Preschool Bugs Fast Facts

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Insect roles in the environment and in human society

Many insects are considered pests, because they transmit diseases (mosquitos, flies), damage structures (termites) or destroy agricultural goods (locusts, weevils). Many entomologists are involved in various forms of pest control, often using insecticides, but more and more relying on methods of biocontrol.

Some larvae of some insects are leaf miners.

Although pest insects get the most attention, more insects are beneficial to the environment and to humans. Some pollinate flowering plants (for example wasps, bees, butterflies, ants). Insects have co-evolved in step with them. Pollination is a trade between plants which need to reproduce, and pollinators which receive rewards of nectar and pollen. A serious environmental problem today is the decline of populations of pollinator insects, and a number of species of insects are now cultured primarily for pollination management in order to have sufficient pollinators in the field, orchard or greenhouse at bloom time.

Insects also produce useful substances such as honey, wax, lacquer or silk. Honeybees, (pictured above) have been cultured by humans for thousands of years for honey, although contracting for crop pollination is becoming more significant for beekeepers. The silkworm has greatly affected human history as silk-driven trade established relationships between China and the rest of the world. Fly larvae (maggots) were formerly used to treat wounds to prevent or stop gangrene, as they would only consume dead flesh. This treatment is finding modern usage in some hospitals.

In some parts of the world, insects are used for human food, while being a taboo in other places. There are proponents of developing this use to provide a major source of protein in human nutrition. Since it is impossible to entirely eliminate pest insects from the human food chain, insects already are present in many foods, especially grains. Most people do not realize that food laws in many countries do not prohibit insect parts in food, but rather limit the quantity. According to cultural materialist anthropologist Marvin Harris, the eating of insects is taboo in cultures that have protein sources that require less work like farm birds or cattle.

Many insects, especially beetles, are scavengers, feeding on dead animals and fallen trees, recycling the biological materials into forms found useful by other organisms. The ancient Egyptian religion adored beetles and represented them as scarabeums.

Although mostly unnoticed by most humans, arguably the most useful of all insects are 'insectivores', those that feed on other insects. Many insects, such as grasshoppers can potentially reproduce so fast that they could literally bury the earth in a single season. However there are hundreds of other insect species that feed on grasshopper eggs, and some that feed on grasshopper adults. This role in ecology is usually assumed to be primarily one of birds, but insects, though less glamorous, are much more significant. For any pest insect one can name, there is a species of wasp that is either a parasitoid or predator upon that pest, and plays a significant role in controlling it.

Human attempts to control pests by insecticides may backfire, because important, but unrecognized insects already helping to control the pest populations, are also killed by the insecticides, leading to later population explosions of the pests.

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