Updated: Jul 21, 2020
"If we and the rest of back-boned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well. But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the worlds ecosystems would collapse." Sir David Attenborough Buglife
Insects are perhaps the greatest unsung heroes of the natural world. They deliver so many essential services that the living world could not live without them. Working without pay, day and night, in the air, on land and in water. And yet we generally see them as pests and invest so much money and energy in exterminating them, that you would think that they were evil villains. The combination of habitat loss, industrialised agricultural practices and urbanisation has created a situation where 40% of species are facing dramatic declines around the world and one third of insect species are classed as endangered, facing extinction in the next few decades.
"It is becoming increasingly obvious our planet's ecology is breaking and there is a need for an intense and global effort to halt and reverse these dreadful trends. Allowing the slow eradication of insect life to continue is not a rational option." Matt Shardlow Buglife in 'Global insect decline may see 'plague of pests'' BBC
According to the National Geographic, "There are 1.4 billion insects per person on this planet and we need (almost) every one of them."
I would like to take a quick look at a few of the ecosystem services that insects give at no cost, and some of the simple things we can do in our homes, gardens and local countryside to help them survive and even thrive. Future blogs will explore individual groups of insects in more detail.
"Managing insects in ways that ensure the sustainability of ecosystem services is not optional, but rather is critical to human survival. The consequences of undermining the sustainable delivery of ecosystem services include famine, water shortages, threats to human health and economic disruption." Professor Timothy Schowalter SciTech
Everyone is familiar with the friendly bumble bee fumbling flowers as it busily buzzes through a long hot summer day. Up to 90% of the world's food crops rely on insect pollination, producing 35% of total food consumed. Insects are the cornerstone of the food chain for most animals, feeding either them or their prey. They are estimated to be 300 times more efficient than cattle at producing protein. Beyond producing honey, they are also a significant food source for humans in many countries from Sardinia where "crying cheese" is served with maggots tumbling out, to Mexico where spicey grasshoppers are a delicacy. During a swarm year they earned families an average of $3000 dollars each, as opposed to a $150 cost each to spray insecticides. World Atlas
But what about wasps, what good do they do? Well there are many types of wasps with different species providing numerous useful services. These include regulating "pest" species by feeding on aphids and caterpillars, and even parasitising them by injecting eggs into their bodies. Other wasps clean up, feeding on dead insects, recycling dead plant material and speeding up its decomposition. Some wasps are brewers and vintners storing wild yeasts and their offspring re-introducing them to the grapes to create the quintessential flavours of many wines and ciders.
We all smile to see a ladybird or butterfly. They are among the first insects that we learn to recognise, and most people have warm memories of the delight of seeing flurries of them in meadows, or congregating on a particular flower in the garden. Their colours and shades illuminate so many works of art, signifying sunshine, beauty and freedom. In Greek the word for butterfly and soul is the same, "psyche." The Natural History Museum has lots of ideas to help you explore their world and give them a helping hand.
It is clear from the examples above that insects support all of our agricultural endeavours. One that is often overlooked are dung beetles, who provide a major agricultural service by burying livestock dung, taking it from where it can do harm and putting it where it can be useful. This not only prevents fouling pasture and increases nutrient recycling and availability for the grasses, but also increases carbon and water storage in the soil and reduces nitrogen loss via erosion and volatilisation. It also reduces breeding opportunities for blood feeding flies which reduces disease spread and livestock losses. SciTech Europa. At Knepp farm in West Sussex, following a decision to stop using agri-chemicals, particularly wormers for cattle, they have now found 23 species of dung beetle on a single cowpat. Working alongside earthworms and fungi to improve soil fertility. Knepp
So now we know how much we rely on insects, what can we do to support them?
The first most obvious thing is to stop using insecticides in our homes, gardens and farms. Try supporting beneficial insects and using natural remedies, animal husbandry, create habitat for pest predators or barrier methods first. Infestations are a symptom of a system that is out of balance and are nature's way of trying to restore diversity to our mono-cultures. Using insecticides sends things even further out of balance as they are generally neuro-toxins that kill beneficial insects and accumulate in the food chain to kill the predators that could help reduce pest attacks in future. Buying organic food also means that you are supporting producers who are already working with natural processes to maintain the health of their farms.
Creating wild areas in our gardens and field margins Magnificent Meadows Letting the grass and wildflowers grow long before cutting in some areas, returning tree and hedge-cuttings to the soil rather than burning them, by piling them under bushes or in inaccessible corners. These also create habitats for small mammals, reptiles and amphibians who will help control slugs and other garden pests.
Building a bug hotel, there are numerous designs from rough and ready to stylish, and its a great project to do with children to cultivate their curiosity in the natural world.
Plant trees, hedges and flowers that support pollinators and other insects by protecting and creating a network of habitats and opportunities for them to feed and breed.
Create ponds or allow damp areas to develop, this gives many insects places to breed and rest.
Outside lighting: insects mistake it for the moon and get stuck in a tiny orbit, they become exhausted and a third will be dead by the morning. The Guardian So turn it off, unless you are actually outside, or install movement sensors so that it only comes on when you need it.