How to save a bug's life

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Insects are Britain's most threatened – yet most overlooked – species of wildlife. But enthusiasts have devised innovative methods to ensure their survival, as Peter Marren reports


If you want to protect a bug, think small. That is the message to be gleaned from different plans to conserve Britain's most threatened species of small life, from large and colourful butterflies and dragonflies to the unsung hordes of hoverflies, beetles and spiders. It is all a matter of scale.

Whales have the ocean to swim in. Lions roam over territories the size of London. But an insect might depend on a solitary hole in a stump or live out its days in a puddle. And, perhaps surprisingly, some of these mini-habitats are in short supply.

More than a thousand invertebrates – more than all our animals, birds, reptiles and fish put together – are said to be in trouble. Without action to protect them we stand to lose such exotic sounding bugs as the Midas tree-weaver and the Golden hoverfly – not to mention the desperate-sounding Depressed river mussel.

As a signatory to the Earth Summit in 1992, Britain is committed to saving species, big or small. The lowliest snail or spider, we have decided, has as much right to exist as animals that engage our sympathies more, such as otters or water voles. But, in practical terms, saving species demands a lot of work. To start with, you have to find out why a small beastie is declining, and that in turn means understanding its way of life. And then you have to come up with the cash and co-operation to produce a workable plan.

Is it worth the bother? After all, few people would know or care if the Depressed river mussel decided to commit genetic suicide and disappear for good. Well, yes it is, says its most earnest champion, the charity Buglife. Human and insect lives are interdependent. "Bugs pollinate our food, clean our water and are crucially important to healthy eco-systems." They are like a tiny component in an aircraft. Small and seemingly insignificant, but take one away and the plane won't fly. Besides, Buglife reminds us, species are declining because of what we are doing to the landscape. In the end, it's not so much about biology as about us. Take away the Golden hoverflies and the Wormwood Moonshiners and it is we that are diminished and shamed.

Not all action plans work. But there have been some shining successes, and we seem to be getting better at it.

Click here or on the image for some of the best recent examples

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