1.2. The importance of insects

We should study insects for many reasons. Their ecologies are incredibly variable. Insects may dominate food chains and food webs in both volume and numbers. Feeding specializations of different insect groups include ingestion of detritus, rotting materials, living and dead wood, and fungus (Chapter 9), aquatic filter feeding and grazing (Chapter 10), herbivory (= phytophagy), including sap feeding (Chapter 11), and predation and parasitism (Chapter 13). Insects may live in water, on land, or in soil, during part or all of their lives. Their lifestyles may be solitary, gregarious, subsocial, or highly social (Chapter 12). They may be conspicuous, mimics of other objects, or concealed (Chapter 14), and may be active by day or by night. Insect life cycles (Chapter 6) allow survival under a wide range of conditions, such as extremes of heat and cold, wet and dry, and unpredictable climates.

Insects are essential to the following ecosystem functions:

  • nutrient recycling, via leaf-litter and wood degradation, dispersal of fungi, disposal of carrion and dung, and soil turnover;
  • plant propagation, including pollination and seed dispersal;
  • maintenance of plant community composition and structure, via phytophagy, including seed feeding;
  • food for insectivorous vertebrates, such as many birds, mammals, reptiles, and fish;
  • maintenance of animal community structure, through transmission of diseases of large animals, and predation and parasitism of smaller ones.

Each insect species is part of a greater assemblage and its loss affects the complexities and abundance of other organisms. Some insects are considered “keystones” because loss of their critical ecological functions could collapse the wider ecosystem. For example, termites convert cellulose in tropical soils (section 9.1), suggesting that they are keystones in tropical soil structuring. In aquatic ecosystems, a comparable service is provided by the guild of mostly larval insects that breaks down and releases the nutrients from wood and leaves derived from the surrounding terrestrial environment.

Insects are associated intimately with our survival, in that certain insects damage our health and that of our domestic animals (Chapter 15) and others adversely affect our agriculture and horticulture (Chapter 16). Certain insects greatly benefit human society, either by providing us with food directly or by contributing to our food or materials that we use. For example, honey bees provide us with honey but are also valuable agricultural pollinators worth an estimated several billion US$ annually in the USA. Estimates of the value of non- honey-bee pollination in the USA could be as much as $5–6 billion per year. The total value of pollination services rendered by all insects globally has been estimated to be in excess of $100 billion annually (2003 valuation). Furthermore, valuable services, such as those provided by predatory beetles and bugs or parasitic wasps that control pests, often go unrecognized, especially by city-dwellers.

Insects contain a vast array of chemical compounds, some of which can be collected, extracted, or synthesized for our use. Chitin, a component of insect cuticle, and its derivatives act as anticoagulants, enhance wound and burn healing, reduce serum cholesterol, serve as non-allergenic drug carriers, provide strong biodegradable plastics, and enhance removal of pollutants from waste water, to mention just a few developing applications. Silk from the cocoons of silkworm moths, Bombyx mori, and related species has been used for fabric for centuries, and two endemic South African species may be increasing in local value. The red dye cochineal is obtained commercially from scale insects of Dactylopius coccus cultured on Opuntia cacti. Another scale insect, the lac insect Kerria lacca, is a source of a commercial varnish called shellac. Given this range of insect-produced chemicals, and accepting our ignorance of most insects, there is a high likelihood of finding novel chemicals.

Insects provide more than economic or environmental benefits; characteristics of certain insects make them useful models for understanding general biological processes. For instance, the short generation time, high fecundity, and ease of laboratory rearing and manipulation of the vinegar fly, Drosophila melanogaster, have made it a model research organism. Studies of

D. melanogaster have provided the foundations for our understanding of genetics and cytology, and these flies continue to provide the experimental materials for advances in molecular biology, embryology, and development. Outside the laboratories of geneticists, studies of social insects, notably hymenopterans such as ants and bees, have allowed us to understand the evolution and maintenance of social behaviors such as altruism (section 12.4.1). The field of sociobiology owes its existence to entomologists’ studies of social insects. Several theoretical ideas in ecology have derived from the study of insects. For example, our ability to manipulate the food supply (grains) and number of individuals of flour beetles (Tribolium spp.) in culture, combined with their short life history (compared to mammals, for example), gave insights into mechanisms regulating populations. Some early holistic concepts in ecology, for example ecosystem and niche, came from scientists studying freshwater systems where insects dominate. Alfred Wallace (depicted in the vignette of Chapter 17), the independent and contemporaneous discoverer with Charles Darwin of the theory of evolution by natural selection, based his ideas on observations of tropical insects. Theories concerning the many forms of mimicry and sexual selection have been derived from observations of insect behavior, which continue to be investigated by entomologists.

Lastly, the sheer numbers of insects means that their impact upon the environment, and hence our lives, is highly significant. Insects are the major component of macroscopic biodiversity and, for this reason alone, we should try to understand them better.

Chapter 1