For Halloween, creepy crawlies, giant spiders and webs decorate our homes, and black birds symbolize evil spirits and other spooky specters. Why do we, as humans, determine certain organisms’ worth based on looks alone? Why don’t we value all life equally and see every piece as important to the puzzle of the planet’s overall ecosystem? Bugs are more than creepy crawlies, they are necessary parts of our life on Earth — this blog will explain why it’s so important to preserve insect biodiversity with action steps you can take!
The Fascinating World of Bugs
Every animal (including humans!) on this planet evolved from bacteria over two billion years ago. Through the study of evolution, we can see the process of heritable changes in organism populations over multiple generations. These processes occur through mechanisms including sexual selection, genetic drift, and natural selection. Thus, many organisms in the same species can look incredibly different.
I personally am fascinated by variations amongst different populations of the same species, referring to a species subspecies, race or breed. I found myself obsessed with entomology, which is a branch of zoology that is the scientific study of insects. Early entomology was highly associated with naming and classifying organisms into groups, then saving those insects into ‘cabinets of curiosity.’ These are really just collections of oddities, though studying insects helps us understand the world around us.
It’s hard to not see or run into one of the 1.5 million named insects whenever you step outside. Insects and other bugs can thrive in any habitat and are the most common kind of animal on our planet, with numbers three times all other animals combined. Insects have the most diverse variation in color, shape, and size, given the sheer number of species and their ability to adapt in severe conditions.
The Importance of Insects
Without insects, our lives would not function the same and our planet and food systems would be entirely altered. If insects disappeared today, we would lose most reptiles and amphibians, and half of all bird species. These little creatures also play a key role in decomposition, which helps return valuable nutrients from dead animals and plants to the soil.
The most well-known job of some insects is pollination. Although bees are famous pollinators, other insects such as butterflies, moths, beetles, ants and wasps also play an irreplaceable role in the world of pollination. Insects pollinate about one-third of the total volume of crops cultivated worldwide. Even if scientists were able to develop wind pollinated crops, we would still not be able to stop ecosystems from collapsing without insects. Although some insects can harm humans and other animals, most are beneficial to our way of life and to natural systems, healthy balance, and organic food cultivation.
The next time you run into an insect, instead of thinking about their spooky appearance, try to remember all of the good they do for our environment. And ask yourself: how can we best support pollinators and other insects?
Pollinators At Risk
Due to climate change, habitat loss, and pesticide use, many pollinators are at risk of becoming extinct. For example, although there are around 160,000 species of butterflies and moths, many are already considered endangered. Since butterflies inhabit almost every terrestrial ecosystem, including deserts, rainforests, and mountaintops, critical conservation efforts for butterflies can be found all over the globe.
In Europe, grassland butterfly species have declined almost 50% since the 1990s. In the United States, we house 800 butterfly species, with 19% currently labeled at risk of extinction. Butterflies are especially fragile, since most require very specific habitat requirements in order to thrive.
Additionally, overgrazing and roadside mowing take a large chunk of grassland habitat away from several species of insects. Bumble bees are commercially reared for use as pollinators for agricultural crops, however these bees carry high pathogen loads and regularly interact with wild bumble bees. The commercial bees often infect the wild bees who have little resistance, leading to significant declines in the bumble bee population. An additional poison for pollinators is pesticide use, chemicals that also destroy flowering plants and lead to greater habitat loss. Climate change further disrupts the relationship between pollinators and plants by shortening the reproductive season for many bees and other insects. If plants bloom before insects are able to reproduce, there will be a lack of nutrition and resources available when the next generation of pollinators are born.
How We Can Help Insect Biodiversity
In order to help pollinators and other insects thrive, we should consider how to support these creatures from our own homes.
- Plant a pollinator-friendly garden with a large variety of flowering plants to provide blooming flowers from spring to fall. This will provide insects with nectar and pollen in all seasons. Be sure to include native plants in your garden since those have evolved through time with native pollinators in your area.
- Eliminate the use of toxic pesticides to not poison any pollinator that visits your garden, hurting the overall population as a result. Stopping the use of pesticides in your garden also helps keep you and your family free of toxins and helps keep our water cycle clean from pollution.
- Let a portion of your yard go wild! Allow a wooded unmowed meadow to appear, and allow for shelter, food, and nesting areas for many species.
- Support conservation. If outdoor gardening is not an option for you, consider supporting conservation efforts of insects by donating to organizations centered around helping endangered species. You can also purchase ethically-sourced insects like butterflies and beetles that have passed away from natural causes in order to support butterfly aviaries that aid in their protection to grow until adulthood and be released into the wild. Many individuals, including myself, keep these butterflies as important parts of our collection, in order to appreciate and educate others about the importance of insects while decorating our homes.
This Halloween, consider how you want to support creepy crawlies across the globe, to educate others on how important all of these insects are.