Written by: Penelope Hyland, Colorado Master Gardener, 2018
Bugs, bugs, bugs! It seems like everyone is talking about bugs – what kind are they, good bugs, bad bugs, how to get rid of bugs. I used to be only concerned about bugs when they were eating something they shouldn’t be or getting into something and then I just wanted to get rid of them. The only bugs I liked were the pretty bugs – naturally!
This past spring, I was fortunate to hear Scott Black with the Xerces Society speak at the Landscape with Colorado Native Plants Conference. My eyes were opened to the extent that I am now an advocate for bugs!
So just why is it that bugs are so important? Bugs are the basis of the ecosystem that supports human life. The variety of life depends upon the millions of insects that make up the base of the food chain and allow the ecosystem to function. Insects are the key component of every terrestrial food ecosystem. Their main role is to eat and be eaten. It is difficult to imagine the importance of these tiny creatures that we don’t even see for the most part and then only to eliminate, but they play a crucial role in ecosystems. As the most valuable member of the ecosystem that supports human life, insects:
- Keep the ecosystem in balance
- Condition the soil; insects turn more soil than earthworms
- Provide nutrients for the soil; insects redistribute nutrients in the root zone
- Maintain water quality
- Are instrumental in decomposing organic matter; insects decompose over 90% of plant, human and animal waste
- Remove waste from the environment which lessens the spread of disease
- Assist in pollination and seed dispersal; enable plants to produce fruits and seeds
- Are a key source of medications
- Air purification
- Absorb chemicals
- Stabilize climate
- Recycle nutrients
- Form and protect soil
- Provide a food source for birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians
- Are instrumental in producing honey, beeswax and silk
- Help to keep pests in check; only 1% of insects are pests
Insects are the biological foundation for all terrestrial ecosystems. They cycle nutrients, pollinate plants, disperse seeds, maintain soil structure and fertility, control population of other organisms and provide a major food source for other taxa. Plants and insects have a close symbiotic relationship in which the majority of plants can’t reproduce without insect intermediaries.
In spite of their vast numbers (the biomass of invertebrates dominate the animal world), more than 40% of insect species are declining and 1/3 are endangered. The extinction rate is 8 times faster than mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is decreasing by 2.5% each year. Flying insects have decreased by 76% and more than 40% of the world’s insect species could be extinct in the next 3 decades. Insects are the most varied and abundant species and are essential for the proper functioning of ecosystems. Insects are a vital influence on agriculture, human health and natural resources. The decline of insect numbers will have a devastating effect on ecosystems which are vital for human existence. According to the First Global Scientific Review, the world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction threatening a catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystem.
Biodiversity, in general, is in jeopardy due to:
- Habitat loss
- Agricultural expansion
- Industrial pollution
- Population growth
- Human sprawl
- Land use/management
- Night lights
As 85% of plants rely on insects and other small animals for pollination, a reduction in the insect population means that plants won’t be pollinated which in turn affects the food source for humans. 1 in every 3 mouthfuls of food and drink we consume is derived from pollinated plants. 96% of songbirds rear their young on insects. Without that source of food, song birds stop reproducing as they are unable to feed their young. Insects are the primary food source for birds, amphibians mammals and reptiles.
Human existence depends upon biodiversity and the interaction between species.
Is there anything that can be done to stop or reverse this devastating collapse of nature’s ecosystems? Fortunately, the answer is yes and furthermore, there is something that each and every individual can do to help. Small, easily attainable steps that can be taken by everyone would make a difference. What can you do?
- Reduce the size of your lawn. This can easily be done by simply enlarging flower & garden beds, areas around trees and other border areas.
- Stop using chemicals and pesticides! There are many organic substitutes. Not all insects need to be killed and beneficial insects will eat pests.
- Practice pollinator conservation. Put in a pollinator garden or even just add a few pollinator plants to your landscape. Provide a source of water for butterflies
- Plant native plants whenever possible. Natives are a natural habitat source, are easy to maintain, use less water, encourage birds and other wildlife and thrive better in their native environment
- Grow some of your own food. Even a tomato plant in a pot helps or a small vegetable garden.
- Depending upon the size of your property outlying areas or edge strips can be devoted to natural grasses.
- Keep your yard in a healthy state
Awareness is the key to saving insects. As we acknowledge the fact that human existence depends upon biodiversity and the interaction between species, we can begin to make changes in our lifestyles and land management that will help to provide the necessary habitat for insects and pollinators to thrive. Begin by making changes in your own yard, garden and landscape and share the reasons for the changes with family, friends and neighbors. If everyone would take one step towards the preservation of insects, we can make a difference that will impact the health of the planet.
From the Ground Up, Summer 2020