbicides. Unnecessary herbicide use can remove many of the flowers that pollinators need for food.
Minimize tillage. Many of our best crop pollinators live underground for most of the year, sometimes at the base of the very plants they pollinate. To protect them, turn over soil only where you need to.
Allow crops to bolt. If possible, allow leafy crops like lettuce to flower if they need to be tilled right away. This gives bees additional food sources.
Exercise Care with Insecticides. If you use insecticides, choose ingredients targeted to specific species and the least harmful formulations. Spray on calm, dry evenings, soon after dark when most insect pollinators are not active. Keep in mind that even when crops are not in bloom, some of your best pollinators are visiting nearby flowers, where they may be killed by drifting chemicals.
Adopt Precision Methods and Technology. If you can afford the labor, equipment, and software, precision application of fertilizers and insecticides will eventually pay for the initial investment through increased yields, with the added bonus of protecting pollinators.
Manage Brush. Remove invasive woody species in grasslands, which increases sunlight that is critical for many pollinators and allows wildflowers and other native vegetation to return to degraded habitats.
Plant Conservation Cover. Permanent vegetative cover of native grasses, legumes, and forbs, including milkweed and other pollinator-friendly plants, which insures flowers are in bloom for as long as possible to provide nectar and pollen throughout the growing season.
Plant Contour Buffer Strips. Strips of vegetation that run along a contour of a farmed field. This provide another place to ensure availability of valuable nectar and pollen plants for pollinators.
Critical Area Planting. Stabilize the ground in critical areas to curb soil erosion. Include valuable nectar and pollen plants for pollinators.
Develop and Manage Habitats. Open and sunny habitats on uncultivated land can be designed to increase the abundance of plants for pollinators and managed to remain open and sunny.
Create Filter Strips. Strips of vegetation next to water bodies, designed to filter sediment and nutrient runoff, protect water ecosystems and can include plants for pollinators.
Forage and Biomass Planting: Plant grass and legumes suitable for pastures or hay production. Plantings can include alfalfa or red clover, which provide nectar for pollinators.
Practice Integrated Pest Management, an approach to pest control that minimizes risks to people and the environment (Fuller description here) and can be designed to reduce pollinators’ exposure to pesticides, thereby boosting pollinator populations.
Practice Prescribed Grazing. Managing pastures and rangeland to prevent overgrazing and to manage of grazing for high-quality forage. This minimizes disturbances to pollinator-friendly plants and wildlife habitat.
Plant Riparian Herbaceous Cover. Include pollinator-friendly plants in areas adjacent to rivers and streams.
All these suggestions require time and money. Farming is a low-margin business, so farmers will need all the help they can get to save the planet. I’m talking money and guidance from the government (and other wealthy benefactors, whoever they may be).
Lechenet M, Dessaint F, Py G et al (2017) Reducing pesticide use while preserving crop productivity and profitability on arable farms. Nat Plants 3:1–6. doi: 10.1038/nplants.2017.8
Sánchez-Bayo, F. and K. A. G. Wyckhuys (2019). "Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers." Biological Conservation 232: 8-27. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2019.01.020
How Farmers Can Help Pollinators USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
Working Lands for Monarch Butterflies USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service