"While insects are not viewed as wildlife, the planning of conservation areas ought to consider what they need to survive."
Credit: George Danby / BDN

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Allen Young is curator emeritus of zoology at the Milwaukee Public Museum. He is the author of “Small Creatures and Ordinary Places.” He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.

As spring gives way to summer, nature’s treasure chest awakens. Earth’s biological wealth sprouts, blooms and clamors. These contents once blanketed the landscape with a thin, life-sustaining fabric, the biosphere. But human activity has contributed to the shrinking of the chest.

A major slice of the treasure is insects and the roles they play in structuring food chains, communities and ecosystems linking them to plants, fungi, microorganisms and other animals. Insects are key to transferring energy from plants in terrestrial food chains, shaping much of Earth’s biological wealth. Their small body size, prolific reproduction, life cycles, diverse forms and habits mold their ecological prowess.

The ecological significance of insects is reflected in their long history, which spans an estimated 400 million years. A major bounce to this success began with flowering plants some 145 million years ago, coinciding with pollinators, including butterflies and moths, beetles, winged social insects and flies.

Insects make up 80 percent of animal life. In the U.S. alone, there are about 90,000 described species, the largest being beetles at 24,000; flies, 20,000; ants, beetles and wasps, about 18,000; and moths and butterflies, 12,000. There are about 900,000 known species of insects worldwide, with perhaps an additional several million yet to be discovered.

Insect biomass far outweighs that of all other animals. Anywhere from 1 billion to 10 billion ants weigh as much as the sum total of humanity. There are about 200 million individual insects for every human, or 300 pounds of insects for each pound of humans.

While we relish a gorgeous tiger swallowtail butterfly sipping nectar from the magenta blooms of New England asters and the glow of fireflies on a summer night, we abhor mosquitoes, ants on the kitchen counter and picnic raids by yellowjackets. Yet, only a minuscule fraction of insects, including agricultural pests, warrants our disdain.

The insect world is one of physical, literary and mystical beauty. Some of the most desirable costumes and fine jewelry portray beetles, dragonflies and butterflies. Some cultures use insects as sources for medicines, religious beliefs and symbols of the spiritual world. There was even wisdom about life woven in fables. A confused Alice sought guidance from a toadstool-sitting caterpillar. When viewed through this looking glass, insects and other small creatures are to be praised for such survival success and adaptive ingenuity.

Even though the majority of insects go largely unnoticed, some have a beneficial impact on our lives. According to insect conservation group the Xerces Society, bugs provide about $60 billion of services every year in the U.S. alone: $5 billion in pest control, $50 billion as food for wildlife, $3 billion in pollination by native bee species and about $400 million in dung returning nutrients to soil. Declines of insect populations lower crop successes and threaten food webs and bird populations.

About 40 percent of insects face possible extinction in the next few decades owing to habitat loss, ecosystem fragmentation, pesticides and climate change. But preserving natural habitats, designing gardens with native flora, reducing pesticide usage and protecting large tracts of land such as national parks, rangelands and the millions of acres of roadside forests could stabilize insect numbers and diversity.

While insects are not viewed as wildlife, the planning of conservation areas ought to consider what they need to survive.

Doing so can alleviate challenges to insect survival, such as annual swings in dryness, rainfall, snowmelt and other factors. And we are part of the equation. Let us convert one minute of human life into two minutes of human enrichment of our changing natural world as symbolized by a great spangled fritillary butterfly on Joe Pye weed. On steamy summer days, relish the buzzing of cicadas and chirping of crickets as escapes from beeps and ringtones.

If we listen and observe, there can be an understanding that those slices of wilderness we readily embrace, birds and mammals, are built upon much of what is hidden, especially insects and the life they support. Perhaps doing so can slow the shrinking of nature’s treasure chest, adding restorative grease to its fragile hinges, allowing future blossoming of summer. And insects rule again.