Of Mites & Men: The Stories That Bugs Tell and Why We Should Stop Ignoring Them

June 5th, 2018

By Genevieve Lundberg

(Disclaimer: Mites are technically arachnids and not insects but the pun was too good to pass up.)

There have been five waves of mass extinctions in the history of the planet Earth. Currently, we’re in the midst of the sixth, and it’s hugely influenced by human activity. Scientists estimate that species are going extinct at 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate of one to five species per year (“The Extinction Crisis,” n.d.). Attention in conservation efforts is often given to charismatic megafauna, like tigers and panda bears, leaving organisms that are less showy but vital to ecosystems, like insects and amphibians, to be forgotten about.

One of the principal efforts of conservation is preserving biodiversity. Different organisms fit into different ecological niches, and if one begins removing lifeforms, it’s only a matter of time before ecosystems collapse, like pulling bricks out of a jenga tower. Like it or not, insects are an enormous part of the Earth’s biodiversity; according to the Smithsonian, approximately 80% of the Earth’s species are insects (“Numbers of Insects,” n.d.).

Not only are they a necessary part of conservation that’s often overlooked, insects make up an entire world that’s often overlooked. They’re uniquely accessible to humans because, well, they’re everywhere- living fascinating little lives in plain sight. In the words of biologist Marlene Zuk, insects teach us, “that it is possible to be unselfish without a moral code, sophisticated without an education, and beautiful wearing a skeleton on the outside.” Still, if you’re one of the many people who bemoans having to share our planet with these tiny creatures, perhaps you’re still wondering “Why should I care? What good are bugs?” Here are some books that can help you find out!

What Good Are Bugs? by Gilbert Waldbauer

There are over 900,000 species of insects on earth that have been identified. Of those, 99% are not considered to be pests to humans in any way, and many are actively beneficial (“Pests,” n.d.). They provide services such as biological control of pests and weeds, are extremely important in the process of pollination, serve as a food source for other animals, and are used in the production of commodities like silks and dyes. In this book, Waldbauer explores the roles of these beneficial insects and helps readers to understand the importance of insects to our ecosystems and to our everyday lives.

Millions of Monarchs, Bunches of Beetles by Gilbert Waldbauer

Every August, North American monarch butterflies from the United States and Southern Canada embark on a two month long migration to the rare oyamel fir forests of Mexico, where they spend the winter months gathered together, painting the forest orange. Conservationists measure the number of butterflies every year in terms of acres. This past year they counted 6.12 acres- that’s 266,587.2 square feet of butterflies. Still, it’s 15% less than last year’s measurement (“Overwintering Monarchs,” 2018). Monarchs aren’t the only insects to congregate in groups. Many insects, such as ants, termites, and wasps, are social. This book talks about how insects aggregate into communities and function within those communities. For example, did you know that bees can communicate the location of a food source to other bees through a form of dance?

The Thermal Warriors by Bernd Heinrich

With such an incredible variety of insect life, it’s no wonder they’ve adapted to almost every environment on earth.  From red flat bark beetles, who have antifreeze proteins in their blood and dehydrate their own internal tissues when temperatures fall, to Saharan silver ants who brave the midday temperatures of the Sahara to feed on the corpses of other animals that have died of heat stroke (Brooks, 2013), humans have a lot to learn from these organisms in terms of survival. 

Sex on Six Legs by Marlene Zuk

For this book, I really can’t say it better than the publisher’s description, which reads, “Insects have inspired fear, fascination, and enlightenment for centuries. They are capable of incredibly complex behavior, even with brains often the size of a poppy seed. How do they accomplish feats that look like human activity–personality, language, childcare–with completely different pathways from our own? What is going on inside the mind of those ants that march like boot-camp graduates across your kitchen floor? How does the lead ant know exactly where to take his colony, to that one bread crumb that your nightly sweep missed? Can insects be taught new skills as easily as your new puppy? Sex on Six Legs is a startling and exciting book that provides answers to these questions and many more … Zuk not only examines the bedroom lives of creepy crawlies but also calls into question some of our own long-held assumptions about learning, the nature of personality, and what our own large brains might be for.”

Some points that Zuk discusses include the fact that researchers found that paper wasps recognized each other as individuals, remembering the specific facial feature of individual wasps, rather than recognizing other beings as either “wasp” or “not wasp” as was previously hypothesized, as well as that insects have proven to vary in personality based on the traits of boldness or shyness, and have demonstrated the ability to learn and teach others. These are traits that we thought defined us as humans, or at least required some deeper level of intelligence than we credit insects with having. It leads one to wonder if the human experience is really as special as we like to think it is, and how different we truly are from these organisms that can seem so alien to us.

About the Author: Genevieve Lundberg is an undergraduate student in the UW-Madison Libraries’ ISIP (Information Specialist Internship Program), majoring in English and Entomology.

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