“There are countless lessons to be learned from insects!  "

“There are countless lessons to be learned from insects! "

Violet Field inPlanetJan 26, 2021 6 min read1 views

Philippe Grandcolas, research director at CNRS, explains to 20 Minutes how to change the perception we have of insects in order to stop the decline of certain species

A dragonfly in Sichuan, southwest China, October 2, 2020. - CHINA NOUVELLE / SIPA
  • "It is urgent to act" in the face of the decline of insects, warn a dozen French researchers in a new study reviewing current knowledge on the subject.
  • To curb the phenomenon, one of the tracks is to change the perception we have of these species, underlines with 20 Minutes Philippe Grandcolas, one of the co-authors.
  • The study, which 20 Minutes was able to consult in preview, also proposes the creation of a foundation to unite the "goodwill" wishing to ally on this subject.

As we know, these not necessarily friendly beasts have their role to play in the ecosystem and are, for some species, threatened. "Decline of insects, death slowly", headlined on this subject at the beginning of the month a team of American researchers in PNAS, the journal of the American Academy of Sciences.

This Tuesday, it is their French counterparts who draw up a similar observation. "Although difficult to quantify, the disappearance of species and the reduction of their populations are proven and common to many ecosystems", write a dozen researchers, in a study published in La Revue de l'Académie des sciences, that 20 Minutes was able to consult. Their work reviews current knowledge on this decline and provides avenues to stop it, such as “long-term monitoring of populations”, reduction of “the use of synthetic insecticides” and the preservation of “habitats. natural ”.

Sutout, this team proposes to change our perception of insects to slow down this decline. Huge task? 20 Minutes asked Philippe Grandcolas, one of the co-authors of the study and director of research at CNRS, to enlighten us.

Why do you recommend “inventing a new human-insect relationship”?

The problem with insects is that they are seen as angels or demons. It's cartoonish and has nothing to do with reality. We cannot have an attitude where we remove the "bad guys" and keep the "good guys". Removing a particular insect species is virtually impossible from a material standpoint. Even with appalling methods, this could not be done without causing harmful effects on humans and negative cascading effects on the rest of the biodiversity. Moreover, experience shows that species that are harmful at certain times can have positive roles at others, and vice versa. The management of insects is more a question of balance to be found than an essential question of pests or auxiliaries.

Interventionism at all costs in ecosystems is always dangerous because there is a risk of causing unintended deleterious effects. It is better to try to intervene at a minimum, in a reasoned way and, if possible when we know that serious problems will really arise, hence the total inadequacy of blind treatments, such as seeds coated with pesticides.

Where does this caricature of insects come from?

There is a cultural aspect: each country has its culture, its relationship to nature in which it considers itself more or less a stakeholder. There is also a fairly classic phenomenon in many cultural fields, is essentialization: when we are confronted with an extraordinarily complex reality, we cannot apprehend it. No human mind is capable of knowing all insects and their exact biology, even in the metropolis. There are 40,000 species of insects in this area alone!

No scientist can claim to have both a global and precise view of all insects and even less a person who does not specifically know this subject. We, therefore, need representations that are necessarily simplified. By simplifying, we can move away from reality and end up believing in our representations instead of constantly questioning them, as scientists must do.


You present concrete avenues to change this bad image of insects, such as food ...

There are indeed a few possibilities for using insects for pet food. Obviously, the idea is not to reproduce the mistakes that there have been in recent years with absurd and dangerous animal feeds, but rather to complete the diet of species in which insects take a natural part. Insect breeding yields are exceptional, both in terms of production and environmental costs, since they generate relatively few greenhouse gas emissions and occupy little natural space. It is an interesting track, it is not at all the only one.

Above all, insects are an incredible source of ideas, in very varied fields, such as organizational or algorithmic aspects - with guidance systems for aircraft, position or traffic regulation algorithms - or for the design of extraordinary hydrophobic or optical materials… There are countless lessons to be learned from insects, which is quite logical: with more than a million species and 400 million years of evolution, we are likely to observe a little more innovation than with a small group of recent organizations.

At the symbolic level, you stress that it is interesting to change the way we tell the world of insects. You point in particular to the role of teachers or artists. How could they be involved?

In recent years, the subject has been visited a lot: there have been books, cartoons, extraordinary naturalistic films on insects. But not yet commensurate with the diversity of insects! We must imagine concrete educational and artistic actions in which we do not seek to glorify the media insect, but in which it becomes a real subject. Using it leads to knowing it better, makes it familiar, and by association can make it acceptable.

You are proposing the creation of an insect foundation. What role would she have? Who would be its members?

The interest of a foundation, it is not only the fact of having an organization which supports the development of a subject, but it is also to put in contact different parts of the company, of manage to reconcile and make different sectors work together. I see him as a scientist. I am often called upon to give lectures to various audiences, and each time I realize that there is a real demand, sometimes for more contact, more participation in a project, than just information.

There are collective actions that people of goodwill can take. Today we are in a mediatized society that encourages participation, particularly through social media. The bad side, as we know, is the unfiltered speeches, the hatred, the fake news. The good side is the ability to make effective contact to jointly lead positive actions at the societal level.

The appeal is for existing foundations to mobilize on the subject of insects and for reflections to lead to a change of scale in the projects or measures envisaged.