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Why Do We Need Insects? – Some Amazing Facts and Figures

WATER SCORPSome might answer “as food for our reptiles, amphibians and arachnids”, while others would perhaps offer the standard “pollination” reply. Legendary entomologist E.O. Wilson, however, simply states: “If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos”. He adds: “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago”.


Yes, it is true – despite our technological advances, life would grind to a halt were insects to disappear. The reasons for this are staggering in both their simplicity and complexity. Today I’d like to highlight few fun facts that have surprised me – for example, can you believe that the weight of insects in typical central African rainforests exceeds that of all vertebrates combined? Think about that –taken together, these tiny creatures outweigh the total mass of all resident forest elephants, gorillas, birds, reptiles and other animals with backbones!


How Many Actually Trouble Us?

Estimated at 30 million species, insects comprise 80-95% of all living creatures. A single tree in Panama has yielded 163 beetle species, 100 of which were new to science, and their abundance is not limited to the tropics – an acre of Pennsylvania soil may hold 425 million individual insects. Barely 1% qualify as being harmful to people.


Robber fly

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Jkadavoor

Helpful Roaches, Flies and Termites (Its True!)

Say “insect pest” to most urbanites and the word “cockroach” comes to mind. Yet only 12 of the 4,500+ known species – or 0.3% – are household pests. The rest are important pollinators, decomposers, predators, and prey. Roach research has led to advances in understanding human molecular and cell biology, neuron function, heredity, pharmacology, epidemiology and hormone activity.


Most people are displeased to learn that 1 in every 10 animal species is a fly, but most of the estimated 250,000 species are innocuous or even helpful. Hover flies are important pollinators, and their larvae are used in biological control measures against agricultural pests, while North America’s 1,000+ robber fly species prey upon injurious fellow-flies. Certain shore fly larvae live in the hot (112 F) waters of geysers, while others happily swim about in crude oil; their unbelievable adaptability may hold secrets of medicinal or industrial value.


Contrary to popular belief, not all termites spend their time eating our homes – only 10% of the world’s 4,000+ species attack wood structures. Others eat dead grass, lichens and leaves, and some actually “farm” fungi as a food source. In Australian savannas, termites limit the severity of fires by removing dead grass in quantities equal to that processed by grazing mammals elsewhere.


Weevil Trachelophorus giraffa

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by AxelStrauss

They May Eat Dung and Rotting Fruit, But…

We may be repulsed by the fact that the world’s 7,000 dung beetles feed upon feces, but by burying dung they render it unavailable as breeding site for disease-bearing flies. And they bury quite a lot – in Australia, a single beetle population can process 1 ton of cattle manure each day!


Fruit flies appear as different from people as can be, but a number of their genes correspond in form and function to ours. In fact, fruit fly studies led to the all-important discovery genes are located on chromosomes. This tiny insect has contributed immeasurably to our understanding of cancer, birth defects, cardiovascular disease, aging and other health concerns.


New Medicines and Promising Research

Insects produce compounds that kill cancer cells and viruses, prevent blood clots, and function in ways that cannot be mimicked by synthetic drugs. Cyclosporine, isolated from fungus that lives on beetles, prevents organ transplant rejection (I’ve used it for 20+ years on my cornea transplant), the defensive spray of cathedral termites contains novel antibacterial agents, and wasp venom shows promise in the treatment of degenerative neuronal disorders.


Tufted long-horned Beetle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Flickr upload bot

Drug resistant micro-organisms are being encountered with ever-increasing frequency, especially in hospitals. Medications modeled after the darkling beetle’s peptides may be effective in preventing the development of these “super germs”. Darkling beetle larvae, or mealworms, also have a long history as laboratory animals (and reptile food!).


The silkworm moth (Bombyx mori) is entirely dependent upon people for its survival…after 5,000+ years of captive breeding, it has lost the adaptations necessary for life in the wild. Each cocoon is comprised of a single silken thread measuring up to 3,000 feet in length. The moth’s value is not limited to silk production…genetic engineering techniques have yielded caterpillars that produce human medications instead of silk!


These tidbits of information do not even qualify as “scratching the surface” of this fascinating topic…please post your own favorites below!




Further Reading

Water Scorpion Care

Stag Beetle Conservation and Care

Insect Pets: Praying Mantis Care





  1. avatar

    Im from Poland – (sorry for my english.)
    Great art, I’ll take the inspiration to write articles, for my blog about reptiles.

  2. avatar

    Unfortunately humans were already causing a mass extinction 10000 years ago so Earth won’t ever become normal.

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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