Many of the articles written about insects generally deal with their destructive action, so we sometimes forget that they play a vital role in environmental conservation. Life on our planet depends on insects, and if these were to disappear, the human species and many others would be in grave danger.
Among other reasons, because they are the primary pollinators and thanks to them, we can eat fruits and vegetables. They also help us control pests and work as recyclers of nature when they process an organic matter of animal and plant origin. Although all insects are essential and fulfill a specific role in the ecosystem, here are 10 insects that are helping and fighting for environmental conservation.
Table of Contents
|Environmental Contribution||Pollination and Biodiversity Maintenance|
|Risk||On the Verge of Extinction|
|Reason||Parasites, pathogens, agricultural pesticides, malnutrition, poor beekeeping practices, and climate change|
They are the most important pollinators globally as they guarantee that plants reproduce and produce fruits. Three key points define the importance of bees to the environment. The first is its role in feeding the planet.
According to data from the American NGO on World Bee Day, they are responsible for pollinating almost three-quarters of the plants that produce 90% of the world’s food. A third of the world’s food production depends on bees; “every three spoonfuls of food, one depends on pollination.”
The second point concerns agricultural sustainability. Pollen is nothing more than a tiny grain found in flowers produced by the plant’s reproductive system. When they land from flower to flower, bees use the many hairs on their bodies to collect pollen, which they then transport to other flowers.
With this action, bees mix the genetic material of plants, ensuring greater variability and, possibly, greater resistance against pests and other predatory insects. Effective cross-pollination is essential for farmers, small or large. The third point is that bees are linked to the maintenance of biodiversity. If bees were to disappear overnight, it would be very likely that Earth’s ecosystems would quickly collapse.
According to the Brazilian Association of Bee Studies (BEE), bees are animals susceptible to changes in environment and temperature. They are, therefore, indicators of biodiversity. In addition to being the largest pollinators globally, they are ways of keeping an eye on the “health” of the planet.
|Environmental Contribution||Pollination and Natural Pest Control|
Wasps play an essential role in areas such as the protection of agricultural crops and the development of medicines, concludes a British study released in April 2021, which aims to help restore the reputation of these insects.
Developed by University College London (UCL), the study, published in the scientific journal Biological Reviews, analyzed more than 500 academic articles on how these insects contribute to preserving ecosystems and new medicines for human use.
According to the investigation results, which also involved the British University of East Anglia, wasps, predators of the insect world, can be used for sustainable pest control in developing countries. Especially in tropical zones, farmers can resort to a local species with minimal risk to the environment. The same study indicates that crop biocontrol to reduce insect damage to crops represents an annual cost of about $416 billion worldwide.
Considering that wasps are the main predators of other insects, the research now released highlights that wasps could be “valuable for agriculture,” namely in controlling a specific pest. The study also analyzed the pollinating function of these insects, considered vital for agriculture. It concluded that, in a universe of 960 species of plants analyzed, 164 are dependent on wasps for the pollination process.
In addition to these functions, the UCL study highlights the importance of wasps in developing medicines for human use since their venom and saliva have antibiotic properties. The researchers also exemplify that the venom of a particular species — the yellow jacket wasp — has shown promise in cancer treatment.
3. Butterflies and Moths
|Environmental Contribution||Pollination and anthropic transformations indicators|
|Reason||Climate Change and Habitat Loss|
In this group are butterflies and moths, which are excellent indicators of anthropic transformations of the landscape, particularly urbanization. They are susceptible to changes in temperature, microclimate, humidity, and level of luminosity. These are the parameters that typically alter with the disturbance of a given habitat.
Furthermore, butterfly diversity can serve as an approximation to plant diversity since butterflies directly depend on plants. Butterflies have become a model taxon for biodiversity and conservation studies, environmental impact estimates, monitoring of animal populations, and many other ecological and genetic studies.
Climate studies focused on current climate change have magnificent allies in butterflies because they belong to a group of insects that have been studied in a dense way on a geographical scale and over time, which provides precious information about the climate emergency facing the world.
An example of this is that the evolution and eco-geographical distribution of certain species of South American butterflies has allowed the implementation of new policies for structuring and locating natural reserves to reinforce the conservation of the richness of flora and fauna of The Amazon.
In addition, these insects are an essential part of the trophic chains of many species of birds, bats, and some insectivorous mammals. Where butterflies abound, there are also other invertebrates, and jointly they lavish on environmental services.
According to the FAO (United Nations Food Organization), butterflies, hummingbirds, flies, bumblebees, and bats are part of natural pollinators. If a butterfly goes extinct, it doesn’t go extinct on its own. Perhaps with it, a wasp fed on the butterfly will disappear forever, and perhaps the number of birds will also decrease because there will be less food. There are even plants that exist only thanks to butterflies.
|Species||More than 10,000|
|Environmental Contribution||Myrmecochory and decomposition of dead plants and animals|
|Risk||Disappearing 8 times faster than other animals|
|Reason||Woodland management, deforestation, and agriculture|
The disappearance of ants in the environment could quickly cause ecosystem degradation, considering these small animals’ services. We would immediately see the accumulation of dead animals on the ground, losing part of the planet’s biodiversity.
Furthermore, ants are responsible for dispersing seeds, a process called myrmecochory, which leads plants to extend themselves into nature, which is essential for some species. Other plant species need the ants to be attracted to their seed to bring it to the anthill, so the seeds germinate. Unlike bees, ants do not fly, but they are also excellent pollinators, carrying pollen from plants and allowing them to fertilize.
The main aspects of the impact of ants on the environment can be divided into two groups. One is associated with the nest construction and the constancy of the place of settlement. The second is associated with the trophic links of ants with other groups of animals and plants.
The first group includes such essential aspects of the activity of ants as concentration and accelerated decomposition of plant residues, aeration, and improvement of the water regime and soil structure. The soil is enriched with humus and elements vital for plants (phosphorus, nitrogen, potassium, magnesium) that are accessible to plants.
Anthills are used as places of settlement by other animals. They create especially favorable conditions for the development of several microorganisms.
The second group includes:
- The predatory and collecting activity of ants.
- Their trophobiosis with aphids and other honeydew-secreting insects.
- The relationship of ants with several vertebrates.
In the extraction of ants, harmful insects predominate. During mass
reproduction, pests in the prey of ants make up 90% or more.
|Environmental Contribution||Biological pest control and bioindicators of aquatic ecological quality|
|Reason||Loss of suitable freshwater habitats|
The dragonflies are insects belonging to the Odonata order. These animals play an essential role in biological pest control and act as bioindicators of environmental quality. The freshwater ecosystems are the significant habitats of these groups. In addition, they are significant indicators of the quality of the waters.
Finding these insects in rivers and lakes in full reproduction is a good sign that this ecosystem is not contaminated. Dragonflies form a fundamental taxonomic group in aquatic communities. These insects indirectly help the conservation of aquatic environments. They are bioindicators of these ecosystems since they are susceptible to water pollution.
The presence of these macroinvertebrates in rivers, lagoons, ponds, etc., indicates the high biodiversity of that area, the quality of the water, and the excellent state of conservation of the ecosystem itself. In addition to this, dragonflies play a vital role in the ecology of these ecosystems since they process organic matter and promote the flow of food to other organisms.
However, minimal physical-chemical changes in water or air are enough to expel them. Because they feed on other insects, dragonflies can ingest large amounts of disease-carrying mosquitoes, preventing their spread. In this way, they also play an essential role as biological controllers.
The greatest threat to the life of dragonflies is environmental pollution. In water, changes in pH, conductivity, or the amount of dissolved oxygen cause drastic changes in its physical and chemical characteristics. Similar processes occur due to greenhouse gases and climate change in the air.
|Species||More than 45,000|
|Environmental Contribution||Natural Balance maintenance and forest regeneration|
|Risk||12 species are endangered|
|Reason||Excessive agriculture, pesticides, habitat loss|
Spiders are highly beneficial for our home, workplace, and environment, of which they are fundamental pieces. Spiders play a significant role in maintaining the ecosystem’s natural balance, as they are voracious predators in nature’s food scale. They eat many tiny insects that could become veritable problems if they didn’t fall into the nets to serve as food for the spiders.
Another advantage that spiders can produce is the regeneration of forests. Even after a fire, although the native species die, other spiders immediately come to the burned forest and start to work for its regeneration. The first thing that explorers found after the devastating explosion of the Krakatoa volcano in 1883 was a spider.
Spiders feed on insects or even small rodents such as mice or bats trapped in their webs. Generally, each spider makes its webs and devours its prey alone. Their diet is one factor that makes spiders necessary for growing and farming. They consume many very varied insects, making them very good at controlling pests that can damage our orchards or gardens.
In many ecosystems, spiders act as controllers of the insect population, eliminating the possible overpopulation of these animals. In addition, spiders can even eat specimens of their species, making their populations controlled among themselves.
7. Ground beetles
|Environmental Contribution||Natural pest control and Organic decomposition|
|Risk||Delta green ground beetle listed in IUCN as Critically Endangered|
|Reason||Excessive agriculture, pesticides, habitat loss|
Ground beetles are non-specialized predators. During the entire growing season of agricultural crops, adult insects and larvae of ground beetles actively feed on various invertebrates living on the surface and in the upper layers of the soil. The general list of their menus is over 400 types of pests.
The importance of ground beetles in regulating the number of pests is evidenced by their species’ diversity composition and the dominance of predators capable of feeding on many types of pests. Not every insecticide can compare with such a range of objects of destruction. Some ground beetles feed on 15-40 species of insects.
In addition, they are constantly present in biotopes, and the periods of activity of some species overlap with periods of activity of others. One of the most significant tasks of beetles is to facilitate the decomposition of organic matter from plants (dead trees, litter, forest humus) or animals (corpses or excrement), guaranteeing the recycling of nutrients in the soils.
Many species also participate in this work, which spends most of their life in the soil, consuming leaves, stems, and roots reintegrated into the soil and are finally degraded by bacteria and fungi, leaving the nutrients ready to be used by the plants.
Another group of great relevance is the dung beetles, which bury balls of excrement to lay their eggs and grow their larvae until they reach adulthood. In natural forests, dung beetles use the excrement of mammals such as monkeys, facilitating the enrichment of nutrients in the soils and aiding in the dispersal of seeds.
If these beetles were not present in livestock systems, it would take a long time for livestock manure to degrade and accumulate in pastures forming large masses of excrement that would impede pasture growth and proliferate flies and intestinal parasites from cows.
Pollination is another of the ecological processes in which some adult species of beetles participate. Pollen attaches to their bodies during visits to flowers and is then released on flowers of other plants of the same species.
Without beetles, many plants will not be able to guarantee their reproduction through pollination, soils will become increasingly poor in nutrients, and the accumulation of organic matter of both animal and vegetable origin will begin to generate problems in agriculture and our health.
|Species||1300 – 2000|
|Environmental Contribution||Organic farming and pollination|
|Reason||Excessive agriculture, pesticides, habitat loss|
The lacewing is a beneficial insect that is rather inconspicuous and hardly known. Because lacewings are not particularly large, they do not have a noticeable color and are primarily active in the evening and night. Nevertheless, it is worth taking a deeper look at lace flies. Only then does it show how useful, engaging, and stunning they are.
The lacewing larvae have an elongated body shape with small bristles protruding to the side and no wings. Their diet is mainly predatory, which means they suck out other small insects. They are also called “aphid lions” because they eat hundreds of aphids during their larval stage. But the larvae are not picky, and spider mites, thrips, mealybugs, caterpillars, and other small insects are also on the menu.
Some species of adult lacewings feed on other small animals like their larvae. However, most live exclusively on pollen, nectar, and honeydew. And that makes them little helpers when it comes to pollinating plants. Because the lacewing larvae particularly like to eat aphids, the larvae are even bred in large quantities and used in pest control.
Lacewings are particularly useful in organic farming because no synthetic toxins are used here to kill the aphids. In your garden, too, aphids can often cause damage. And like in agriculture, larvae of lacewing can help.
|Environmental Contribution||Pollination and forcing pants to flower quickly|
|Risk||Franklin’s bumblebee is listed as endangered species in the US, and the American Bumblebee is on the verge of extinction|
|Reason||Habitat loss, pesticides, disease, climate change|
Bumblebees are one of the essential pollinators of our ecosystems. The fluffy, humming insects pollinate numerous wild plants and crops like tomatoes, blueberries, and pumpkins. Pollinators contribute more than $24 billion to U.S economy.
Bumblebees cope much better with cool weather: their bodies are covered with fur, generating heat when they fly. As a result of these adaptations, they are often the first bees to be active again in spring. They evaluate the plants, determine which flowers have the most nectar and pollen, and leave scent marks that tell them which flowers they have already visited.
A new study reports that bumblebees force plants to flower quickly by making tiny incisions in their leaves, a discovery that has surprised bee scientists. Suspecting that the bees were inducing the plants to flower, the team organized a series of experiments. The experiments show that when pollen sources are scarce, such as in a greenhouse or during the spring, bumblebees can force plants to flower up to a month earlier than usual.
The research is promising for two reasons. It strongly suggests that bumblebees manipulate flowers, a beneficial skill since warming temperatures worldwide cause pollinators to emerge before plants have bloomed. Insects depend almost exclusively on pollen for food for themselves and their larvae in early spring.
It is also a potential boost to the food supply for humans: if farmers can get their crops to flower earlier, the food production of some plants could be increased.
|Environmental Contribution||Pollination and natural bioindicators|
|Risk||Numbers declining sharply in 25 years|
|Reason||Habitat loss, pesticides, and agriculture|
Hoverflies are a species of fly whose presence or absence is indicative of the state of health of an ecosystem. They are a family of flies, ranging in size from 4 to 25 millimeters, which often have intense colors on the abdomen and the thorax, with alternating yellow and black patches or, in some species, long brown hairs, whitish or reddish.
Hoverflies are beneficial insects because they are among the primary pollinators of natural environments and therefore perform an essential service for the survival of many plants and animals, including our species.
The international scientific community recognizes this animal as an excellent bioindicator organism. We can obtain information on an ecosystem’s conservation status, complexity, or functionality based on hoverflies’ presence or absence in a given habitat.
The variation or disappearance of these “ecological niches” in an ecosystem following an environmental alteration can directly affect the survival capacity of the species themselves, causing their local extinction.
The species observed in the field are compared with those expected for that habitat: the greater the result obtained, the better its ecological integrity or ecosystem complexity and functionality. Therefore, the habitat in question can be defined as well preserved.
Otherwise, we can still identify precisely which microhabitats are good and which are lacking, thus providing fundamental tools to the managing body of that area, which will be able to plan the best interventions for environmental conservation or restoration.
The importance of these insects to the environment is indisputable. Nature benefits from their existence, so preserving them is crucial for the ecosystem balance and the survival of the human species. Without these insects, there are no plants; without plants, there will be no food.