Conservation

Tim R. New

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Insect conservation includes two main contexts. Insects may be conservation "targets," whereby particular species become the focus of concern because of their perceived decline in abundance or distribution, or insects may be conservation "tools," in which they are incorporated into broader aspects of conservation concern through their sensitivity to environmental changes and used as "signals" to monitor or herald changes to natural environments. This role is facilitated by their high richness and diversity in most terrestrial and freshwater environments. Both contexts reflect concern over human intervention with the natural world and the desire to sustain both components (i.e., species and equivalent entities) and processes in natural ecosystems. The major roles of insects in sustaining ecosystem services and processes acknowledge their immense richness and biomass and are reflected in E. O. Wilson's famous characterization of invertebrates as "the little things that run the world."

Nevertheless, with few exceptions, ideas of conserving insects are difficult for many people to accept. In contrast to higher vertebrates and many vascular plants, which people accept readily as objects worthy of conservation, insects have a poor image and are more commonly viewed as objects for suppression or elimination. They are regarded broadly as pests or nuisances or by some disparaging epithet such as "bird food" (however important that categorization may be in sustaining community integrity).

Insect conservation has a long history, mainly through focus on the more popular groups, such as predominantly butterflies, dragonflies, and some showy beetles. These insects are accepted widely as "worthy," simply because people like them and regard them as harmless. It is also revealing to see the commonly polarized perceptions of "a butterfly" and "a moth" despite these being artificial segregates of the same insect order. Concerns arose over decline of particular species from the mid-19th century onward. Initial concerns, and the foundations of modern insect conservation practice, were in western Europe and North America but have expanded to encompass many parts of the world. Conservation in practice includes application of biological knowledge to manage or sustain species and other higher ecological levels, which reflects the total biodiversity and linkages that occur within the complex, imposed framework of regulation and socioe conomic needs that provides for ever-increasing human populations. "Biodiversity" encompasses both taxonomic and genetic diversity, with conservation aiming, broadly, to prevent its loss—either by the extinction of threatened or rare entities or by preventing other entities from decline to that state. As major components of biodiversity, in terms of species richness, ubiquity, and ecological variety, insects are an important and increasingly appreciated component of global conservation need.

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