Insects: those crawly, wiggly, sometimes squishy creatures that are hidden everywhere. They do so much more than just creep you out!
These tiny creatures typically, and perhaps understandably, receive little attention. They are just supporting actors in our everyday lives. Now that they are in decline, it may finally be their time to get recognition for all their hard work. Will it be in time to save them?
A recent article in The New York Times Magazine notes that scientists have described nearly one million insect species, yet that most likely represents only 20 percent of the insects species on earth. Insect diversity is staggering!
I’m one of those rare people who finds insects fascinating for all their adaptations and specialized structures to survive in nearly every ecosystem on earth. Heck, I even find them cute!
Woodwasps can drill through solid wood to lay eggs; diving beetles scuba dive carrying an air bubble; caddisflies produce silk with incredible tensile strength; dragonflies maneuver more adeptly in flight than any drone; and termites cooperate to build air-conditioned structures.
But for those of you who aren’t awed by their uncanny talents, or who don’t think of an adorable squirrel when you see their big eyes and cleaning gestures, you might ask, “What’s the big deal if we lose a few?”
We have lost substantially more than a few. Estimates are ten to sixtyfold fewer insects! We know about their role in pollination, although the $500 billion value to farmers that they provide might surprise us.
However, have we seriously considered how important they are to the rest of our lives? If we follow them through the food web, they are immensely important to our precious backyard birds and trophy trout, and all of our food sources.
We’re left with the question: “What can we do?” Well, we can advise policymakers to take action by better regulating pesticides, supporting Integrated Pest Management alternatives, and working with local farming communities to apply these solutions. Individually, we can seek alternatives to pesticides for our yards and design our gardens with insect-friendly plants and “bee hotels.”
You can volunteer as a community scientist at a local environmental conservation organization and collaborate with researchers when you notice a question that should be investigated. And, of course, you can support your nearest museum of natural history and their scientific research.
Aquatic entomologists often can report on insect densities, including the 50 years of work by the Academy’s Patrick Center for Environmental Research. Collections in natural history museums, like the Academy’s 18 million animals and plants, may not answer every question, but museums’ long-term commitment to storing samples means they can answer many questions about the past.
Although insects will always be viewed as pests, we can also appreciate them for providing so many services that benefit food and other industries we rely on. The importance of insects and their relatively rapid decline should truly concern us.
“We worry about saving the grizzly bear”, says the insect ecologist Scott Hoffman Black, “but where is the grizzly without the bee that pollinates the berries it eats or the flies that sustain baby salmon? Where, for that matter, are we?”
By Stefanie Kroll, Watershed Ecology Section Leader, Academy Patrick Center for Environmental Research, and Assistant Research Professor, Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science