BERLIN—Save the whales, sure. But save the dung beetles? In 2017, researchers reported a dramatic loss of insects in Germany’s nature reserves: 76% less biomass over 3 decades. Spurred by wide public concern about the findings, the federal government announced on 4 September a €100 million “action plan for insect protection,” which includes at least €25 million a year for research and monitoring of insect populations.
“This takes several steps in the right direction,” says Lars Krogmann, an entomologist at the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany, who with colleagues last year published a nine-point plan with recommendations for reversing insect population declines.
The government plan includes some of those recommendations, such as protecting insect habitats like meadows and hedges. “The insect decline is closely tied to a decline of habitats,” he says. For example, many traditional hay meadows—important habitats for native plants, insects, and other animals—have disappeared as farmers convert them to fields of fast-growing grass for animal feed, adding fertilizer and mowing every few weeks instead of once or twice a year. Farmers have also expanded their fields, plowing former hedgerows and verges. The plan, which is expected to become law in the coming months, proposes that several insect-rich habitats be granted protected status, including semiwild fruit orchards and stone walls in the countryside.
The plan also promises to phase out all use of glyphosate, the world’s most common weed killer, by December 2023. The broad-spectrum herbicide often ends up killing the native plants insects rely on. Use by government agencies—and the government-owned Deutsche Bahn railway company—will be phased out sooner. (Glyphosate has been a hot political issue in Germany, with the agriculture ministry opposing a ban and the environmental ministry pushing for one.) The plan would set tighter regulations on all pesticide use in nature reserves and other protected areas. Approval of new pesticides will have to take into account effects on biodiversity. Even drugs used in veterinary medicine will be reviewed for their effects on insects: Some antiparasite treatments in cattle can harm dung beetles, for example.
The government also says it will take several steps to decrease light pollution, which can disrupt nocturnal insects’ behavior, preventing them from finding food or mates. The plan encourages the use of insect-friendly lights of certain wavelengths, along with motion detectors that turn on outdoor lights only when they are needed. It also will support public education efforts in preschools, schools, and a nationwide “insect-friendly garden” campaign.
One-quarter of the money in the €100 million plan is slated for research and monitoring. It calls for development of a nationwide insect monitoring network—part of a larger biodiversity monitoring program—and increased research into possible causes for the observed declines and the most promising ways to reverse them. It also promises more support for taxonomy research and training—a hugely important step, Krogmann says. Taxonomists qualified to identify the thousands of insect species in Germany “are an endangered species,” he says, with training programs disappearing from universities. “Once your numbers get so low, you can’t reproduce yourselves.”
Wolfgang Wägele, former director of the Leibniz Institute for Animal Biodiversity in Bonn, Germany, says it’s “remarkable” for insects to get such positive attention. The funding actually goes beyond the €100 million mentioned in the insect protection plan, he says, because money for insect biodiversity protection is included in the research ministry’s €200 million program for research on biodiversity. “This really never happened before.”