Insects: Your Other Neighbours

by Michael Holmes

As winter creeps up on the land, insects have largely disappeared (or moved into your heated unit) for another season. Some people may welcome this temporary relief from mosquitoes, wasps, and other bugs. But it is important to remember that, without insects, life on this planet would be deeply impoverished.

In my final installment of "Bugs of Beaver Creek", I would like to highlight a few of the myriad ways that insects benefit our lives, and all life, and why these creatures, however small, deserve a large amount of gratitude and respect.

bumblebee.jpgFor a start, insects are instrumental in pollinating plants. Some plants have evolved to successfully pollinate themselves using the power of the wind, but other plants need some help and call on insects for assistance. Many of us are familiar with the pollinating activities of bees. How delightful it is to watch a bumble bee stuff its adorable little face into a flower, its fuzzy body coated in bright yellow pollen.

But less cute and charismatic insects like wasps and flies are also important pollinators. Nutritious pollen and sweet nectar attract an array of insect visitors to flowers, and all play a role in pollination.

Insects are also important to plants because they help keep the earth aerated and nutrient rich. Ants and other ground dwellers continually turn the soil as they dig out tunnels and chambers, keeping the soil mixed and healthy for growing. If insects were to suddenly disappear off the Earth, the soil would become infertile and many plants, including food crops, would dwindle.

A further service insects provide is the removal of carrion. There are many living creatures in the biosphere, and life dictates that everything living must someday die to provide for new life. Bacteria and bodily chemicals begin to break down the deceased, but decomposition is helped along by insects. Ants, blow-flies, and maggots all feed on dead animal tissue, helping to break apart, digest, and recycle nutrients back into the food chain.

Another valuable role insects play in the web of life is that of prey. While many insects provide food for others by pollinating plants, many insects are themselves food for birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and other insects. Try to think of all the species in Canada that rely on insects as a source of food. The list is very long, illustrating the vital importance insects have throughout the food chain.

So, insects can help plants and animals and work to clean up the Earth, keeping it rich and fertile. But what of non-insect arthropods?

gardenspider.jpgThe meaning of the word arachnophobia is known to most people. Spiders can be quick, easily concealed, alarming in appearance, and have a powerful bite, making them among the most commonly feared animal. But this need not be so. Despite much aversion to them, spiders are among the most magnificent and beneficial creatures. They are master artisans, spinning silk in almost any shape imaginable. Spiders are expert hunters and trappers, helping to control the population of pests and other arthropods. The Garden Cross Spider is a common orb-weaver in our co-op, fashioning beautifully intricate webs to catch its prey.

In my time writing this column I have barely skimmed the topsoil of the rich world of insect life. It is estimated by scientists that 95 per cent of all animal species are insects. With such a large biomass, it is difficult to imagine how these persistent, highly adaptive, seemingly abundant little animals could possibly be threatened by anything the human species is doing.

The fact is that many factors today threaten insect populations.

Pesticides kill both pests and beneficial insects alike, with broad and unforeseeable consequences. The detrimental effects of pesticide use sends shock waves through the environment and the food chain. The unfamiliar reader who types the letters "DDT" into an internet search engine will learn how a chemical intended to control mosquito numbers resulted in a sharp decline in populations of bird species in North America. Pesticides are undiscriminating poisons, and their continued use is nothing short of reckless.

monarch.jpgThe destruction of habitat inevitably has an effect on insects along with other wildlife. Though many insects are versatile, others require specific conditions to survive and reproduce. Large scale destruction of host plants through careless urbanization and herbicide use can severely upset insect populations. For example, the reduction of milkweed plants in North America and deforestation in Mexico has increased the dangers facing migrating Monarch butterflies. Due to the reduction of their habitat and food, these much-loved butterflies are now listed as a species of "special concern" by the Species at Risk Act (SARA).

Climate change, and resulting global imbalances, inevitably threatens insect populations. Just as polar bears in the Arctic require a degree of stability in their environment to survive, so do insects. How fluctuating temperature and weather patterns affect a species is difficult to pinpoint or predict, but the negative impacts of climate change are undeniable. Life relies on certain constants, and when these are upset, life cycles are thrown out of balance and the web of life is put under strain.

It is irrefutably evident that insects are a vital strand in the web of life. The good they provide greatly outweighs any nuisance they may cause us. It is humbling to remind ourselves that if insects were to suddenly vanish, the survival of our species would be thrown into jeopardy. This is how dependent we are on the services of insects. Yet if human beings were to disappear, insect life would carry on quite well without us.

Here at Beaver Creek, we recognize the value of diversity. Diversity in the natural world ensures survival and breeds a rich, versatile, and strong community of life. By being an environmentally conscious co-operative, we nurture this community. Our prairie garden provides numerous flowers for bees and other pollinators, and milkweed plants for Monarch butterflies. The tall wild grasses there foster a large community of grasshoppers and crickets, as well as attracting small birds. Along with providing nutritious vegetables and beautiful flowers, our garden plots are a haven for bees, wasps, butterflies, beetles, spiders, dragonflies, and more -- a cornucopia of life.

As a co-op, we share our resources and treat each other with respect. Let us not confine this generosity to members of own species. Remember: there are many bugs of Beaver Creek, and each one has a role in sustaining the balance of life on Earth.