On 23 March, an interactive touring exhibition on the diversity, endangerment and protection of insects starts at the Zoological Museum, Hamburg. © Alberto Ghizzi Panizza
Insects are the most diverse group of animals on earth. With their extreme abilities, they are the superheroes of the animal kingdom. From dazzlingly beautiful to inconspicuous, they perform vital tasks in the ecosystem. Their decline is also a threat to us humans. The travelling exhibition “Multifaceted Insects: Diversity I Endangerment I Protection” offers information, fun, participation and confidence – because everyone can help to protect insects.
The exhibition organisers Martin Husemann, Frithjof Leopold and Lioba Thaut from the Leibniz Institute for the Analysis of Biodiversity Change (LIB) in Hamburg outline the key points of the exhibition in an interview.
How did the idea for this touring exhibition come about?
In 2017, the Entomological Association of Krefeld published the important study on the extreme decline of insect mass and also their species. At the same time, data on the marine fauna and its changes were being collected at the Museumsverbund der Nord- und Ostseeregion NORe e. V. using the collections for the MarSamm project. During a NORe meeting, the idea quickly arose to also use our collections to analyse changes in the insect fauna of northern Germany and to present these data to the public. Thus the project was born.
What makes this exhibition unique? What is new about it? Why should I definitely go and see it?
The travelling exhibition not only shows visitors the diversity, beauty and usefulness of insects. It also shows developments regarding the endangerment of insects. For this purpose, the participating museums of NORe e. V. have collected data in their collections. Using case studies such as the spotted snare shrike (Bryodemella tuberculata), which is now extinct in Hamburg, or the ground beetle Platynus livens, which has not been found in the Braunschweig area for a long time, we show how the composition of insect species in northern Germany is changing and which species are currently endangered. But we don’t just want to paint a pessimistic picture of insect mortality in the exhibition, we want to encourage everyone to counteract the decline. We present projects for insect protection, but also show simple measures that everyone can implement themselves.
To what extent is the exhibition suitable for the whole family and every level of knowledge?
The exhibition is very interactive with many hands-on and media stations. Simple yet scientifically sound texts, many graphics and illustrations convey knowledge about insects. Interviews on monitors or short radio plays expand this content in an easily accessible form. Visitors can playfully learn how the body of an insect is constructed by creating an insect of their imagination at a media station and sending it home by e-mail. They can playfully find out which insects pollinate which plants and which foods and objects we have in abundance in the supermarket only because of insects. The oversized size of a flat-bellied dragonfly and a mason bee allows visitors to study the physique of these delicate animals in detail and at close range. In addition to models and hands-on stations, we also show insects from the collection of the Zoological Museum in Hamburg.
Why are insects the most fascinating group of animals for you?
Insects offer an incomparable diversity that no other animal group has. With well over a million known species, they are even more than three times as diverse as all known plants combined. They have adapted very differently to their living environment. It is therefore not surprising that they can be found almost everywhere on our planet. What I find most fascinating is that this large number of different adaptations, body shapes and species can be traced back to a clearly structured uniform body structure.
How would you describe the current situation for insects? Where does entomological research currently stand?
We know that the populations of many insect species have declined in many areas of Germany and around the world. For some species it is known that they have even become extinct. Many others probably are, without us noticing or even knowing about these species. For a large number of species, we do not know how they are doing. Many have not even been discovered yet, especially small species and species in the tropics. Therefore, there is still a lot of research to be done. The factors that have led to the decline of certain species and thus the ways to help them are also often still unclear.
Can you sketch out a scenario: What would the Earth look like if the population of insects and the diversity of species declined even more significantly?
That is very difficult to estimate because the biological networks are not all understood in detail and it is also often unclear which gaps can be filled by generalist species. Overall, both fauna and flora would become impoverished as food webs would be restricted and some ecosystem services would become less effective or collapse. A loss of diversity would probably mean that a few species could become more common and problematic, as they would no longer be regulated by natural enemies. Overall, life would become much more complicated and less comfortable. And of course less colourful and diverse.
Have comprehensive protection measures already been developed – and are they already taking effect?
There are many small and also larger protection programmes. These help certain species or groups of insects, at least locally. However, there is still a lack of large systemic programmes that address the root of the problem.
Did the “Krefeld Study” in 2017 trigger a push or even a starting point in systematic monitoring and the development of conservation measures for insects? What has changed in national and international cooperation?
Since the publication of the study, many new programmes and projects have been launched. In addition, many standards have been developed, also by the Entomological Association of Krefeld. These standards are now being applied to national monitoring, which is also being promoted by the German government. Thus, more and more monitoring projects and institutes are being established that deal with the topic, for example the Centre for Molecular Biodiversity Research at the LIB. It is also clear that the collections of the natural history museums are our most important window into the past and only through them can we understand how our insect fauna is changing.
What can we all do concretely to protect insects?
Every little thing that is beneficial to the well-being of insects can contribute to their protection. And insects need the same things for their well-being as we humans do, namely a food source and shelter for numerous activities, such as protection from the weather and enemies, to rest or to raise their offspring. The easiest way to create food sources is to plant many different native flowering plants: on the windowsill, the balcony, in your own garden or in community projects in public spaces. At the same levels, we can also provide hiding places for insects. In most cases, nesting aids, often known as insect hotels, are installed.
In any case, the most important thing anyone and everyone can do is to educate themselves about insects, because each species has its own specialisations. So before we take action, we should find out which species live in the area, what food plants they need and in what material – sand, clay, wood or between stones – they build their nests.
There is a decline in insect species and a decline in mass: can you name the difference and the respective consequences?
When we talk about a decline in mass, researchers actually mean biomass. Biomass describes the mass of all living organisms of a defined group, in our context insects, in a clearly defined area, for example a single meadow or the whole of Germany. The biomass decline is therefore a measure of the fact that the number of all insects is decreasing, i.e. there are fewer or thinner populations than before, which also limits the biomass of other organisms that interact with the insects. A concrete example is that due to the loss of insect biomass, fewer songbirds can feed. Therefore, they are also declining.
So, to assess the overall insect decline, it is important to consider both the biomass of insects and their species diversity.
More information here.
The interview partners
Dr. Martin Husemann: Project Leader “ProInsect” & Section Head Hemimetabole and Hymenoptera at the Leibniz Institute for Biodiversity Change Analysis (LIB), Hamburg.
Frithjof Leopold: Project coordinator “ProInsect”.
Dr. Lioba Thaut: Head of Exhibition at the Leibniz Institute for the Analysis of Biodiversity Change (LIB), Hamburg.
The exhibition will be shown in the museums of the NORe-Verbund (Museumsverbund der Nord- und Ostsee Region e. V.) until 2024 and will then travel to other exhibition venues in Germany. The exhibition was developed in the “ProInsekt” project and is funded by the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) as part of the Federal Programme on Biological Diversity with funds from the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV) and the Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU).