Insects are a barometer of environmental health. Ecosystems around the world are being subjected to unprecedented man-made stresses, ranging from climate change to pollution and intensive land use. These stresses have been associated with several recent, dramatic declines in insect populations, particularly in areas with heavily industrialised farming practices.
Despite this, the links between insect decline, environmental stress, and ecosystem health are still poorly-understood. A decline in one area might look catastrophic, but could simply be part of normal, longer-term variations. Often, we do not know whether insect decline is a local phenomenon or reflects wider environmental trends. Additionally, most studies do not go far back enough in time or cover a wide enough geographical range to make these distinctions.
To understand and combat insect decline, we therefore need reliable methods to monitor insect populations over long periods of time. To solve this problem, Krehenwinkel, Weber et al. gathered data on insect communities from a new source: tree leaves. Originally, these samples were collected to study air pollution, but they also happen to contain the DNA of insects that interacted with them before they were collected – for example, DNA deposited in chew marks where the insects had nibbled on the leaves. This is called environmental DNA, or eDNA for short.
To survey the insect communities that lived in these trees, Krehenwinkel, Weber et al. first extracted eDNA from the leaves and sequenced it. Analysis of the different DNA sequences from the leaf samples revealed not only the number of insect species, but also the abundance (or rarity) of each species within each community. Importantly, the leaves had been collected and stored in stable conditions over several decades, allowing changes in these insect populations to be tracked over time.
eDNA analysis revealed subtle changes in the make-up of forest insect communities. In the forests where the leaves were collected, the total number of insect species remained much the same over time. However, many individual species still declined, only to be replaced by newcomer species. These ‘colonisers’ are also widespread, which will likely lead to an overall pattern of fewer species that are more widely distributed – in other words, more homogeneity.
The approach of Krehenwinkel, Weber et al. provides a reliable method to study insect populations in detail, over multiple decades, using archived samples from environmental studies. The information gained from this has real-world significance for environmental issues with enormous social impact, ranging from conservation, to agriculture and even public health.