EPA Grants Experimental Mosquito Permit, Studies Show Insect Populations Declining

Photo: Oxitec

The Environmental Protection Agency granted an experimental permit to Oxitec, a company with close ties to President Trump, that allows them to release in Houston and the Florida Keys genetically altered mosquitoes intended to help curb the spread of harmful diseases like Zika, chikungunya, and dengue.  While water-borne insects like mosquitos are increasing, most insects are a vital part of the ecosystem that we are unfortunately losing at the alarming rate of approximately 9% each decade, according to a new study in the journal Science.

Why This Matters:  Preventing the spread of harmful diseases is a good thing.  But it is hard to trust whether experimental permits like this one are in the public’s best interest when big donors to the President appear to get favorable treatment by government agencies.  The decline of terrestrial insects is due to habitat loss, which is why we need to conserve 30% of the planet by 2030.  But scientists don’t yet understand why we are losing insect populations so quickly. Approximately three-quarters of all flowering plants rely on insect pollinators  (more than just bees do it) – they are nature’s unsung heroes and we can’t afford to lose them.

Insects Do A Lot of Good

Insect loss is the subject of the latest National Geographic cover story. The list of important ecosystem functions performed by bugs is long and impressive.

  • “Most fruit crops, from apples to watermelons, need insect pollinators.”
  • “Insects are also critical seed dispersers.  Many plants equip their seeds with little appendages, known as elaiosomes, that are packed with fats and other goodies. Ants carry off the seed, eat only the elaiosome, and leave the rest to sprout.”
  • “Insects “provide food for freshwater fish and just about every kind of land animal. Insectivorous reptiles include geckos, anoles, and skinks; tree shrews and anteaters are insectivorous mammals. Birds that subsist mainly on bugs include swallows, warblers, woodpeckers, and wrens.”
  • “Even birds that are omnivores as adults often rely on insects when they’re young.”
  • “Insects are also crucial decomposers that keep the wheel of life turning. By eating poop, dung beetles help return nutrients to the soil.”

Indeed, when entomologists assign a dollar value to all this work that they broke down into four categories of “insect services”—“dung burial, pest control, pollination, and wildlife nutrition”—and they determined bugs are worth $57 billion a year for the U.S. alone.

Genetically Modified Male Mosquitos

The special male mosquitoes are modified to carry a gene that causes female offspring to die, which is their purpose because only female mosquitoes are the ones that bite people and animals and thus spread diseases, while male mosquitos pose no threat.  But the males apparently lose the trait over time, so the impact of this type of mosquito population control is only temporary.  State and local government permits will also be required before the genetically modified mosquitos can be released.

To Go Deeper:  Read the National Geographic story here.  And check out the Nature America website to learn what you can do to help protect 30% of the U.S. by 2030.

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