Bugs can be beautiful – the not-so-ugly truth

People might not think they are cute or cool, but the world really is a much better place with insects such as butterflies in it

The largest stick insects are up to half a metre long. Photograph istock

The largest stick insects are up to half a metre long. Photograph istock

 

Nothing brings you back down to earth quite like 11-year-olds. I recently asked a group of Dublin schoolchildren what they knew about insects – the creatures that, as an entomologist, I have dedicated my entire professional life to studying. The resounding response? “They are ugly!” Nothing about them having six legs, or that they can fly, or even that they are small. No, straight up, ugly.

You can probably imagine my face. Incredulous, dismayed, quickly racking my brains for the facts that might inspire them to look beneath the gnarly exoskeleton and see the amazing, fascinating, brilliant examples of 400 million years of evolution. They are the most diverse animal group on the planet! Over one million described species! Maybe another 20 million un-described species worldwide! Compare that with a measly 10,000 bird species and frankly paltry 5,000 mammal species.

And what about how different they all are? The smallest wasps are so tiny that 10 could fit end to end on a pin-head, and the largest stick insects are up to half a metre long! And what about how amazing they are? They can be as loud as a jet engine, produce their own light, farm their own food, and there are about 10 quintillion (that is actually a real number) of them on the planet. And anyway, many of them are beautiful! What about butterflies? Dragonflies? Iridescent rainbow bees?!

But it made no difference. They were ugly – end of. Insects are not cute. They are not cool. Despite Disney Pixar’s best efforts with A Bug’s Life, insects are facing a branding crisis, a colossal marketing fail. We urgently need to make insects hip. Why? Well, as with pretty much all other living things, far too many of them are under threat.

Recent reports from Germany showed a 75 per cent decline in insect biomass over 25 years, and just last week, a study found a nearly 60 per cent decline in butterflies on English farmland over just 10 years. You may greet this news with a hearty “good riddance”, but the world really is a much better place with insects in it.

Regular readers of this column will know that insects are essential pollinators, providing us with highly nutritious fruits and vegetables, as well as luxuries such as chocolate and coffee, cosmetic and pharmaceutical products.

But there’s even more to our six-legged friends than this: silk comes from the cocoon of the silk moth, red food dye from scale insects feeding on cacti, paper is produced from wood pulp in a remarkably similar way to how wasps make their nests. Want to know how long a person has been dead? Ask a forensic entomologist. They can work out how many days it has been since a person died by the sorts of maggots that are present in the decomposing body – different species of fly mature at different rates, and the composition of different species of fly larvae can help identify time of death.

And if it wasn’t for flies, along with a variety of beetles, who help break down dead plant and animal material, we’d be overrun with animal dung. When cattle were first introduced by European settlers into Australia, people soon realised they also had to introduce dung beetles to get rid of the cow pats. Back home, rat-tailed maggots, actually the larvae of the bee-mimicking drone fly, feed on manure.

As they feed, they break down the manure into fragments which can then be recycled by microorganisms to provide nutrients for plant growth. Soil-dwelling insects help to turn the soil, aerating it and distributing nutrients. Ants are particularly good at this job – they can contribute more to soil processing than even earthworms.

Insects are also food for an awful lot of other, more familiar, cuter and cooler animals. Birds and bats catch flying insects on the wing, fish feed on insect larvae in rivers and streams as well as the adults on the surface, and a whole host of land-dwelling animals rely on insects as a source of food – frogs, lizards, armadillos, hedgehogs and shrews, to name just a few.

As you can probably tell, I could go on like this for quite some time. But the point is, beauty is more than skin deep. Insects are awesome and incredibly important in healthy ecosystems. Isn’t it about time we started appreciating the little things?

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