I have a superstitious anxiety about having windows open at night with the lights on inside. When we’ve finished reading in bed, I have to turn out the lights first, and only then open the window. I imagine if I’m not careful, the bedroom will be flooded with winged insects – big blundering moths and little flimsy ones, flies and midges and nameless specks, daddy long legs. I even wrote about this in one of my novels – a city child opening a window at night in the country and going to sleep with the light on, waking to a gargantuan shadow-play of flapping insect life on the bedroom wall. My anxiety is partly guilt, for the insects deceived and bemused by the light, now stuck inside. Partly it’s unease: I don’t like the idea of them brushing against us or feasting on us while we sleep.
Then I begin to think that there aren’t as many insects in the night-time invasion as there used to be. We may as well leave the window open, on warm nights, while we’re reading. Driving the car in the dark, what’s splatted against the windscreen seems paltry, nothing like the thick dead sludge of insect corpses in the old days. Isn’t there a thinning everywhere: didn’t a riot of bees and butterflies visit the gardens of my childhood? In autumn now, brushing through bleached long grass, isn’t the raised cloud of dust-coloured living things sadly diminished? Isn’t there, on the whole, less biting, sniping, buzzing, itching – and therefore by extension less pollinating, less prey for other animals, less nutrient recycling, less miracle of stupendous and various creation? My new anxiety starts the tolling of that alarm bell so familiar inside us now, warning of lost plenitude, broken beauty, endings.
The story of insect decline is complicated: it all depends on which species and which family, and where, and when. Losses may be in overall numbers, or in variety; and insect species can be volatile, numbers plummeting and soaring in reaction to local change from season to season. For most species and most countries in the world, there’s simply not enough data. In the UK, moth biomass seems to be greater now than in the 1960s, although it has declined in some species since the early Eighties.
Some of those vivid particulars I was so sure of – less bedroom invasion, less windscreen sludge – I may have exaggerated, out of fear: we are time-bound animals with language, and predisposed to imagining ourselves falling away from a paradise lost, for our original sin. Yet the US National Academy of Scientists estimates global insect losses annually at 1 per cent, or 10 per cent in a decade. So we’re right to be afraid of ourselves, to hear that bell tolling. If we need data to correct what our imagination cooks up, we need imagination, too, turning the data into seeing and feeling.
Tessa Hadley is the author of seven novels, including “Late in the Day” and “The Past”