Insects are friends, not foes

Human Nature

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I was sitting on the porch with my dad on a viciously hot summer day. I was about 7 years old, with perspiration covering the skin on my small, chubby hands.

Suddenly, a yellowjacket flew and landed on the back of my palm. I felt my heart rate speed up and I immediately began to panic.

“It’s OK, Lia. Let it sniff around,” my dad said. “Just don’t squish it — it just likes the salt on your hand.”

Heart hammering and eyes wide, I watched as the yellowjacket ambled across the back of my palm, its abdomen quivering as it made its way across my knuckles. It disappeared between my thumb and index finger, so I slowly opened my loose fist, watching in awe as the yellowjacket slowly traversed my palm.

After a few moments it flew away, but that encounter left a lasting impression on me. It helped me internalize the common notion about yellowjackets and other critters: “If you leave them alone, they won’t bother you.”

Although this experience was very impactful for me as a kid, I only started appreciating and learning about insects when I was a freshman in college. It was spring 2019, and of all of my classes that semester, “General Entomology” quickly took center stage. I learned about all different types of insects and their functions in the ecosystem, gaining exposure to a whole new world that had been there my entire life but just hadn’t taken the time to fully notice.

Insects are, of course, tiny in size on an individual scale, but they make up the most diverse group of organisms on the planet. Today, there are more than 900,000 insect species known, and scientists estimate that an additional 4.5 million species remain unknown to humans.

Right now, there are about 10 quintillion (1 followed by 19 zeros) individual insects alive on Earth, and their impact and importance in ecosystems are immeasurably large. Unfortunately, insects often fail to garner public affection in meaningful ways.

After all, how often do you think about the insects that play a role in sustaining the food you eat, the plants you appreciate or the backyard animals you admire?

To most people, insects are a nuisance at best or a public health menace at worst. It would take a seemingly impossible feat of public relations magic to reshape the narrative around insects into one that reflects their true value in ecosystems worldwide. When it comes to animal appreciation, furry and charismatic creatures get all the love while the others — such as arthropods and other invertebrates — are often left out and seen as just flies on the wall.

This is a problem because human attention and affection are forms of currency that can translate into resources that will be invested in the long-term welfare of a given species or group of animals. With all the love thrown at a small number of iconic, widely popularized animals, little remains for outcast insects, among other creatures, that are left in the dust.

Even though insects make up the most diverse group of living organisms, they are also largely unrepresented in protective legislation. In November 2020, the Sacramento County Superior Court ruled that insects are not protected under the California Endangered Species Act in a case between the state’s almond industry and the California Fish and Game Commission — a battle that the almond industry ultimately won.

Proactive environmental legislation is hard to come by, and even existing legislation doesn’t always do a good job of including insects.

However, these protections are desperately needed. In recent years, insects have faced extreme rates of extinction. Research published in 2019 shows that total insect biomass on the planet decreases by 2.5% every year, and one-third of insect species are already endangered. Researchers from this study also noted that if current trends continue, all insects could be wiped off the face of the Earth within 100 years.

Even widely recognized and appreciated insect species, such as honeybees, face uncertain futures. The dip in honeybee populations and the rise of monoculture crops have prompted farmers to bring in bees from commercial hives to pollinate crops. Truckloads of bees are driven across the country to do work that, not that long ago, would have been done by their natural honeybee relatives.

If this is the fate of even the most commonly loved insects, then what about the others — those not named or known only to a few scientists? What of the carrion beetles? The bee flies? The damselflies? The jewel wasps?

I want people to love insects as much as I do — not just because they are incredible and interesting, but because they need more attention and protection before it is too late. The disparity in human affection and ecological value has made it possible for large swaths of wildlife, including insects, to slip through the cracks, going unnoticed as they hurtle closer to the brink of extinction.

Insects make up a Jenga piece in the tower of life and are instrumental and necessary for the structural fortitude of countless ecosystems, but they are disappearing. Without advocacy and big changes in our attitude toward insects, the tower will soon come tumbling down.

Lia Keener writes the Thursday column on the relationship between humans and the natural world. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.