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Ecology

Insects Small, Beautiful, and Essential

Insects, our fellow travelers on this planet, are mostly too small to be noticed, but they represent 97% of animal species and account for more than one third of biodiversity. Small and plentiful, they are also special and valuable. They fill the jungle with sound, especially at night, and they lay down the background chorus that accompanies birds and frogs.

Text and Photos: Javier A. Pinzón

They are the sound of the jungle, especially at night. They are the sound of the prairies, the meadows, and the tropics. They are the background chorus that accompanies birds and frogs. They are our fellow travelers and most of them are too small to be noticed. Some of us call them “bugs,” and although we might not want to think about them, they are special and valuable.

They are small, but plentiful. Insects represent 97% of animal species and account for more than one third of Earth’s biodiversity. There are so many that we don’t even know how many there are. According to Michael Samway of the Invertebrate Conservation Research Centre at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, science has catalogued no more than 7% to 10% of insects on our planet; the rest have not even been named.

These small fellow travelers have been on Earth much longer than we have. Genome sequencing shows that insects have inhabited our planet for some 480 million years, meaning that they survived the mass extinctions of the Permian and Cretaceous Periods. Insects evolved from crustaceans, colonized the land, and were the first animals to take to the air.

Although their small size and odd appearance often fails to attract our attention, insects have shaped the landscape over the centuries. The emergence of the first flowering plants some 475 million years ago also saw insects become pollinators, resulting in a great proliferation of both flower and insect species. Flowers of many colors, shapes, and sizes evolved thanks to their pollinators, which became more and more specialized, forging a close relationship between flowers and insects. This relationship is so intimate that some flowers exude the scent of female insect pheromones in order to attract males, who then disperse the pollen without realizing they are performing such an important task.

Their role as pollinators makes insects vitally important to human survival, since our fruit and vegetable production depends on the health and diversity of the insects that pollinate them.

Insects have developed some peculiar techniques for surviving in a world of giants. Some deposit their eggs not only on the surface of leaves, but inside them as well. The leaf tissue provides a mini incubator for the eggs and food for the future larvae. Other insects have even more extreme reproductive strategies: they lay their eggs in the nests of other insects, and the larvae feed off their host when they emerge.

Nonetheless, this survival struggle that favors the strong can also foster seemingly altruistic behaviors: female spiders work for hours to produce special silk for their eggs and die once the task is complete. By giving their lives for their progeny, the mothers ensure that their genes are passed on to a new generation, thus fulfilling their ultimate goal.

One rather strange thing about our little friends is that most have external skeletons, i.e. their structural support is likewise their protective covering. This forces them to slough off and replace the equivalent of our skin as they grow. They leave behind finely-detailed copies of their bodies, right down to the eyes, making it difficult to believe that what is left behind is not actually the insect, but merely a reminder of what it once was.

Insects help preserve the equilibrium of every properly functioning ecosystem. They fill their niches in the jungle and on the prairies, but they also play a significant role in our own lives. There are good and bad insects in farming, ranching, and lumber production. Insects are both pests and pest control. They carry illnesses and provide the cures.

Just like the other inhabitants of our world, including humans, insects are affected by global warming. A slight rise in temperature could affect their reproductive cycles, especially in high-latitude countries. According to University of Sheffield researcher Rhonda Snook, certain species of insects that experience a slight rise in temperature during their early lives have a lower chance of successfully reproducing. This can have ecological consequences such as an imbalance among insect populations, as well as a reduction in the environmental benefits they provide.

Insects are thoroughly interconnected with plants and with other animals; their contribution to human life is incalculable, making it essential to conserve them. Given our failure to understand this —not to mention our feelings of fear and aversion— insect conservation is enormously challenging. Many insects may be heading for extinction without our realizing it. We can help conserve insects by learning about them and protecting all types of ecosystems.

“Bugs” might look strange —although they might be considered handsome under an alternate concept of beauty— and even alien enough to be a source of inspiration to Hollywood, but they are our fellow inhabitants of this Earth, as much at home here as we are. As humans, our mission should be to conserve them and learn to coexist with them, protecting the useful ones and controlling the harmful ones, while striking that careful balance that allows life to prevail.