Count bug splats on cars to study insect decline, UK drivers urged
A new app that tracks bug splats on car number plates will enable UK citizen scientists to help shed light on the worrying decline of insects.
Older drivers will remember scrubbing large numbers of splatted insects from windscreens after journeys in past decades. But a 2019 study that analysed car registration plates after trips in Kent found a 50% fall in splatted bugs compared with 2004.
The charity Buglife has now launched the free Bugs Matter app to enable people to collect valuable data. Users start by cleaning their number plate before a journey, which is then tracked by the app to collect location and time data.
A grid, sent via email for printing, is then put over the number plates and the user counts the bug splats within the squares and enters the total into the app. A picture of the plate is also uploaded and counting software can be used to verify the total.
“Many people remark on not having to clean bug splats off their car windscreens as much as they did 20 or 30 years ago,” said Andrew Whitehouse at Buglife, which worked with Kent, Gwent, Essex and Somerset Wildlife Trusts on the app.
“The falling abundance of flying insects should be a major concern to everybody, as these essential creatures are the small things that run the world,” Whitehouse said. “The Bugs Matter app gives everybody the opportunity to take part in essential monitoring that will help us to better understand the health of our insect populations, and our environment as a whole.”
Scientists have warned that insect populations are suffering “death by a thousand cuts”, with many falling at “frightening” rates that are “tearing apart the tapestry of life”. Insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals on Earth, with millions of species, and outweighing humans by 17 times.
They are essential to the ecosystems that humanity depends upon, pollinating plants, providing food for other creatures and recycling nature’s waste. In the UK, ranges of many bumblebee species more than halved between 1960 and 2012 and the number of butterflies fell by almost 50% between 1976 and 2017. A survey of insects hitting car windscreens in rural Denmark found an 80% decline in abundance between 1997 and 2017.
“The main causes of insect decline are chemical use across our countryside, road verges and gardens, and habitat loss,” said Paul Tinsley-Marshall at Kent Wildlife Trust. “But we need lots more data to determine trends. This will strengthen our call for a reduction in pesticide use and better, more joined up insect habitats.”
Gemma Bode at Gwent Wildlife Trust said: “With seeing clouds of insects on a summer evening drive sadly now a thing of the past, this survey will most likely confirm our worst fears. Insects are so important to us all in many ways, including pollinating our crops, so it is therefore vital that as many people as possible participate.”