“Insects did just about everything first. They were the first to form social societies, farm, and sing — just about anything you can imagine.” ~Karl Kjer
“A world without bugs is a world we don’t want to live in.” ~Oliver Milman, author, The Insect Crisis
Importance of insects
Insects aren’t easy to love. They bite us, land on our food, devour the wood in our houses, ruin the crops of farmers, and the mere sight of a cockroach is abhorrent.
Most insect species are found in tropical regions, and the less widely known insects can be fascinating. For example, a water beetle (Regimbartia attenuata) won’t die if a frog eats it – it’ll just jump out of the frog’s butt. A caterpillar species can make its own antifreeze to keep them warm when the weather is cold. Bees can learn to play soccer, do math, and recognize one another’s appearances. Some bees can detect the location of landmines, too.
Insects also undergird almost all ecosystems. There are 1 million of them that are named, and possibly, up to 30 million species that we don’t know of.
A 2019 study revealed that the insect extinction rate is eight times faster than that of birds and mammals, and 40 percent of insect species were decimated globally.
Here’s the good news, only a few insect species are pests, and the overall gains from insects far outweigh the losses. Their diversity is rich and provides imaginative fuel. For example, why do we call the love we feel in our hearts butterflies?
Butterflies in Sweden
We’ve lost a lot of butterflies. A study in Sweden’s Kullaberg nature reserve revealed that more than 25% of 600 butterfly species disappeared in the last 50 years, and overall, almost half of butterfly species are gone. Ironically, they were lost in a nature reserve.
History of Insects
Millennials may not remember the movie, Jurassic Park. But in the movie dinosaurs were recreated from a mosquito that bit dinosaurs, then was stuck to leaf sap and covered in amber. From that mosquito, they got the dinosaur’s DNA.
But movies rarely capture the exact truth. The mosquito species mentioned in the film wasn’t a bloodsucker. What they got right was that mosquitos, including some bloodsuckers, coexisted with dinosaurs some 480 million years ago.
Insects were the first creatures that developed wings so they could fly as trees in the forests grew taller. They flew 175 million years before the pterosaurs, the second animal that flew.
Today, large numbers of insects occupy restricted, small ranges, due to human degradation of natural habitats, the overuse of pesticides, and the spread of urbanization. They’ve become more vulnerable than ever to human activity and behavior.
Insects bolster ecosystems
Insects create the biological foundation for most ecosystems by:
Pollinating plants. Many insects, including flies and mosquitos, collect pollen which sticks to their bodies, then they fly to another flower for more nectar. As they do this, the pollen in their bodies is transferred to the female parts of that flower. Voila, pollination!
Disperse seeds. Wasps, ants, and moths, among other insects, eat seeds. As they do this, some seeds fall to the ground. Others fall as they are carried great distances away from the plant.
Maintain soil structure and fertility. The paper, Role of Arthropods in Maintaining Soil Fertility by Thomas W. Culliney explains how the movement of ants and termites through the soil causes below-surface particles to mix with organic and mineral soil portions. Soil arthropod insects’ feces are also fundamental in forming humus and soil aggregates that stabilize the earth and increase its ability to store nutrients for future use.
Cycling nutrients. Animals and plants eat nutrients from the soil. These nutrients return to the environment via their deaths and decompositions.
Control populations of other organisms. Many predator insects like lady beetles, flower bugs, and hoverflies control insect populations. Some mite species also eat insects, as do parasitoids at an immature stage, which can grow and feed on a single insect host.
Where there is a food web, there will be insects. It could be a freshwater or terrestrial ecosystem. Insects are the architects of ecosystems, so they will definitely inhabit them.
As prey, insects supply us with healthy food. For example, fish eat aquatic insect larvae, enlarging their numbers. Trout, a highly nutritious freshwater fish, eats mayflies. And young, freshwater salmon eat small insects like caddisflies, mayflies, and riffle beetles, among others.
Life Without Insects?
Love them or hate them, insects have a job to do and history has taught us that if bugs aren’t allowed to do their job, the consequence is heavy.
In 1788, the British introduced cattle to Australia. A single cow will, within one year, poop enough to fill five tennis courts annually. But we don’t notice, because dung beetles break down the poo.
In Australia, there were no dung beetles and by 1960, cow poo covered 500,000 acres of grassland, plants were flooded with nitrogen, and nothing could grow.
Without insects, there’d be no almonds, apples, bananas, blueberries, cashews, coconuts, chocolates, and coffee, among others. Fruits like mangoes, papaya, and melons would disappear, as would vegetables like alfalfa and coriander. Insects pollinate many fruits, flowers, and vegetables. They also produce beeswax, silk, and honey, among others.
Predatory and parasitic insects often attack animals or plants that are pests to humans. In this way they control pest populations, whether they are insects or weeds, keeping them at a tolerable level, and shepherding the balance of nature.
Without insects, there would be no deserts, farmlands, or forests. Instead, there would be an overload of corpses everywhere, too many to be eaten by vultures. Usually, the bulk of the job is done by over 500 species of flesh-eating insects that exist globally.
Aesthetics as we know it will be very different without insects. Imagine a world without butterflies. Also, Native Americans from the United States used parts of beetles to feather their crafts. Brightly colored beetle wings were used by Ecuador’s Jivaro Indians to make earrings. A scarab beetle was the Egyptian symbol of their sun god. Ancient Greek coins were decorated with bees. Many postage stamps depicted insects.
Insects and the human economy
Farmers, people in the plant business, and/or food business are in debt to insects because they pollinate our food crops. They also decompose dead material, in this way recycling nutrients. They provide the means to grow food, and they themselves are also food for fish, birds, and other animals. Some people love to eat insects.
Insects help produce silk, fiber, honey, pollen, propolis, royal jelly, and beeswax. The latter is used as a preservative, binding agent, and thickener in cosmetics. Beeswax absolute adds fragrance to perfumes and soaps.
However, not all insects are saints. Some are pests that invade our homes, damage crops, and become vectors for illnesses, among others. But in the totality of insect species populations, they’re few in number, and there are some insects that prey on pest insects, controlling their populations. We just need to have skills in pest management, so that we can respect their space and they will respect ours.
Insects have everything to do with our food industry because they control populations of other organisms, cycle nutrients, disperse seeds, enhance fertility, maintain soil structure, pollinate plants, and are themselves, a major food source.
The era of the new man
Insects have been adapting to environmental changes since the Jurassic period, but today we live in the Anthropocene era (Anthropo, for “man,” and cene, for “new”), characterized by plant and animal species extinctions, polluted oceans, an altered atmosphere, and climate change, all globally, and all the work of humans.
Getting the full picture of insect extinction is complicated. While many species continue to disappear, other insects increase in number and range, like the common mosquito. This raises the number of humans up by one billion that are endangered by illnesses carried by some mosquitos, like dengue, elephantiasis, encephalitis, and malaria among others.
Most people may question the right of mosquitoes to live. But they have an upside. In one’s garden, they are prey to thousands of animals, including birds, bats, dragonflies, and frogs. Also, human blood isn’t their ideal food, they’d rather suck blood from birds, cattle, and horses.
The biggest cause of insect loss is habitat destruction. One-third of all the forests in the world have been destroyed for industrialization, an unwelcome habitat for forest insects.
Pesticides are blamed, too. The pesticide DDT was banned. Its replacement, neonicotinoids, was used by farmers to control pests without harming beneficial insects that eat these pests. However, this chemical is 7,000 times more toxic to honeybees.
If we lost insects, we could also lose potential medicines that may raise our antibiotic resistance. Without insects, entire ecosystems would collapse.
We lose insects because humans degrade ecosystems sometimes beyond repair. We leave behind pollution, overexploitation, the introduction of invasive species, and climate change.
When we lose creatures that inhabit an ecosystem, we also lose their stories, their contributions to the ecosystem, and their manner of interaction–with each other, and with their ecosystem. We lose their irreplaceable services to humanity. We need insects just as much, if not more than forests need them.
Rather than destroy them, we should manage pests. Rather than eliminate all of them, we should keep pests at levels where they can do limited to no harm.
This could be done using an ecological approach. It requires that we continually study insect species in order to devise a multipronged strategy to attain effective long-term management and control. Chemical controls can be balanced with non-chemical tactics. Sanitation can clear out sites where pests gather. Exclusion strategies can minimize pest reintroduction.
Humans vs pests
During the COVID pandemic lockdowns, insects returned to several countries because people were staying indoors. The grass wasn’t getting cut, and strange plants emerged that had disappeared for years. These brought the insects back, and the birds followed soon after. Lesson learned: mini-ecosystems will form if we leave our gardens untended, leave empty lots alone, and overall, stick to an inaction plan. If you want insects to come back, don’t rake your leaves, don’t spray insecticides, and let your grass grow a little taller.
Where agriculture is concerned, a more systematic change is required. The study, “Impacts of Wildflower Interventions on Beneficial Insects in Fruit Crops: A Review” by Michelle T. Fountain explains how growing wildflowers at the edge of your fields will attract the sort of insects that help fruits to grow, whether on trees, bushes, or vines.
Ecosystems and humanity are extremely dependent on insect diversity. The presence of these insects is critical for our children and grandchildren and the other children that will follow in future generations.
We face a major challenge – to maintain and enhance the insects, as their biodiversity is essential and irreplaceable. Over 15,000 scientists agreed that people are “pushing Earth’s ecosystems beyond their capacities to support the web of life.”
The decline of insect populations worldwide is their point of concern. They cite the need to learn what causes insect extinctions, the consequences of their loss, and how extinctions will negatively impact humanity. It’s imperative that people fill in their knowledge deficits so that they can reduce insect extinctions.
The irony is that insects are ignored because they’re little. Milman quoted a scientist who said, “You’ve got one researcher studying 50,000 insects, and 50,000 researchers studying one monkey.”
It’s ironic that this imbalance prevails in the scientific world. Hopefully, people will one day wake up not to smell flowers, but to listen to the singing of cicadas, grasshoppers, locusts, katydids, and crickets. Hopefully, by then, people will have learned about the role insects play in this world, and feel grateful and protective of them. Because every little thing can save you.