Tiny Workers Help the Earth

There may be more than one million species of insects in the world. Though estimations vary, some experts even believe that there could be as many as 30 million insect species that have yet to be discovered and identified.

A statistic such as this probably makes a great deal of people squirm. After all, many of the schemas we hold about insects are negative. There are bees that sting, cockroaches that bite, ants that swarm, and bed bugs that infest. While none of these facts can be denied, insects also perform heaps of beneficial work for humans.

For one, insects pollinate one-third of our food plants. Apples, plums, avocados, and even coffee all exist thanks to pollinators. Although plant species can use the wind, or direct contact with flowers to go about pollination, transporting nectar via insects is the ideal method.

In the northeastern United States, bees are the most important pollinators. Over 200 species of bees have been recorded solely within New York City. With so many of humans’ favorite foods at stake, it’s no surprise that activists are so up in arms over the fact that over the last few years the honey bee population within the US has been declining at a worrisome rate.

In addition to facilitating the production of foods and matter, insects also aid in decomposition. Insects feed on dead plant tissue, dead animals, and the excrement of other creatures. While witnessing a swarm of insects eat away at dead flesh may seem like a scene out of a horror film, this job is very important since insects are essentially recycling organic matter back into usable forms.

Insects also play an important role within forests, specifically when trees die. When trees begin to rot after a forest fire, or because of drought, age, or pathogens, it is difficult for microorganisms to decompose the dense wood. That is until “specialized pioneer insects” colonize the freshly dead tree and begin to drill holes into the bark thus allowing access to other bark eating insects as well as fungi. This decomposition practice also allows the nutrients and energy stored within the bark to permeate the soil–a procedure that would take microbes twice as long without the aid of these insects.

While humans could potentially find other ways to pollinate plants and decompose material, the ecosystem would still collapse without the presence of insects. For many animals, insects constitute a major portion of their diet. Bats, hedgehogs, anteaters, woodpeckers, and sparrows all depend on insects as a food source. Although insects are at the very bottom of the food chain, if they were removed, the animals above them would scramble for sources of nourishment, and possibly die from the food chain disturbance.

Insects are also a critical part of agricultural and horticultural practices. Farmers are able to better tend and protect their crops when they work in conjunction with insects. Distinguishing which tiny creatures to consider “pests” and which to consider “predators” that will eat the troublesome pests is an important process that farmers carry out on a regular basis.

By using this method of biological control, farmers can abstain from overusing pesticides, which are often hazardous chemicals that harm the environment.

Farmers however, are not insect experts. That’s where entomologists come in. P.J. Liesch, for example, is the manager of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Insect Diagnostic Lab. One of his main duties as manager is accurately identifying insect specimens that arrive at his office, or as he puts it, “determining whether an insect is a ‘bad creature’ or a ‘good creature.’”

Liesch tells BTR that most of the insect specimens he receives come from one of two groups of people: agricultural and horticultural farmers, or individuals who are worried about an insect harming their health or home.

Liesch and his colleagues receive upwards of 2,000 cases per year, and with each lab worker specializing in different types of insects they have been able to identify each creature successfully (with the exception of specimens that arrive too damaged to efficiently examine).

As Liesch explains, while many people may feel that most insects are dangerous, or something to be afraid of, “if one was to put good insects and bad insects on a scale, [the scale] would tip towards the good side.”

Most inquirers reach out to Liesch and his team to find out whether a pest they found in their house could spread harmful bacteria to them, as well as if the insect could possibly destroy the integrity of their property or personal belongings. In regards to farming inquiries, most of them have to deal in one way or another with biological control and figuring out if an insect is a pest or can be used as predator.

Liesch is glad to see that Americans are becoming more concerned with insects’ well being and are even starting to entertain the idea of these animals becoming an integral part of the human diets. Nevertheless, he admits there is still much work to be done. He also doesn’t predict that a dietary change will occur any time “in the foreseeable future” despite the fact that insects have high levels of protein and nutrients.

While it may be quite some time before American citizens adapt to snacking on cockroach-based protein bars, highlighting insects’ important role in our ecosystem should help dispel mistruths that all of these creatures are inherently dirty or detrimental to humans.

Featured image courtesy of William Warby.