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Don’t Take Small Things for Granted: A Look at How Insects are More Than Meets the Eye

By Jess LaVopa

Frampton looking through different samples of caddisflies in the Natural Sciences Building. Photo by Jessica LaVopa

Insects can be little buckets of joy for children, but for many, they are pests. When bees, mosquitoes or spiders enter our homes, our automatic reaction is to kill them.

But lately, insects are dying at an alarming rate and it’s not due to fly swatters or shoes.

According to a study by the journal Biological Conservation, 41 percent of insect species have been drastically decreasing over the past decade. In a recent 2019 study by the Biological Conservation, insects’ biomass, or the total mass of an organism, is also decreasing by 2.5 percent every year.

Insects are being threatened with extinction.

Insects are responsible for much more than giving us honey. Insects are responsible for pollination, keeping our soil rich in nutrients, decomposing trash, and being a viable food source for many animals including birds, bats and snakes.

Leo Frampton, a senior biology major specializing in ecology, is aware of the declining insect population. Currently, Frampton is working on his senior project with senior biology major, Matt Garafalo, to see how mercury travels up the food chain.

“Bugs are the food. They’re almost plants with how essential they are to the environment,” said Frampton. “With the number of insects we capture in the good ecosystems we study, to think of them as food and to think that this food source is disappearing, it’s devastating. It’s a foundation for the environment, for ecology to be able to function.”

An insect under a microscope. Photo by Jessica LaVopa

Lee Ehrman, a professor of biology at Purchase specializing in genetics, said that insectivores, things that have an insect diet, must eat a lot because they are not high in protein.

When insects start to die, small animals will start to die along with them, she said.

“Insects provide food for all types of predators,” said Ehrman. “They provide food for fish, and the fish provide food for aquatic animals or mammals. It's a food chain and insects are at the bottom.”

When asked if humans could possibly recreate the function of insects such as pollination, Ehrman said bluntly, “I don’t know.”

According to Brooks, to fix the ecosystem, we would have to move towards a sustainable planet, but it is not a one and done thing. The world would be a lot different without insects. Living things like plants would have to learn how to grow under new environmental circumstances if insects were to go extinct.

“Bees are the main pollinators, ants are responsible for aggregating soil so that it has oxygen and is rich in nutrients, and termites do the same thing,” said Brooks. “If their functions were removed we’d have a completely different ecosystem. We wouldn’t be able to eat the same way we do and animals would be affected, as well as the microbial makeup of our soil.”

One factor that is placing stress on insects are the fluctuating temperatures of global warming and the polar vortex. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, experts predict Earth’s climate will be around eight degrees warmer by the year 2100. This may not sound like much, but Ehrman said this is detrimental for insects as one of their main killers is dehydration.

“Temperature change is quite dramatic for an insect,” said Ehrman, also known as Purchase’s personal entomologist. “Insects are cold-blooded, which means that they take the temperature of where they are located. You control your body temperature at great costs, with clothes and air conditioning, they can’t do that. They’re vulnerable.”

According to Ehrman, insects also have a temperature limit.

“At low temperatures, they become dormant, it’s called diapause. They can survive the cold but they will not progress,” said Ehrman. “But this rise in temperature is challenging them, and the challenge involves longevity and fertility. They will not reproduce at high temperatures either.”

Paul Guillebeau, an entomologist at the University of Georgia, conducted a study where he found that bugs can’t move at 40 degrees Fahrenheit and below, but at 45 degrees Fahrenheit, they slowly begin to move again. Guillebeau thinks that if the cold weather continues into April or May, insects will miss a population cycle, causing their numbers to drop faster.

“We have to remember how fragile our ecosystems are,” said Matt Garafalo. “By losing something as tiny as insects, it impacts our world in a huge, huge, huge way.”



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