Extraordinary Insects: It’s time to give back to Earth’s caretakers

Insects make up more than half of life on Earth and prop up our diet. It’s only fair we show the little critters some respect, says Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson

Why do I love insects? Well, why shouldn’t I? After all, these tiny creatures not only live amazing lives, with lots of fun, intrigue and wonder. They also work tirelessly, 24/7, to uphold our ecosystems and help us humans survive.

As you read this, around 200 million insects for each of us humans, are shuffling and crawling and flapping around on the planet, outnumbering the grains of sand on all the world’s beaches. You’ll find them everywhere – in forests and lakes, in the cold of the Antarctic and under the pavements in our cities. They can live inside a dead tree, in the nostrils of a walrus or inside your computer.

And they have been here for a long time. Insects have – with a good margin – seen the dinosaurs come and go. And while it’s easy to overlook these smallest among us, we should not do that. Because insects are indispensable in the ecosystems – and thus indispensable for our lives and our future.

Insects help plants set seed

Most of us know that we would not have honey without honeybees, but without the pinhead-sized chocolate midge, cocoa flowers would not be pollinated. No cocoa, no chocolate. Actually, insect visits to flowers contribute to seed production in more than 80 per cent of the world’s wild plants. Insect pollination also improves fruit or seed quality or quantity in a large proportion of our global food crops. And although wind-pollinated crops, such as rice, corn and various other grains account for most of our energy intake, insect-pollinated fruits and berries are important energy boosters, as well as a vital source of variety in our diet.

Insects are caretakers that clean up our world

Insects also turn dead plants and animals into soil. Millions of insects, together with fungi and microorganisms, perform the thoroughly crucial task of decomposing dead organic matter.

And even though very few of us think about it as we are taking a Sunday stroll through the park or in the forest, these processes of decomposition are crucial to our life on Earth. Insects’ patient chomping on dried-up trees and rotten remains doesn’t just clear the ground of dung and dead plants and animals. Just as importantly, the insects’ contribution returns the nutrients in the dead organic matter to the soil. Without this, it will be impossible for new life to grow.

Insects are food for others, including our food

Insects are staple food for birds, fish, and many mammals. As the insects are so abundant, they make up a large portion of the diet for a lot of other species on Earth, including species we like to eat. You can thank the insects next time you sit down to a trout supper, for instance. Without insects, the populations of birds, bats, and freshwater fish, to mention a few, would collapse.

We know that insects often also eat each other, and this is absolutely crucial for keeping down the populations of what we think of as troublesome pests. We know that an agricultural landscape where the fields are interspersed with varied flora provides a habitat for many of the pests’ natural enemies. Similarly, woodland consisting of natural forest contains more predatory insects and parasites that keep spruce bark beetles and other pests in check than industrial forest.

When it comes to birds, we have fresh estimates of how much insect meat the birds of the world actually devour in a year. And it is far from trifling: the planet’s two-winged birds gobble down around 500 million tonnes of their four-winged distant relatives. That’s similar to the amount of meat and fish consumed by the human world population a year!

Insects keep our world turning

I’ve always been curious about nature. When I was a kid, I used to spend a lot of time in the outdoors with my family. We couldn’t afford to go on fancy holidays. Instead we went for hikes, made campfires, slept in a snow cave and picked berries or mushrooms in the autumn. My granddad taught me the names of flowers and the calls of the birds, and I still think of him when I hear the melancholic call of the golden plover in the Norwegian mountains. I wasn’t particularly interested in insects, it was rather all the fascinating details and connections in this magical jigsaw puzzle of nature that appealed to me.

I still love to be in the outdoors. To marvel at the intricate details that connect nature and us humans in a common web of life. Insects are an important part of this – they make up more than half of all known species on Earth. Life as we know it depends on these small creatures. Do you need any more reason to love insects than that, really?

Extraordinary Insects by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson (translated by Lucy Moffatt) is out on April 25 (Mudlark, £14.99)