There is mounting concern over the conservation status and long-term trends in insect populations. Many insect populations have been reported to be falling and many species are threatened with extinction. While this is true, the evidence does not support unqualified statements of ‘global insect decline’. Global environmental change does not affect all species equally, and there are clear winners as well as losers from anthropogenic impacts. In this special issue of Insect Conservation and Diversity, we draw together articles that (i) identify key challenges in robust inference about insect population trends, (ii) present new empirical evidence for declines (and increases) in insect populations, spanning whole communities down to single species, in both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and (iii) address the interacting drivers of population change, from empirical studies of environmental correlates, to experimental manipulation of driving mechanisms. We argue that the way forward for insect conservation includes more nuanced language and approaches when communicating ecological evidence to peer and public audiences, beyond just a simplistic focus on the insect decline narrative. This will require an expanded portfolio of approaches to promote the value of insects to society, which in turn, should reinforce the social licence to prioritise insect conservation research. This should help us to deliver the rigorous science necessary to document ongoing trends and understand the drivers and mechanisms of population change. Only then will we be able to mitigate or reverse declining populations.