Michael McCarthy: This isn't just about bees – it affects everything

How will we characterise our age? By the birth of the internet? The rise of China? The first black US president? Perhaps in all those ways. But we could also say, less obviously but perhaps more fundamentally, that ours is the age when the insects disappeared.

Edward O Wilson, America's greatest naturalist, called invertebrates – the insects, the spiders, the worms, the snails and all their fellows – "the little things that run the world". He meant that these tiny creatures were at the very base of much of life. For example, in the case of pollination, where bees and other insect pollinators fertilise plants, and enable them to produce fruit and seeds, by transferring pollen between flowers.

In the past five years or so, pollinators, honeybees in particular, have started to vanish in many places, and governments have woken up to the problem, as pollination is worth billions.

In fact, insects such as butterflies, moths, bumblebees and mayflies have been disappearing for a long time, although hardly anyone except specialists has noticed or cared.

Their decline began half a century ago with the introduction of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. But the decline has gathered pace over the past decade with the introduction of systemic insecticides such as the neonicotinoids, which are absorbed into every part of the plant, including the pollen and nectar which pollinating insects collect.

It is too simple to say that one has caused the other, but the link is being made. In his book The Systemic Insecticides – A Disaster In The Making, the Dutch toxicologist Henk Tennekes argues that neonicotinoids are now present in much of Holland's surface water, killing off aquatic insects and leading to a decline in insect-eating birds across the country.

If we care about the little things that run the world, we must wake up to what could be their biggest threat yet.