Atlas has six legs.
I know that’s not how the ancient Greeks or your grade school teacher depicted him. The storytellers of Athens liked their allegories in human form and, yes, I’m sure the tale of a Titan condemned to powerlift the planet for all of eternity made for compelling campfire entertainment. Even so, nitpickers like me insist that the more accurate representation is Earth balanced on the backs of bugs.
The world is weighty but, as the saying goes, there’s strength in numbers. To date, naturalists have discovered, described and named about 925,000 insects, and that’s thought to be a fraction of all extant species in this taxonomic group. According to the Smithsonian, researchers estimate the total number of individual living insects is about 10 quintillion (1018)… which sounds like more than enough exoskeletons to share the load, right?
Here’s the fly in that speculative ointment — these meager creatures shoulder colossal environmental responsibilities wherever they’re found, and they are found in every terrestrial and nearly every aquatic habitat. That said, insect species have been disappearing for some time now, and the extinction rate is escalating thanks largely to climate change and habitat loss.
Experts warn of an impending insect apocalypse, and for good reason. We have no idea what we’ve lost, or what we stand to lose. With each new heat wave, Cat-5 hurricane and weather bomb, commenters from science to social media observe that life on Earth feels a bit wobbly of late… could it be the surviving chitinous knees are beginning to buckle?
Of course, the image of a planet borne aloft by a behemoth or bugs is symbolic, and yet many insects are bona fide earthmovers. Ants, for example, transport heroic quantities of soil, reducing compaction and allowing for greater infiltration of water and oxygen. Not content to merely lug existing earth around, insects also create new soil by converting excrement, decaying plants and dead animals into humus, the fertile uppermost layer of soil. Insects endlessly recycle organic and inorganic matter, keeping soils healthy and productive.
Soil is where food begins, so everything that eats to live depends on the vital services insects provide. That’s you and me, friend. No soil, no sustenance. But soil is just the beginning. Every link in the food chain is held together by insects.
Approximately 75 percent of flowering plants, and 35 percent of all food crops, need animal pollinators to reproduce. That’s enough interspecies intercourse to satisfy Dionysus, and it isn’t just bees who are getting busy. There are butterflies and moths, sure, along with wasps, beetles, ants, thrips and mosquitoes. Also, assorted flies, including miniscule chocolate midges, the obligate pollinators of cacao (so if you’ve ever wondered what no-see-ums are good for, well, now you know). And since the majority of plants are firmly rooted in terra firma, some species also need help from insect agriculturalists to sow the seeds that will feed the world.
Lest you think animals are doing plants a favor by hooking up and helping to launch the kiddos, it’s important to remember the relationship is actually codependent. Thanks to photosynthesis, once those seeds germinate and emerge they’ll begin transforming sunshine (light energy) into the sugars (chemical energy) that plants need to live and grow. It’s a kind of solar alchemy that eludes the animal kingdom to this day and, since animals can’t access energy directly from the sun, we get our carbohydrates by eating plants or by eating animals that eat plants.
Insects themselves are a nutritious, protein-rich food consumed by millions of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and even other insects. According to the United Nations, there are at least two billion people who also count locusts, ants, crickets, caterpillars, cicadas and grubs as dietary staples. That number is growing. Insects are having a moment, appearing in gourmet magazines, high-end restaurant menus, cocktails, protein bars and gluten-free snacks, all in response to both curious eaters and environmental concerns.
Think you would not, could not eat a bug? You probably already have, and not by accident. Odds are, you even paid a premium to do so; lobsters, shrimp, crawfish or crabs are all members of the same taxonomic phylum as tarantulas, dragonflies, scorpions and centipedes. Now that you know you’ve already crossed that culinary divide, maybe it will make a future dietary shift more palatable.
The human population is projected to reach nine billion by 2050, and the Earth simply can’t support enough cattle, pigs and chickens to feed them all. Global livestock production consumes extravagant amounts of land, water, and animal feed while discharging more greenhouse gases than the combined carbon footprint of all vehicles powered by fossil fuels. Conversely, insects are a sustainable, eco-friendly food source that requires much less space, emits far lower levels of greenhouse gases, reproduces rapidly, and converts feed into protein twelve times more efficiently than cows. You do the math.
The facts are indisputable; insects are ecosystem linchpins — small, seemingly trivial but critically influential components that keep the wheels on the nutrient cycle.
To be clear, insects are not altruistic. Everything they do is self-serving. That doesn’t reduce the value of their Herculean efforts, and it doesn’t diminish our dependence on the fundamental services they provide.
As children, most of us learned about insects through fairy tales; simple fables of good and evil. Bees tirelessly transform flower juice into honey, like an invertebrate Rumplestiltskin spinning straw into gold. Grasshoppers are feckless and lazy; ants are industrious and responsible. If all you know about bugs is the K-12 version, it’s natural to wonder why anyone should worry about the potential loss of a couple million species.
But the ripple effects of a mass insect extinction could jeopardize the health of our entire biosphere — the fragile zone of life that, for all we know, may be singular in the universe. Changing Earth’s trajectory is a big lift, without a doubt. There are difficult decisions ahead but they’re ours to make. Will we do nothing and allow a tragic ending to unfold? Or will we change Earth’s narrative arc and write a never-ending story?
I really hope we choose the second option.
Seriously, it would be mythic.
Dr. Kieran Lindsey loves looking for wild things in all the wrong places…so she became an urban wildlife biologist. She also has way too much fun as the official Animal-Vehicle Biologist for NPR’s “Car Talk.” Read her blog at www.nextdoornature.org.