Jhe labyrinthine world of insects is in deep trouble. Scientists have discovered startling declines in their populations, with the United Nations estimating that half a million species could be lost by the middle of this century.
In writing about this silent disaster for my new book, The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires that Run the World, I explored how the loss of insects jeopardizes our food security, potentially deprives us of new medicines, and degrades the ecosystems that we all depend on to sustain life. Through habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change, we are creating a version of hell for our greatest allies on this planet.
But there is another reason to care about the insect crisis – their amazing characteristics and abilities. Some seem otherworldly – like the butterfly that has one eye on the tip of its penis.
“Each insect is like an alien life form with a detailed life history that’s often so bizarre, you couldn’t create it as fiction if you wanted to,” as California Academy entomologist Michelle Trautwein put it. of Sciences.
Here are 10 of the most interesting things I discovered about them.
Bees can do almost anything
Most of us are aware of the crucial pollination role bees play in ensuring a steady supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. But researchers have discovered an array of abilities in bees that may surprise you.
Bees understand the concept of zero, can add and subtract numbers, and can even be trained to detect landmines more effectively than sniffer dogs. Their pollination services have become so valuable in the United States that there is a growing criminal operation among “bee thieves” to steal beehives from the heartland of California agriculture.
Some bumblebees, meanwhile, are able to fly at an altitude of 5,500 meters (18,000 feet) above sea level (a height just below the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro), can learn to play football and to remember good and bad experiences, suggesting that they have some form of consciousness.
All of this is energy-intensive work. If a human man devoured a Mars bar, he would burn the energy in about an hour; a bumblebee of equivalent size would use the same energy in just 30 seconds.
Beetles have the abilities of tiny superheroes
The world is awash not with rats, sheep or even humans, but with beetles – about 350,000 species and counting. Some have adapted to the modification of the world by humanity, like the weevils that feast on our cereals.
Others are remarkable in themselves. A horned dung beetle is so strong that if it were a human, it would be able to hold six double-decker buses aloft. Another type of beetle, an aquatic beetle called Regimbartia attenuatacan even survive being eaten by a frog by swimming into the amphibian’s stomach and crawling out of its bottom.
There are people who will stand firm against mosquitoes
Mosquitoes are generally considered an annoyance or a deadly threat. Indeed, there are fears that the threat of malaria and dengue will spread as we continue to warm the world to the taste of mosquitoes.
But some entomologists have warm feelings for mosquitoes, pointing to their pollination of certain flowers and their little-known environmental work, where they help move nutrients through soils and plants and provide food for animals higher up the chain. food, such as frogs and birds. . Eliminating all mosquitoes would lead to a cascade of adverse effects.
Cockroaches are hated – but awesome
The only insects that rival mosquitoes in our annoyance are cockroaches. There are thousands of species of cockroaches in forests, but we tend to focus on the two – American and German – that have adapted to our homes.
Objectively, these creatures are marvels. Slow-motion video footage reveals the cockroach can smash into walls at high speed without losing momentum before resizing vertically. These large survivors can fit into cracks as thin as a small coin, bite with a force 50 times their body weight, and survive for two weeks after being decapitated.
Insects have shaped the history of mankind
Insects may not be celebrated like horses, tigers or dolphins, but they have played interesting roles in our own history.
The common swamp mosquito has been called the “founding mother” of the United States by one historian because of malaria that ravaged the British army and helped force its surrender during the American Revolution. A century later, the emergence of modern hives has unlocked farmland productivity and revolutionized agriculture.
What do you think was the first animal in space? A monkey? A dog or a cat, perhaps? It was, in fact, a fruit fly that was blasted beyond the atmosphere in a US military rocket in 1947 to determine the potential impact of cosmic radiation on astronauts.
Moths are unjustly slandered
Moths are often maligned as dusty vandals who like to smash their way through clothes in our closets. This is largely unfair – it is moth larvae, not adults, that feed on clothing, and even then only a few species of moths out of thousands do.
Here, instead, is the Hercules moth of northern Australia. The largest moth in the world, the species has a wingspan as wide as a dinner plate but no mouth – it saw gobbled food supplies as a bulky caterpillar – and two false eyes on the back to confuse potential predators.
We should think more about wasps
Wasps are not just the looters of bucolic picnics. They are also important plant pollinators and predators of the pests that eat away at our most precious flowers and crops.
The research further revealed that paper wasps can grasp transitive inference, a logical arrangement that if A is greater than B and B is greater than C, then A must be greater than C. These wasps can also recognize from other individual wasps looking at their faces.
Chocolate and ice cream production depends on insects
Do you like chocolate ? So be grateful for the tiny gnat that pollinates the cacao tree. Want a world with ice in it? Next, you will need the pollinators that ensure dairy cows have enough alfalfa to eat.
Crickets could become the food of the future
Insects have been on the menu of Asian, African and South American societies for generations, but they are still viewed with concern by many Western diners. That could change as the disastrous environmental impact of eating meat is leading some to turn to insects such as crickets, which can be farmed in large numbers with little pollution.
Crickets can be seasoned with chilli; ants can be dipped in lemon. These are high-protein snacks that could alter our relationship and appreciation for insects in general.
People will show a fondness for insects in unusual ways
Winston Churchill’s butterfly collection helped ease his depression. Walter Rothschild, a scion of the banking family, liked to dress fleas in suits. Across North America, people are planting milkweed to help monarch butterflies. Giant burrowing cockroaches are loved as pets in Australia.
It is lazy to dismiss insects as harmful or irrelevant. Many of us see how valuable they are to our world. This sentiment will need to be multiplied and harnessed if we are to stem the greatest crisis they have ever faced.
The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires that Run the World, is out now in the US