A world without insects. Imagine camping without bugs. Or picnics without the ants. Or late-night summer strolls without the mosquitoes. For many, this sounds like the ultimate utopia. But what they may not know is that without insects, we may not be able to participate in those activities.
Although insects are considered as pests by a lot of people, they are essential to our daily life and, ultimately, our survival. And here’s why.
What Are Insects?
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, an insect’s body is divided into three parts: the head, the thorax, and the abdomen. Thus, spiders, ticks, and centipedes, for example, are not considered insects.
According to the Smithsonian, the number of insects in the world range from two million to up to 30 million. There could be about ten quintillion insects alive at any given time.
Impact On Economy And Medicine
Although insects are tiny creatures, they contribute largely to the US economy. According to National Geographic, insects contribute approximately $57 billion to the economy. A bulk of this money comes from the wildlife we consume, many of which depend on insects for food. The rest comes from pest control, pollination, and dung burial.
Insects also play an important role in medicine. For example, honey from bees is used to treat burns and skin conditions, Brazilian wasp venom can kill cancer cells, and maggots are used in maggot therapy to treat non-healing wounds.
Without insects, the economy is affected, and the world would not have access to much-needed treatment for diseases and illnesses.
Role In Decomposition And Soil Health
Insects play an important role in decomposition and the recycling of organic matter. They accelerate the process while creating a layer of “humus,” which is organic material that contains nutrients essential for healthy soil.
Other insects help with soil aeration, a process that allows soil and plants to breathe. These insects bury around in the soil, creating holes that allow water, oxygen, and other nutrients to reach plant roots. Insect feces, also known as “frass,” is a natural form of compost. A cockroach, for example, releases nitrogen through its feces. Nitrogen is essential for plant growth.
Insects also facilitate the breakdown of animal waste. Dung beetles feed on the liquefied material in feces and prevent harmful parasites from growing on it. Once done, they bury the dung and lay their eggs inside. This act aerates and releases nutrients into the soil.
If there were no insects to perform these actions, the world would have a lot of dead plants and animals lying around, forests would be barren, and animal waste would be everywhere. But the worst-case scenario for life on Earth without insects is total extinction.
No Pollination And A Broken Food Web
Once insects disappear from the Earth, all life would be gone in less than a century. Living creatures would starve to death. About 80% of plants are angiosperms (or flowering plants) that rely on pollination. Pollination is the process by which plants reproduce, resulting in the production of seeds that will grow into new plants.
Bees, butterflies, beetles, and mosquitoes, to name a few, are plant pollinators that transfer pollen from one plant to another to allow for fertilization to occur. The majority of the human diet, about 50 to 90%, comes from flowering plants. These include apples, corn, and broccoli. These plants are also eaten by the animals we consume, like chickens and cows.
Insects are not the sole pollinators on Earth. Some animals also act as pollinators and some plants rely on the wind for pollination. However, about 75% of the crops used for food depend on insect pollination. If there were no insect pollinators, many of the fruits and vegetables humans eat would disappear. We may be able to find an alternate solution, such as hand-pollination or robotic pollinators, but the costs would be too expensive.
Also, if insects completely disappeared, the whole food web would be in disarray. There are many animals whose diets mostly consist of insects. Such animals include anteaters, armadillos, geckos, bats, and shrews. If insects vanished from these animals’ diets, many would not survive, but some may turn to alternative sources of food such as fruits or plants. However, without pollinators, many of these plants would not be able to reproduce, and before long, many of them would die out. With another food source gone, animals that rely on fruits and plants for food would soon starve and die. Then carnivorous animals who eat other animals would also starve. This ripple effect would soon reach humans.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), at least two billion people consume insects worldwide. Without insects, humans would lose another food source. By the end, there would be nothing left for animals and humans to eat.
Insect Population In Decline
According to an article in the Guardian, more than 40% of insect species are declining, with about a third endangered. Insect abundance in Germany has decreased by more than 75% over 27 years. Insect biomass in Puerto Rico has declined from 10- to 60-fold since the 1970s.
Scientists believe habitat loss, insecticide use, and climate change play a role in the insect decline. A recent study found that habitat loss caused by converting land into intensive agriculture is one of the main reasons for insect decline.
Insecticides kill insects, but it can also kill those that are beneficial to agriculture. Specific insecticides, like neonicotinoids, have been linked to the worldwide decline in bees.
Insects are sensitive to environmental changes. A study published in Global Change Biology found that insects would not be able to escape the effects of climate change. It claims that the changing climate would cause insects to become out of sync with the natural world, therefore having massive consequences. A report found that if global temperatures were limited to a 1.5-degree-Celsius increase, only 6% of insects would be affected. However, if the temperatures rise to 3.2 degrees Celsius above average, 49% of insects could lose more than half of their geographic ranges.