by Renate Sander-Regier

In Beyond Pollinators 1, we looked at the hard work performed by pollinators and other insects on this planet.

Pollinating insects contribute to producing the food we eat, beautifying our gardens, and sustaining plant diversity, among other things. They are easy to appreciate.

Sawfly larva. According to Doug Tallamy, many birds, especially during their breeding seasons, depend heavily on caterpillars as a primary food source for their nestlings. Photo by Diane Lepage.

Other insects play important roles in critical planetary processes such as decomposition and seed dispersal. They also provide food for countless other organisms, including humans. And they feed on other life forms, thereby helping to control “pests” in places of human activity. And much more.

We can see why the late E.O. Wilson – internationally renowned ecologist, naturalist, writer and biologist-entomologist specializing in ants – called insects/invertebrates the “little things that run the world” in a 1987 speech (transcript of full speech).

The little things that enhance the world

In the same speech, E.O. Wilson states, “If humanity depends so completely on these little creatures that run the earth, they also provide us with an endless source of scientific exploration and naturalistic wonder… Each one is fascinating in its own right.”

He makes a good point. Insects, in their vast diversity and splendour, are astounding. When we resist the urge to swat the fly that lands on our arm, when we refrain from sweeping away the bug nibbling on our plant, when we lean in for a closer look, we can start to appreciate these little things that run the world.

When we take the time to pay attention, we can see that insects are remarkable, captivating, often beautiful, and sometimes attractively ugly. And insects can be inspiring. It is encouraging to note that we have made progress in insect appreciation since Wilson gave his speech.

Appreciating the beauty and wonder of insects

My appreciation for insect beauty, diversity and whimsy has grown through the Fletcher Wildlife Garden photo blog, which offers different galleries of superb insect photographs and descriptions.

Montréal’s Insectarium arranges events and programs, and publishes online resources in its mission to “develop positive attitudes towards insects and protect the planet’s biodiversity.”

The international, science-based Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has been working since 1971 to raise awareness of insects and other invertebrates, and to protect them and their habitats. The Xerces Society website is impressive, worth exploring for information and resources.

Various insect-related citizen science initiatives (see links below) invite us to discover and record insect presence and activity, thereby increasing our own appreciation and learning. The information we gather and submit contributes to generating knowledge about this fascinating and threatened segment of life on the planet.

Another insect champion

Dave Goulson, a professor of biology at the University of Sussex in the UK, joins the ranks of E.O. Wilson and Doug Tallamy as a major champion of insects. He has published books about insects, and in 2006 he founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, which has grown into a major force in bumblebee appreciation and conservation in the UK.

Dave has also given interviews and talks, and he has shared his own insect-friendly garden online. You can access related videos, and more, through links below if you are curious.

In one video, Dave invites us to join him on a tour of his garden. At the end of the tour he says, “there are loads of things that we can all do to make our gardens more insect friendly, more wildlife friendly,” and he suggests the following:

  • growing some bee friendly flowers
  • being a bit less intolerant of weeds
  • growing native wildflowers mixed with our ornamentals
  • creating a wildflower meadow – even a tiny one, rather than having a regularly mown lawn
  • growing our own fruit and vegetables to reduce our carbon footprint
  • composting
  • making a pond
  • not using pesticides

Hummingbird visits native Cardinal Flower at the Corner Pollinator Garden. This garden contains some ornamental plants, but in corners like this, native species are intermixed with grasses, shrubs, and a few “weeds.” Photo by Berit Erickson.

“Why we all need to learn to love insects”

Dave Goulson’s most absorbing talk, in my opinion, is “Why we all need to learn to love insects.” In it, he covers a lot of ground and makes many important points regarding our relationships and activities involving the insect world. I have watched/listened to it on multiple occasions, and it is fascinating every time.

What makes this talk so compelling is Dave’s way of framing it in the larger context of planetary health. Near the beginning, he tells us, for example, that before he talks about insects, he wishes to focus on something bigger.

He then shows a photo of Earth and says, “This is our beautiful planet. This is where we live. This is everything we have. Basically it provides us with food and water and air to breathe, and it’s miraculous, populated by maybe 10 million species of other animals and plants as well as ourselves.” Many of those species would be insects, I surmise.

He continues, “There is no planet B, and it I find it astonishing and bizarre that we’re being so reckless with the health of our planet. We’re doing all sorts of things which are damaging the environment.” He goes on to describe some of those things, and then concentrates on insects.

At the end of the talk, he zooms back out and makes this arresting statement: “I find it really bizarre that seemingly most people would do anything for their children apart from leave them a decent planet to live on.”

“We have to do better than that,” he urges, “and we can do better than that. And maybe one of the things we can start doing is getting involved in looking after the insects in our garden.”

The “insect hotel” at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden contains hollow stems – real and artificial – for insect nests as well as bark, grasses and other natural material for overwintering. Photo by Sandy Garland.

Looking after insects. Yes! It’s a small step, but an important one, considering the vital contributions insects make to the functioning of the planet. There are many things we can do around our homes, on our balconies, in community gardens, in workplaces, faith communities, schools, public spaces, and more.

Many of you are already doing it, bravo! The insects would thank you if they could, I think. Then again, maybe they are – by showing up, thriving, and helping the world go around.

Learn more

Dave Goulson

Appreciating the beauty and wonder of insects

Insect citizen science

More about the important roles insects play

Renate Sander-Regier teaches Environmental Studies at the University of Ottawa. At her home in rural West Quebec, she cultivates wild tangles to welcome her wild little neighbours and help them thrive.

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