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Where have all the flies gone?

by John A Burton

Naturalists are all conscious of the decline in species of birds, such as spotted flycatchers, marsh tits and skylarks, but there has been very little comment on the disappearance of flying insects. Of course it is difficult to be objective so I start from a purely subject point of view. Twenty or more years ago I recall often having to clean my windscreen because there were so many squashed insects on it when driving around at dusk. I also recall cycling to the local pub on a summer's evening and on arrival having my beard literally pale green with aphids trapped in it. And when I first moved to Suffolk full time in 1978, I recall buying the nasty old sticky flypapers to hang in my study, and they soon became the ghoulish graveyard of countless flies. I grew up in an era, when most houses still had net curtains, which were not as is so often assumed today to conceal the goings on inside, but to keep the flies from flying through a window open for ventilation.

As I write, I have before me a book entitled: Fighting The Fly Peril: a popular and practical handbook, published in 1915, at a time when horses were still a major form of transport, and consequently manure still a major source of breeding grounds for flies, even in towns. Now even in the wider countryside, flies are a rarity, and along with them it appears that numerous other insects are disappearing.

If this entirely subjective, anecdotal evidence is remotely true it is very worrying since so much wildlife is dependent on insects. It would certainly help explain the dramatic drops in numbers of birds. But where is the data on insect numbers? Years ago I often dabbled in entomology, but do not recall ever keeping records of sweep net catches - we just picked out the interesting specimens and shook the rest free. The same at light traps for moths. Presumably someone, somewhere has some quantitative data. If so I would very much like to know about it. I have tried finding references on the internet, but failed. A lead or two would be very useful.

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John Burton is CEO of The World Land Trust and a natural history writer.