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08.02.2024

Top 5 ‘Ugly’ Insects That Are Essential For Our Survival

Why we should protect all of our insects and animals to support biodiversity

As far as insects go, bees have some pretty excellent PR. They make honey, they live inside a nice little house they build themselves, and of course, they do the heavy lifting when it comes to pollination.
In fact, bees pollinate most of the plants we rely on for food. It doesn’t hurt that they are pretty cute, too.

But other insects are essential to our food production too, as well as the environment as a whole. Every living thing on the planet has an important role to play in that vast web we call the ecosystem, including the less-favoured and even feared creatures. Some insects are quite bizarre looking and can have some unappealing traits like biting or stinging (hello, bees sting too!), but we should make efforts to protect them and their habitat all the same.

Here are our top five underappreciated species that do just as important a job as bees do for our food production, and the world at large.

Wasps

Most people are wary of wasps, as they have a pretty bad reputation for being ‘angry’ and stinging people all the time. While their sting does pack quite a punch, and they don’t make any honey, wasps are excellent little pollinators. They feed on nectar and carry the pollen from plant to plant in the same way that bees do. Certain plants rely solely on wasps for pollination.

Wasps don’t just eat nectar. They are also good at controlling the population of caterpillars and greenflies, who would voraciously devour our food crops if not kept in check. They also eat spiders, so depending on your personal feelings about spiders, this could be great news. 

A wasp feasting on nectar from a flower.

Wasps also do other cool things, like help grapes grown for wine retain their naturally occurring yeast. Wasps eat some grapes in the summer, much to the chagrin of vineyard owners. However, once the grapes have died back or been harvested, the yeast is safely preserved inside the wasps over winter.
They revisit the grapes when they grow back in the summer and redistribute the yeast needed for winemaking. So if you enjoy a nice glass of Pinot Grigio, thank a wasp.

Mosquitoes

A mosquito on some flowers

Mosquitoes are another universally despised insect, and with their habit of giving you a nasty, itchy bite and spreading diseases like malaria, it’s easy to see why. But they provide some valuable services to the ecosystem, too. Mosquito larvae are a nutritious food source for insects like dragonflies as well as fish, birds and bats. They also help to recycle nutrients from decaying organic matter back into the ecosystem and are a vital part of the biodiversity of wetlands. 

Mosquitoes don’t live on blood. The female mosquitoes only drink blood when they are going to lay eggs because they need extra protein. All other times, the mosquito diet consists of nectar from flowers, meaning that they are pollinators too. Some people use bug spray or pesticides to control mosquitoes, but remember that they can kill other insects too, including our beloved bees, so stay clear of these chemicals for the sake of the wider ecosystem. Avoid getting bites by wearing citrus or eucalyptus-based repellent and wearing long-sleeved, loose clothing in the summer.

Hoverflies

A hoverfly on a flower

Hoverflies often get mistaken for wasps, but they are a completely different species and don’t sting at all. They can be slightly annoying with their ‘hovering’ as they are attracted to the salt in our sweat (how pleasant) but also do some very cool stuff. Hoverflies can fly incredibly long distances, and even travel from the UK to continental Europe and back. They pollinate prolifically, visiting at least 72% of food crops worldwide.

Much like wasps, hoverflies are excellent at controlling populations of aphids and other sap-sucking insects that feast on our food crops. A single hoverfly larva can eat up to 400 aphids in its lifetime. Some hoverflies known as drone flies appear as the vastly unpopular rat-tailed maggot in their larval stage. They are about as attractive as they sound, but like everything else, play a valuable role in the ecosystem. These larvae are detritivores, which means they are part of nature’s cleanup crew and eat decaying organic matter. 

Spiders

One of the most fear-inducing creatures on the planet, spiders even have their own specific phobia named after them. An estimated 20% of the population fears spiders, with approximately 6% experiencing full-blown arachnophobia. While some spiders are venomous, the vast majority are not. The only venomous spider in the UK is the false widow and they are not deadly. The old saying about them being ‘more scared of you than you are of them’ is usually true, as spiders are quite timid around people. 

A small spider in the middle of a web.

Spiders perform some essential jobs, including population control of disease-carrying insects like fleas and mosquitoes. Spiders are also a valuable food source for birds, bats, frogs and lizards. Believe it or not, spiders also help to pollinate plants and are a good indicator of biodiversity when found outside. Researchers have also used spider venom to develop drugs for treating high blood pressure and heart disease. Spider silk is an amazing and unique substance, and is naturally antiseptic, antimicrobial, and stronger than steel of the same thickness. Spider silk has been used in the development of medical bandages and even bulletproof armour.

Worms

A small earthworm in a person's hand.

The average earthworm doesn’t generate much fanfare, and most people are indifferent to the species. But worms are the unsung heroes of soil health and do some incredible things for our ecosystem. They help to aerate the soil and improve drainage by burrowing through it, allowing plant roots to absorb nutrients and water more readily. This also helps the soil to store up to 10% more carbon dioxide.

Worms consume plant debris and other decaying organic matter, concentrating the nutrients found within as they digest it. Worm castings (aka their poop) are a highly desired fertiliser for gardeners and farmers. A soil rich in worms is healthy soil, and many crop growers even buy worms especially to introduce them into the earth on their farm or garden. Worms can even help to remove unwanted soil pests, diseases and pollutants from the soil via a process called ‘bioremediation’. During this process, organisms break down contaminants into non-toxic particles. 

We appreciate all of the creatures that make up our incredible ecosystem! Our wildflower meadows are full of the weirdest and most wonderful creatures, all of whom are doing an important job and keeping the whole ecosystem in motion. So next time you see an insect you don’t like, remember what a valuable service they all provide.

Sources:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-41042948

https://www.wineinvestment.com/learn/magazine/2018/07/no-wasps-no-wine/

https://www.tepapa.govt.nz/discover-collections/read-watch-play/new-zealand-mosquito-census/mosquito-facts/can-we-just

https://www.britannica.com/story/what-purposes-do-mosquitoes-serve-in-ecosystems

https://www.rhs.org.uk/biodiversity/hoverflies

https://www.thespruce.com/hoverfly-garden-benefits-5192895

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fevo.2022.866947/full

https://www.southernpestcontrol.com/the-many-benefits-of-spiders/

https://www.wormsdirectuk.co.uk/blog/the-benefits-of-having-earthworms-in-your-garden/

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