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Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo clean caterpillars harvested from the trees surrounding their village.

From: Insects – Footsteps 115

Why insects are important and how we can look after and benefit from them

Catching a grasshopper is not easy . They are fast and alert, and they jump or fly away when you approach them.

But my friend Tojo taught me a good method. Choose a long, thin bamboo stick and hold it high as you crouch down. When you see a grasshopper on the ground, creep slowly closer. Then thwip! Down comes the bamboo stick. If your aim is good, you stun the grasshopper and put it in your pocket.

This is what Tojo and I used to do during the morning break at primary school in Madagascar. He would take the grasshoppers home at lunchtime and bring them back in the afternoon, fried and seasoned. He would share them with me, and I would share my cracker mix in return.

I thought this was quite a fun activity, but I soon noticed that I was the only one who would join Tojo. In fact, the other children were laughing at him because his family could not even afford the little packets of cracker mix that the street vendors sold.

And so, after a while, we stopped catching grasshoppers. Tojo preferred to go hungry than to be laughed at for eating insects.

It was the other children who were missing out. Insects are an excellent source of protein and other nutrients. They might be a pest sometimes, but insects keep the natural world in working order. Whole ecosystems would fail if they were not there. These tiny creatures are vital to the future of life on our planet.

‘In some ways, insects are the most successful creatures on earth.’

Marvellous diversity

In some ways, insects are the most successful creatures on earth. They are certainly the most diverse: more than a million different species have been identified, and scientists estimate that there may be up to 10 million species in total. They are also the most numerous. If we tried to count the total number of insects in the world, the numbers would be too huge to be meaningful.

There is an extraordinary range of different types of insects including ants, bees, beetles, butterflies, cicadas, dragonflies, locusts, moths, praying mantises, stick insects and wasps. Some never leave the soil, or live their whole lives as parasites in the fur of a host animal. Others travel huge distances, flying freely over borders, oceans, forests and deserts as true citizens of the world.

Some insects live solitary lives. Others, such as honey bees and ants, build sophisticated communities. Some leave little trace. Others, like termites, have their own architecture. Even the lives of individual insects are diverse and strange, since all have a larval stage that looks completely different from their adult form. For example, maggots are the larvae of flies, and caterpillars are the larvae of moths and butterflies.

There is so much to marvel at in the insect kingdom. My personal favourites are ants. I have spent many happy hours watching them (as the writer of Proverbs encourages in Proverbs 6.6)! One time in Kenya I saw a column of ants work together to form a bridge and cross a stream. It was mesmerising – even if it was interrupted by lots of jumping about and slapping of legs as the ants found me too!

Of course, insects have many ways to make human lives miserable. Fleas in the bed, weevils in the flour. Cockroaches. Flies. An encounter with a wasps’ nest can be a horrible experience. Wood beetles can kill a tree or destroy a building. A locust infestation can take a farmer’s livelihood. Tiny mosquitoes carry diseases that kill millions of people every year. Our relationship with insects is complicated.

Children standing on a mound of of soil made by termites.

Termites recycle dead and decaying plants into new, fertile soil. They make mounds out of soil and saliva to protect their nests below. Photo: Andrew Philip/Tearfund

We need insects

Even though they annoy and distress us sometimes, we cannot live without insects. The biologist and ant expert E O Wilson offers a humbling thought: ‘If all humankind were to disappear, the world would recover a richness that has been lost for thousands of years. But if insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.’

Insects matter because they fulfil so many important roles in nature. One of them is pollination, which is vital to plant reproduction. The plants produce colourful flowers and sweet nectar, both of which attract insects. As the insects feed on the nectar, pollen sticks to their bodies and legs. Then, as they visit other flowers, the pollen rubs off resulting in reproduction and new growth. This exchange runs the living world.

Insects also recycle waste. They gnaw and burrow through dead wood, partnering with fungi and bacteria to break it down. They carry away the last remains of dead animals or other insects. As things are dismantled, their nutrients are released to feed something new. Nothing is wasted, and new life comes from the old.

To return to where we began, insects are also a food and many places have a culture of eating insects of various kinds. That was a culture in decline in Madagascar when I was a child, but it remains strong elsewhere.

Insects are a high-quality, protein-rich food. They are quick and cheap to produce with a fraction of the land, water or carbon emissions of other forms of protein, such as cattle. Because they are natural waste processors, they can be fed on agricultural by-products and food waste such as rotten fruit. They can be food for us, or used as feed for chickens, fish and other livestock.

Insects have an important role in a sustainable future. My friend Tojo had the right idea after all.

Cross-pollination

Cross-pollination is the transfer of pollen grains from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma of another flower of the same species. This leads to fertilisation and the production of seeds and fruit.

Although many plants can pollinate themselves, the increased genetic diversity caused by cross-pollination often results in stronger plants that grow more quickly and are more able to adapt to changes in their environment.

1. The bright colour and fragrance of a flower attract an insect.

2. As the insect collects nectar it brushes against the anthers and pollen sticks to its body and legs.

3. The insect is then attracted by another flower.

4. As the insect feeds, the pollen on its body is transferred to the stigma of the new flower.

5. The pollen allows fertilisation to take place in the ovary.

6. The ovary turns into seeds that grow into new plants.

Written by

Written by Jeremy Williams

Jeremy Williams is a writer and campaigner on social and environmental issues. He is the author of Climate Change is Racist: Race, Privilege and the Struggle for Climate Justice, and writes a blog on sustainability at earthbound.report

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