Why We Should Appreciate Insects: Their Benefits & Importance

Why we should appreciate insects: Their benefits & importance

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Insects, with their staggering diversity and numbers, hold a crucial place in our world.

Often overlooked or even disliked, these tiny critters are deserving of our appreciation. From pollination and pest control to nutrient recycling and medical advancements, insects provide a range of benefits that are vital for our ecosystems and our own well-being.

Discover the countless reasons why we should embrace and value the remarkable importance of insects.

Surprising Benefits of Insects to Humans & the Planet

You might not realize it but insects benefit you every day of your life. From pollinating food crops to lowering climate change, they really do impact the world in a positive way. You might even find them in your health and beauty products!

1. They are Essential to the World’s Food Supply

Insects are essential to the world’s food supply

I spend a lot of time looking at the life of honey bees; I find them a fascinating species, and one thing I have learned about them is that they’re essential pollinators. I’m not just talking about the wildflowers and the blooms in your garden; I’m talking about human crops that may not even exist without the help of bees.

Bees pollinate a whopping 75% of all human crops, and they’re considered a keystone species. Things like apples, blueberries, cucumbers, and melons are all pollinated by bees. According to research, bees pollinate around one-third of the human dietary supply

There’s something of a myth that if bees didn’t exist, we would run out of food. That’s not strictly true, but humans would notice a serious decline in the number of successful crops.

What’s more, bees are producers of honey, which has high nutritional value to humans in terms of energy. It’s also a brilliant way of naturally sweetening foods.

And it isn’t just bees that we have to thank for pollination; lots of other insects have this important responsibility too. Moths, butterflies, and even, albeit accidentally, wasps can pass pollen from plant to plant, which ensures their survival and reproduction.

Amazingly, more than $577 billion worth of crops each year rely on animal pollination. Moreover, while we could use artificial pollination, it’s been proven that animal pollination improves the quality of crops and therefore increases their value.

2. They are a Natural Pest Control Solution

Insect are a natural pest control solution

Now, I’m not going to lie, I do suffer from a spot of arachnophobia. However, I find spiders fascinating creatures and I’m certainly grateful for their presence, at least from a distance. That’s because they are one of nature’s most effective pest controllers and without them, we’d be overrun by flies and moths. In fact, they’ve been deemed so effective that farmers are considering using them as an environmentally friendly alternative to pesticides to protect their crops from the tomato leafminer moth

Spiders aren’t the only creepy crawlies that play a part in controlling other insect populations. For example, you may know that ladybugs have a taste for aphids; without them, aphid populations would grow rapidly out of control and this would have a detrimental effect on many garden plants, including raspberries, strawberries, and other soft fruit plants. Lacewings also enjoy feasting on aphids, so if you ever see them in your garden, let them get on with their work!

One of the most obvious benefits of using insects as natural pest controllers is that we are able to limit the amount of chemicals we use for agriculture and gardening. Landowners are looking at the potential of increasing ladybug habitat in an attempt to encourage growing populations which will then act as pest controllers. This is far preferable to spraying crops with pesticides which can run off into local water supplies and negatively affect local wildlife. 

But what a lot of people worry about is whether insects will be as effective as using chemicals. Turns out they’re actually more effective, according to one report on how ants not only get rid of more pests but also improve crop yield in the process. 

There are even farms that are now breeding insects in the hope that they’ll be used for the greater good. One farm in France is breeding its own insects to protect its tomato harvest after consumers expressed a growing desire for chemical-free farming, and things seem to be going to plan. 

3. They Contribute to Soil Health

Insects contribute to soil health

Let’s think about what plants need for a moment; sunlight, water, nutrients, and healthy soil. But did you know that soil health would greatly decline if it weren’t for certain species of insects?

Worms, beetles, termites, and many other members of the minibeast kingdom are important decomposers. This means that they break down organic matter within the soil, such as plant leaves, old fruits and so on. As this happens, channels in the soil are formed which allow air and water to flow through and then be taken up by plant roots. It’s all one wonderful circle in which insects play a crucial role.

But it doesn’t end there; some insects will excrete matter into the soil that is rich in excess sugar; leafhoppers and aphids are a prime example of this. The substance, known as honeydew, is really important for the soil which encourages beneficial fungal and bacterial growth, producing new organic matter.

While they might be at the bottom of the food pyramid, bugs like slugs, snails, and millipedes are the building blocks for the rest of the ecosystem’s food supply. For example, the fungi that they encourage serve as a source of nutrition to insects such as soil flatworms and beetles. 

The dung beetle is another important contributor to soil health. These strange creatures use the excrement of other animals in mating rituals, for nesting, and even for food. While it might seem gross, it’s essential in recycling nutrients for the benefit of the whole ecosystem.

4. Some Natural Dyes are Derived from Them

Some natural dyes are derived from the cochineal insect

Humans have long used synthetic dyes but these are not good for the environment nor are they as bright and long-lasting as natural dyes. But before the invention of synthetic dyes, humans were using a dye produced by the female cochineal insect that gives a beautiful intense red color.

This is all thanks to a chemical within the bug called carminic acid. It’s kind of gruesome that the insects must be boiled in water to extract the dye, but it’s just one more thing that we can be thankful to insects for.

The cochineal insect which live on the Opuntia cacti produce the pigment carmine as a deterrent against other insects.

Cochineal insects are tropical bugs native to South America and parts of North America. The dye produced by them is called carmine and is used for many applications, such as for coloring fabric and food coloring. However, it’s a labor of love since it takes around 70,000 individual insects to produce just one pound of carmine dye!

5. They Play a Vital Role in Medical Research

Insects play a vital role in medical research

When most people think about medical research, they imagine animals like lab rats and monkeys. However, it’s very common for insects to play a critical role in medical research due to their shockingly similar genetic structures in comparison to humans.

That’s right, I’ll bet you didn’t know that your genetic structures were akin to those of a fruit fly or a mosquito, but it’s true! And because of this obscure connection, scientists have been able to use these little critters in the research of diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s. Where cancer research is concerned, scientists have studied the brain of the fruit fly and how cytokines from a tumor broke down the barriers between the brain and the bloodstream. With this information, scientists then tested how blocking said cytokines improved the health of the fruit fly and the results were positive. In future, similar techniques could be used on humans. 

The potential for fruit flies to be used in this kind of research was discovered in 1995 and, as such, a Nobel Prize was awarded, allowing researchers to really get stuck in.

What’s more, there is potential for humans to harvest compounds from insects to make medicines. In South Korea, as we speak, antimicrobial compounds from blowfly larvae are being used as anti-tumor medications.

Mosquitoes may be the bane of most of our lives but when they’re not biting, they’re actually incredibly useful. For starters, they have been used in research against diseases like dengue fever and malaria but bioactive compounds in their bites may also be used against blood clots.

6. They Help to Mitigate the Effects of Climate Change & Pollution

Insects can help to mitigate the effects of climate change & pollution

We’re all aware of the damage humans have done to the planet and how climate change is affecting every living thing on it. However, insects may be the key to mitigating these effects and lessening pollution. But how?

Primarily, we need to consider how insects can sequester carbon in the soil. While there are lots of insects that are doing this, it’s really the termites and ants we have to thank the most. While we aren’t 100% certain how it works, ants store minerals in the soil which are then converted and broken down up to 300 times faster than they would be otherwise. In fact, ants are so effective that scientists agree that they could have the potential to slow global warming down.

But that’s not the end of it; insects could also help in the fight against plastic pollution thanks to their ability to digest plastic. Sounds pretty horrific to a human, but the wax moth larvae, more commonly known as the waxworm, takes it all in its stride and munches through alarming amounts of polyethylene and polystyrene each day!

Of course, it would be much preferable to not have plastics in the first place. While we’ve used plastic for a number of years, researchers are now coming up with new alternatives and once again, we have insects to thank. It’s all to do with a substance found in their shells (it’s also found in crustacean shells) called chitin which is super tough and fibrous making it an ideal plastic alternative that is 100% biodegradable.

That said, there’s still a lot of work to be done in order to make this a viable alternative because just one thin layer of insect plastic can take as many as 2,500 beetles and their wing casings to make. 

7. Wildlife Rely on Them for Their Survival

Wildlife rely on insects for their survival

Insects may be small, but they’re an essential source of nutrition for a whole host of other creatures that would struggle to survive without them. You may have heard of carnivores and herbivores, but did you know that some animals are classed as insectivores as these little creatures make up the bulk of their diet?

Many animals rely on insects for food, including several types of fish and birds, as well as reptiles like lizards and amphibians like frogs. If these animals did not have access to a sufficient amount of insects for food, they’d struggle to survive.

This would have a direct impact on the rest of the ecosystem as most animals rely on one another and their part in the trophic structure to survive. When one species declines, all others are affected.

8. They are an Indicator Species for Environmental Monitoring

Many insects are an indicator species for environmental monitoring

An indicator species is one that is sensitive to changes in the environment. When changes occur, their behavior or even their presence is affected quickly and very obviously, while that of other creatures may not. This allows scientists to use certain animals to detect changes in the environment early on and there are several insects that play an important role as an indicator species.

For example, researchers in Canada often look at the effects of forestry on arthropod species which seem to be especially susceptible to the changes this industry causes.

Owing to low mobility, macroinvertebrates like snails and fly nymphs are used to assess the water quality in any given environment. The health of these populations can tell us a lot about the overall health of the ecosystem which could be affected by habitat loss, pollution, or invasive species, among other things.

Butterflies have also been noted as important bioindicators as they are very sensitive to change. By observing them and their behavior, scientists are able to monitor the health of the ecosystem and see how humans impact the environment as well as making changes for the better.

9. They Play an Important Role in Forensic Science

Insects play an important role in forensic science

Death isn’t something that most of us want to think about, but it’s inevitable. You might think that insects have nothing to do with human death, but their mere presence could be used to solve mysterious deaths and even crimes.

When bodies are discovered, it is up to a team of forensic entomologists to determine how long the person has been dead. This is no mean feat and requires several investigations and clues, including the presence of insects. By looking at what insects are present and at what stage of life they’re in, it’s possible to determine the date of death.

This is because many fly species are among the first to make an appearance around a corpse which provides the perfect place to lay eggs. So simply by looking at what life stage the larvae are in, we can hazard a guess at when the deceased passed away.

When working with police in the case of a suspicious death, these clues may be crucial in solving the crime and determining who was responsible.

What’s more, the type of insects present on the body could be an indicator of where the death occurred, whether any drugs were involved, and even if the corpse has been moved. This might sound far-fetched but it’s really as simple as looking at what substances or chemicals are present in the insects and at what levels.

10. They are a Sustainable & Nutritious Alternative to Meat

Insects are a sustainable and nutritious alternative to meat

In the West, the idea of eating insects doesn’t even cross our minds, but in some Eastern cultures, insects have been an important source of nutrition for thousands of years. In fact, while it might take some getting used to, it’s been proven that insects have a wide range of nutritional benefits; they’re high in protein and are bursting with vitamins.

Take crickets as an example. Not only are they a fantastic protein source, but they’re also packed with vitamin B12. Mealworms are an excellent source of vitamin B6 and zinc.

With so many different types of milk these days, it can be hard to keep up so bear with me as I throw another option into the mix; a milk made from cockroach products. Sounds gross, doesn’t it but when you understand the nutritional benefits, it seems much more palatable. It’s called entomilk and it’s produced by the Pacific beetle cockroach. It’s high in iron, zinc, and other goodness and has actually become something of a superfood trend in recent years!

More and more people are seeing the benefits of not eating meat, especially when we consider how unsustainable some farming practices are. As a viable alternative to traditional meat, it’s now being suggested that we switch to insects like grasshoppers, mealworms, and crickets. When it comes to farming these creatures, the required resources are much less. Compared to things like cows and pigs, one doesn’t need anywhere near as much water, food, or land to rear insects. It would even be possible to have your own insect farm at home and become more self-sufficient.

On top of this, we have to consider that farming meat animals like cows and sheep are seriously damaging to the planet. It’s been reported that as much as a third of global warming can be attributed to this due to the methane emissions. While insect farming wouldn’t be 100% clean, it would be significantly more eco-friendly than farming larger animals.

Not to mention the fact that there is a global food crisis going on, so by including insects in our diet, it may be possible to work towards ending hunger in third-world nations in an affordable manner.

And if you don’t quite have the stomach for popping a full-sized cricket into your mouth, you could always try a cricket protein powder which is much easier to swallow but still contains all those important nutrients.

11. They are used in a Wide Range of Beauty Products

They are used in a wide range of beauty products

If you’re anything like me then you’ll agree that there’s no better feeling than freshly manicured nails. But if you’re a fan of shellac then you might want to brace yourself; did you know that pretty polish is actually made from a bug?

That’s right, shellac nail polishes may be hailed for their long-lasting glossy appearance, but that’s only because they’re derived from a type of resin called lac that’s secreted by an insect of the same name. In fact, the demand for lac has become so high that there are now plantations in Thailand and India that produce as much as 1700 tons of the stuff every year!

And if you ever use cosmetics with a pearlescent shimmer then you might want to prepare yourself for where that comes from. It’s achieved by crushing up animal scales; most commonly the scales of certain fish species. However, the substance, called guanine, can also be found when crushing up the scales of insects like beetles and butterflies; so next time you wear that shimmery eyeshadow, you might have one of your garden buddies to thank for it.

All those lotions and potions you use on your skin are packed with lipids; fats and oils, many of which come from insects. It might sound a little strange but these fats are actually amazing at softening the skin which is why they’re a common ingredient in soaps.

Perhaps not quite as weird as the use of beeswax in cosmetics. This substance has long been loved for its softening purposes as well as its ability to stabilize formulas, which is why it’s a common ingredient in lip balms, creams, and other products, including candles.

12. They are used in Developing New Treatments & Drugs

Insects are used in developing new treatments & drugs

As I discussed earlier, bugs are often used in medical research, but they’re also used in drugs and treatments for a variety of conditions. For example, the substance chitin, which is found in the exoskeletons of various beetles and bugs, is ideal for making dressings for wounds. That’s because chitin is a polymer that is also biodegradable and has anti-infection properties. 

Another excellent method of treating wounds is with maggots. It might not be a great idea if you’re squeamish, but they do a pretty good job because they love to feed on dead tissue. The benefit of this is that as the dead tissue is removed, new growth is encouraged. What’s more, this therapy has other benefits, such as reducing any odors coming from the wound and lowering the chance of infection. 

Bees produce a range of substances that are useful to humans, one being propolis which is a resin-like substance. This is often used in medical products because it’s a natural antioxidant and has antimicrobial properties. If that wasn’t enough, bee venom can also be used in injections to fight allergies to bee stings.

One of the most amazing ways that insects help us in the medical world is through silk production. For many years, insect silk, namely from silkworms, has been used to make medical sutures and today, it has even more uses. Things like medical sponges, films, and gels are all being made using this biomaterial. The material is so effective that hybrid silkworms are now being reared whose silk is reported to be stronger than that of a spider!

13. They are used in the Production of Silk for Textiles

Silkworms are used in the production of silk for textiles

Silk is a highly sought-after material, but its production is also an industry that helps to support people’s livelihoods in many parts of the world. While only around 2% of all textile production is made up of silk, it’s incredibly valuable; up to 20 times more than cotton. Countries like China and India, some of the main silk producers, employ millions of people.

That said, it is reported that silk is not a sustainable material since the factories need to be kept at controlled temperatures, and a lot of water needs to be used to produce the material.

Regardless, we would not be able to produce silk if it weren’t for our creepy crawly friends. Insects that produce silk include the larvae of the silkworm moth, whose silk has been used for thousands of years to produce materials for humans.

Moreover, while silk might not be the most environmentally friendly material to produce, it is incredibly strong and the material is long lasting. Researchers claim that silk from the silkworm is up to 70% stronger than spider silk which is why it’s used for everything from medical products to clothing.

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