Insects in daily life
Articles about butterflies, bees, and other insects do not give a full picture of our interactions with them. Many are beneficial — in ways you might not know. To preserve the benefits requires our attention to preserving biodiversity — the entire group of species in an area.
If you would enjoy a cup of coffee with a slice of apple or pumpkin pie, you should know these three crops need insects for pollination. Perhaps a glass of wine and a trout for dinner — insects are needed for both. Ecosystem services
Pollination: The importance of insect pollination is well known. The grasses [wheat, corn, rice, oats, and others] provide most carbohydrates for our calorie needs. Grasses are wind-pollinated. Insects pollinate many of our other foods — fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds — that supply us vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other beneficial phytochemicals.
Soil tilling and aeration: Insects burrowing underground loosen the soil allowing in more air and rainwater. Ants bring their foods underground. Nests may go as deep as 8 feet. Leafcutter ants grow fungi underground for their food. Any leftover foods are natural fertilizer further improving the soil. Many solitary wasps make burrows to stock with the food for their larvae. Frass is woody debris made by termites, ants and other boring insects. Insect excrement is also called frass. The soil is improved by the fertilizer and the fine-grained mulch.
Biological control: Ash trees have many uses for their strong, light wood and firewood. Their fruits are food for songbirds and small mammals. They are being eliminated from many areas by the invasive Emerald Ash Borer. Three different species of introduced wasps have reduced the beetle number on test sites. There has been much success using beetles for biocontrol of invasive Purple Loosestrife. Eliminating the Loosestrife allows regrowth of diverse native wetlands supporting their diverse wildlife.
In our gardens, we may have many different wasps, praying mantids, lady beetles, green lacewings, flies, dragonflies, and other groups of insect predators and parasites. They provide some natural biocontrol [“balance of nature”] by reducing the numbers of aphids and other insects we would rather not have around.
Nutrient recycling: Live plants and animals have important stocks of mineral nutrients including iron, phosphorus, potassium, silica, and many others. Without the recycling service from insects and fungi, dead leaves, branches, trunks, and roots would have enough of the nutrient supply to deplete the soil. Without insects and large scavengers, dead animals and animal droppings would also deplete the nutrient supplies needed for new life. Food
For wildlife: All the groups of terrestrial vertebrates [amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals] have species that feed heavily on insects. Some might surprise you.
Eastern Box Turtle eats grasshoppers, beetles and others.
Great Blue Heron and Wood Duck eat aquatic and terrestrial insects. American Kestrel and Eastern Screech-owl eat many insects, including grasshoppers, crickets and beetles. Most woodpeckers rely on insects, and Northern Flicker and Pileated Woodpecker eat mostly ants. Many young songbirds are fed insects, although the adults may eat other items. Mosquitoes and other flying insects are the main food of many birds.
Shrews eat aquatic and terrestrial insects. Eastern Chipmunk and Red Fox are insect eaters.
For poultry, livestock, and humans: Free-range chickens eat free-range insects. Food supplements made from insects can be used to feed livestock. I enjoy honey, and have tried chocolate-covered baby bees. In other countries many different insects are eaten as human food.
For succulent trout and other freshwater fish: Mike Roberts reminded us of trout being stocked in local ponds and streams. Critical in the food chains for trout, and other freshwater fish, are aquatic insects. Their biodiversity includes mayflies, stoneflies, true bugs, caddisflies, dragonflies, crane flies, and many others, with different species in different aquatic habitats. Fly fishermen may “match the hatch” with a fly similar to insects that are hatching. Useful materials
Making useful materials: tannic acid, high quality ink, carmine dye used to color food, beeswax. Medicine, research, and education
Medicine: Forensic science uses insects to determine time of death. Many biochemicals from insects are being looked at as possible antibiotics or other drugs to treat human illness.
Research: Drosophila fruit flies have been very important in genetics. The saliva from the caterpillar of the Waxworm Moth was recently discovered to dissolve a type of plastic. This could lead to a way to deal with some of the plastic pollution problem.
Education: If you see prepared skeletons in a natural history museum, Dermestid beetles may have cleaned them. Biological monitoring
Checking water quality: The macrobenthos are insects that live in or on the sediments of a brook or pond. Yoda Brook flows through my backyard down to the Quinnipiac River. If some poisonous material were spilled into a local catchbasin, it could kill the macrobenthos downstream, and sampling the insects in Yoda Brook could help locate the toxic source, long after chemical testing would find nothing because it would wash out. The ecosystem could take a long time to recover. Esthetics
Butterflies: Although their herbivorous caterpillars eat our gardens, we enjoy seeing Monarchs,
Swallowtails, and many others in our yards, getting nectar from our flowers. “Canary in a mine”
Reduction in insect biodiversity can alert us to developing problems in our environment. In biomonitoring, this can help locate and identify types of stream pollution. Roles in ecosystems
Herbivores: Insects that eat live plants are herbivores. A beetle has had great success reducing invasive Purple Loosestrife, allowing recovery of native marsh ecosystems. Lepidoptera larvae are herbivores that become butterflies or moths as adults.
Predators: Predators kill and eat other animals. Lady beetles and Lacewings eat aphids.
Parasites: A parasite typically does not kill its host immediately. Many wasps and flies are parasitic on other insects. Parasitic wasps will eliminate large groups of aphids from plants. Biological control of the Emerald Ash Borer currently shows promise using three different species of wasps
Decomposers and detritivores: Soil insects eat dead organic material with its coating of microorganisms and digest useable nutrients. Termites and ants
Written and submitted by
Karl Tolonen, Meriden