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Insect Apocalypse? Maybe Not, Says Newly Published Study Co-Authored by Hendrix Professor Moran


Filled black circles represent LTER sites with arthropod data that were included in the study. Colors on the underlying map delineate ecoregions as defined by the USDA Forest Service. 

CONWAY, Ark. (August 11, 2020) — For years now, scientists have warned of a coming “insect apocalypse” that threatens to wipe out many arthropod species, bringing significant ecological ramifications, including adverse effects on food production for human and other animal populations. But exactly what changes are we seeing in the United States? At this point, the declines do not appear to be as widespread as feared, according to a new study recently published in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Hendrix College’s Elbert L. Fausett Distinguished Professor of Biology Matthew D. Moran and University of Georgia Professor of Agroecology Bill Snyder collaborated on the study with lead author Michael S. Crossley, a postdoctoral researcher in the UGA Department of Entomology. Numerous undergraduates from Hendrix, postdoctoral researchers Crossley and Amanda R. Meier from UGA, and other researchers from the USDA participated in the data analysis. Emily M. Baldwin, Lauren L. Berry, Leah C. Crenshaw, David H. Nichols, Krishna Patel, and Sofia Varriano formed the team of Hendrix College student researchers for the project.

The idea for the study stemmed from a conversation between Snyder and Moran, who attended college together and over the years have maintained their friendship and pursued similar research interests. In their discussion, they recalled the U.S. National Science Foundation’s network of Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites established in 1980. They posited that examining four decades of data gathered by this network of 25 monitoring locations across the country could yield significant findings.

“We thought the LTER data would be ideal for asking this type of question,” Moran said. “These study sites were set up in the 1980s to monitor and study ecological processes across the United States. If, indeed, insect declines had occurred during this time frame, those monitoring efforts should have detected it.”

The research team analyzed publicly available databases in the NSF’s LTER network, marking the first time such information has been gathered into a single dataset to be examined for evidence of broad-scale density and changes in biodiversity over time.

While some species and geographical areas showed marked increases or decreases in abundance and diversity, many remained steady, resulting in very little net change in insect population trends nationwide. This lack of overall increase or decline was consistent across arthropod feeding groups, and similar for heavily disturbed versus relatively natural sites.

“No matter what factor we looked at, nothing could explain the trends in a satisfactory way,” said Crossley, the lead author of the study. “We just took all the data and, when you look, there are as many things going up as going down. Even when we broke it out in functional groups there wasn’t really a clear story like predators are decreasing or herbivores are increasing.”

Arthropod data sampled by the team included grasshoppers in the Konza Prairie in Kansas; ground arthropods in the Sevilleta desert/grassland in New Mexico; mosquito larvae in Baltimore, Maryland; macroinvertebrates and crayfish in North Temperate Lakes in Wisconsin; aphids in the Midwestern U.S.; crab burrows in Georgia coastal ecosystems; ticks in Harvard Forest in Massachusetts; caterpillars in Hubbard Brook in New Hampshire; arthropods in Phoenix, Arizona; and stream insects in the Arctic in Alaska.

Snyder points out that individual efforts at conservation may be creating ecological improvements that have a broader influence.

“It’s hard to tell when you’re a single homeowner if you’re having an effect when you plant more flowers in your garden,” he said. “Maybe some of these things we’re doing are starting to have a beneficial impact. This could be a bit of a hopeful message that things that people are doing to protect bees, butterflies, and other insects are actually working.”

About Hendrix College

A private liberal arts college in Conway, Arkansas, Hendrix College consistently earns recognition as one of the country’s leading liberal arts institutions, and is featured in Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges. Its academic quality and rigor, innovation, and value have established Hendrix as a fixture in numerous college guides, lists, and rankings. Founded in 1876, Hendrix has been affiliated with the United Methodist Church since 1884. To learn more, visit