Despite being essential to our daily life, bugs have been labelled as creepy or even repulsive. This seems crazy, since there are so many reasons we shouldn’t belittle the beetles, such as food, medicine, scientific advancements and even beautiful flowers.
(Photo: David Cole)
Bugs play a key part in plant production. 80% of flowering plants are pollinated by insects. Without them, we would lose one third of the world’s crops. The value of the free pollination insects provide is estimated at $117 billion a year. In order to attract the insects, the plants must make the flowers stand out. We have creepy crawlies to thank for the beautiful array of scents, colours and shapes of flowers. Imagine a world without apples, avocados, cherries, cucumbers, and where flowers are dull or non-existent – this is a world without bugs.
The world of medicine has been using creepy crawlies since ancient times. Maggots have been known to heal wounds for centuries. If put on an infected wound, maggots will not only eat away at the dead tissue, but actually produce disinfectants which kill harmful bacteria. In 2011, 50,000 treatments involving maggot therapy were carried out across 24 countries. In a time of increasing antibiotic resistance, it is vital that we find alternative methods of treating infection.
Despite some species of insects being pests themselves, they can also act as an effective method of pest control. A single ladybird can eat 500 aphids in its lifetime. Some types of spiders even eat their own species, keeping numbers in check. Using insects as natural population controls is estimated to save farmers $400 billion a year. However, it isn’t just a case of saving money – pest-eating insects can dramatically reduce the use of pesticide, which can have harmful effects on the environment, causing a whole myriad of problems for us.
As well as making things we need, insects break down the things we don’t. For instance, dung beetles bury and eat faeces. Australia was once devoid of dung beetles. Cattle farmers were becoming swamped in cow manure – not a pleasant situation! This problem was solved by the introduction of dung beetles. Lots of insects eat leaves, branches and dead animals, recycling the nutrients. Even whole trees are broken down. Without insects, there would be a disgusting build-up of dung and decaying animals.
Venomous spiders have definitely made a bad name for themselves. However, chemicals can be harvested from the venom which control and treat diseases. Likewise, we have insects to thank for the pollination of the Rosy periwinkle, which is involved in the production of a childhood leukaemia drug.
The technological world is even influenced by insects. Termites build and live in huge mounds. These mounds have their own system of air conditioning, and engineers are now studying this to see how it can be applied to our own buildings. The way insects walk (often using six legs) has become an inspiration for scientists who are building robots to send to explore different planets.
Fruit flies have been of huge significance in biological research – ask any geneticist and they will tell you all about the model genome of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. Ecologists also benefit from bugs. Numerous species of insects act as excellent biological indicators, which tell the scientists whether an ecosystem is healthy or being disturbed.
Insects themselves can be a food source – for people, animals and even plants (such as the well-known Venus fly trap). Even if you find bugs more creepy than cute, they are an essential part of the diet for a huge variety of animals. This includes bats, hedgehogs, frogs, mammals (such as black bears and opossums), birds and fish. Entire ecosystems would be devastated without them. In a lot of cultures, bugs are eaten as a delicacy, and so they should be – they are full of protein and nutrients!
Many insect-made products are of use to us. We have bees to thank for honey and beeswax, which is used in the making of candles, cosmetics and soap; luxurious silk is made by a type of caterpillar called silk worms; bugs called cochineals make the red dye used in cosmetics and food. Every day we are surrounded by insect creations, often without realising it.
Insects have a colossal impact on the world we live in. They provide us with food, beauty, scientific growth and maintain the delicate balance of the world we live in.