It is fair to say that people aren’t always fans of bugs. Many of us think nothing of squishing creepy-crawlies the moment they get within stomping range. In English, ‘bug’ is a verb describing how someone is annoying us, an irritation to be swatted away. But these tiny – and sometimes not so tiny – arachnids and insects are often our allies in the complex and wonderful web of nature. From buzzing bees to spooky spiders, they improve our lives in countless ways.
Chances are, you’ve been stung by a bee at some point. No doubt it hurt. No doubt you cursed the little fuzzball and wished the pests didn’t exist. Perhaps, once the pain receded, you remembered honey, ate some and forgave the guilty party. But you probably didn’t consider just how valuable bees are to food production, and how much worse off we would be without them. According to one study, wild bees provide crop pollination services worth billions of dollars each year, making them critical to our food production systems. They are so important that a global decline in honeybees is causing major concern and efforts to reverse the trend.
Spiders and wasps are probably among the most squashed creatures out there, but both serve a greater purpose. Wasps, of which there are over 100,000 species, chow down on pests such as caterpillars, aphids and whiteflies, protecting crops. Some species of wasps have even been introduced as a natural way of controlling pests in agriculture. Spiders, meanwhile, do a great job at keeping down more harmful house pests such as flies and mosquitoes. Next time you see a spider lurking in the corner of your ceiling, or a wasp batting against your window, put the rolled-up newspaper down.
Flies are the most infamous of the carrion insects, irrevocably associated with death and decay. It’s little wonder we feel revulsion at them. But they are nature’s cleaners, busily breaking down dead tissue to leave nice, clean bones. Could you imagine a world where flies and other bugs didn’t clean up after the Grim Reaper? It would certainly be a lot smellier, and messier. You probably don’t want a fat fly crawling on your dinner after it’s laid its eggs on a dead rat, but they are definitely worth keeping around.
Insects are a crucial link in the food chain, nourishing many birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals – creatures we are happy to coo over as being decidedly cute. They are also widely eaten in many countries as a source of protein, vitamins and minerals. An estimated 2 billion people make the roughly 1,900 edible species of insect part of their diet. From beetles to caterpillars, insects are fried up and munched down as delicacies. And many people from cultures who don’t ingest insects are unwittingly eating them anyway. In the US, there are guidelines on acceptable insect content in foodstuffs, including an average of 30 insect fragments in 3.5 ounces of peanut butter. Yum.
There is a growing movement for people to get more bugs in their brunch as a way to improve the environment. Crickets, for example, require about a quarter of the amount of feed to produce the same amount of edible meat as cattle. Beef uses as much as 160 times more land than staple crops. Livestock produces up to 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Eating more bugs may well be one of the greenest things you can do in your life.
Bug products and other uses
Honey is an obvious product from insects, but there are many others in daily use that we barely even think about. We use beeswax as a moisturizer and in candles. Many natural dyes come from insects, including food dyes from cochineal insects. And science uses bugs in many other interesting ways. Blowflies and other carrion insects are invaluable in forensics, helping scientists to determine when somebody died and so give the police a leg up in catching the killer. Fruit flies are used in genetic studies, because of their short life cycle and the similarities in their genetic make-up to ours. Maggots are still used to clean out infected wounds. Who knows what other uses they may provide as science advances?
Beauty is in the eye of the bugholder
Sure, some bugs are ugly, all bristles, antenna and proboscises. But how many times have you stopped to admire the delicate structures of a dragonfly or allowed a cute ladybird to trundle across your fingers? Many insects are simply beautiful, from the larva of the Cecropia Moth, which looks like a spiky birthday cake, to the glittering rainbow shield bug. The shapes and colours of many insects have influenced artists and craftsmen down the years to enrich our lives. Even if we could do without the benefits of bugs, our lives would be a lot poorer without them.