When you picture a healthy ecosystem, what does it look like? I picture robins and Steller’s jays singing in old-growth maple trees. Below, in a rushing creek, salmon make their way upstream to spawn. Nearby, a black bear eats its way through a thicket of salmon berry and thimble berry in the morning sun, enjoying the bounty of nature. All in all, it’s like a scene out of a Bob Ross painting. But there’s a part of the picture missing: it’s the tiny contributors that form the backbone of an ecosystem – insects! In this article, we’ll look at the role insects play in the environment, some interesting insects that can be found locally, and how to create an insect-friendly yard.

At St. John Point Park, the insects may not be visible, but they are certainly there. Photo: Alistair Marr-Paine

Small But Mighty

Insects are the most diverse group of animals on the planet. So far, one million different species of insects have been discovered. What’s more, biologists estimate there are a total of five million insect species on earth, meaning 80% of insect species have yet to be identified! But they’re not just a diverse group, the shear number of insects on earth is mind-boggling. At the moment, scientists estimate that there are 10 quintillion (10 followed by 18 zeros) insects crawling, hopping, and flying on earth. That’s 2 billion insects for every human!

Although insects are generally small, or even microscopic, the role they play in the world’s ecosystems is huge. Many of the functions they perform are taken for granted. For example, three-quarters of the world’s food crops rely on insects for pollination. Honeybees might be the most well-known example of pollinators, but non-bee pollinators like butterflies, hoverflies, and beetles also make a large contribution to pollinating fruits, vegetables, and oil crops. Without these insects, many plant species would be at risk, and as a result, so would our food security.

A variety of pollinators hard at work. Photo: Adobe Stock

Insects, along with fungi, are one of nature’s primary recyclers and decomposers. These critters work hard to break down organic matter like fallen leaves, dead trees, and dead animals. This decomposition process transfers the energy and nutrients contained in this material back into the soil, so new plants can grow. Without insects, the amount of decomposing matter in the environment would quickly become overwhelming.

A Crucial Link in the Food Chain

In addition to recycling nutrients, insects play a key role in the food web. Their rapid reproduction rates allow their populations to grow rapidly, providing large amounts of food for other creatures. Insects are a key part of almost every food chain on earth, providing sustenance for birds, fish, amphibians, bats, and occasionally, carnivorous plants.

Many insects are plant eaters, and in turn they are eaten by larger animals. In this way, insects provide a bridge between the plant and animal world, allowing energy to flow up the food chain. Unfortunately for ecosystems, there has been a worldwide decline in insect populations. When there is a decline in insect populations, there will be an associated decline in the species that rely on them. In fact, the most imperiled bird populations in Canada are the ones that rely solely on insects.

Bugs Aren’t Bad!

Despite their undeniable importance, insects often face misunderstanding and even hostility. Fear and misinformation have led to the overuse of chemical pesticides, which can harm beneficial insects along with the undesirable ones. This practice disrupts the delicate ecological balance that insects help to maintain. It’s essential to recognize that only a fraction of insect species are harmful to humans, while the vast majority are either helpful or harmless.

Insects of Mayne Island

Ten Lined June Beetle

Photo: Ramin N.

The 10 lined June beetle is a striking, robust bug that grows up to 4 cm long, and is native to North America. Also known as the hissing beetle, they emit a hissing noise when they feel threatened. They are easily identified by the 10 black and white stripes which run down their backs. They feed on plant material, helping to cycle nutrients and pollinate flowers. Additionally, they are a source of food for birds and small mammals. Keep an eye out for these beetles in June, when they emerge from the soil as adults.

The “Friendly” Parasitoid Fly

Photo: DJ Huber

Although the tent caterpillars seemed unstoppable on Mayne Island this past summer, they have a natural enemy that keeps their leaf-hungry population in check. This enemy, also known as the “friendly fly”, is very similar in appearance to the common house fly. What sets this fly apart is that it lays its eggs on tent caterpillars. Once the eggs hatch, the fly larvae devour the caterpillar and then continue their life cycle. In this way, one insect species keeps another species under control, maintaining an ecological balance.

Blue Dasher Dragonfly

Photo: Cathy Lorraine

The blue dasher is a common dragonfly species in Canada which thrives near slow-moving water sources, wetlands, and ponds. Adult males exhibit a distinctive chalky blue color on their abdomens, while females have black abdomens with yellow stripes. Serving as voracious predators of mosquitoes and other pests, they are also indicator species, signaling ecological health. However, global dragonfly populations face threats, with 16% of species at risk of extinction, primarily due to wetland loss. In Canada, there’s an opportunity for positive change as wetland conservation efforts improve dragonfly habitat, emphasizing their role as both indicators of biodiversity and essential contributors to pest control.

Promoting Insects in Your Yard

  • Insect friendly gardening: plant a wide array of native plants to attract a diverse range of insects. Especially late blooming plants that provide food for pollinators in the fall, like Oregon gumweed .
  • Avoiding pesticides: These chemicals kill both beneficial and harmful species. Instead, consider using natural pest control methods like introducing beneficial insects or employing neem oil and soapy water sprays.
  • Leave Those Leaves: Brown, dead leaves are Earth’s insect nurseries. They’re home to butterfly larvae and shelter insects, microbes, and worms. Consider breaking your leaves up with a lawn mower and leaving them in place to provide habitat for insects and nutrients for your lawn!
  • Install a Bee Hotel: These structures provide nesting sites, typically in the form of drilled holes or tubes, for solitary bees, supporting their crucial role in pollination.
A bee hotel. Photo: Angi Schneider

By adopting insect friendly practices, you’ll begin to see the benefits of increased food production, healthier soils, and increased biodiversity.

Conclusion

Looking back on the scene I described initially, we can now understand how insects make that picturesque scene possible. The robins and jays rely on insects for food, finding nourishment in the larvae and insects living in the trees. In the rushing creek, juvenile salmon benefit from insects as a primary food source, sustaining them as they prepare to head to the ocean. The black bear, enjoying the fruit from the berry bushes, depends on insects to pollinate those plants. Insects also play a role in breaking down organic matter, contributing to the nutrient-rich soil that supports the growth of the vegetation which sustains the entire forest. So, when we picture a healthy ecosystem, it’s not just the visible elements like birds, bears, and salmon; it’s the unseen world of insects that forms the backbone.

The truth is, insects are not just small, insignificant creatures, but the key driver of healthy ecosystems and healthy gardens. In our own backyards, insects quietly play a role in keeping things in balance. From pollination to nutrient recycling, they’re the unsung heroes of our ecosystems. By creating insect-friendly spaces in our yards, we invite these critters to flourish so we can experience all of the benefits that insects can provide.


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