The Importance of Bugs

Normally we don't think much about bugs except when they intrude, usually undesirably, on our consciousness. Ants in the kitchen, cockroaches in the bathroom, termites in the walls, Yellow Jackets at a picnic all evoke negative images of insects and other small creatures. The RAID slogan - ``the only good bug is a dead bug'' - is, to many of us, a statement of truth.

Bugs have been around for millions of years and are essential components of our ecosystem. Bugs have colonized almost every habitat on the planet. There are species of water strider that can be found in the middle of the ocean, and species of springtail living in Antarctica. Without bugs the world would be a very, very different place.

Bugs play a major role in the breakdown of organic matter. They attack plants at all levels -- the roots, the bark, the leaves, the flowers, the seeds -- nothing is immune. In this manner, they help convert the solar energy used in photosynthesis by plants into animal matter. Some bugs are used to control outbreaks of noxious weeds. They also efficiently and quickly break down and utilize dung, a rich nitrogenous waste. Examples include the dung beetles that handle elephant dung and the locally familiar Green Fruit Beetles whose larva live off of horse manure. What a world this would be without a good dung removal service!! In addition, they break down dead plants and animals. While a dead animal writhing with active fly larva may not be an appealing sight to most of us, the larva are performing a very useful cleanup function.

Bugs are the major pollinators of flowering plants. Without bees where would we be? Most of our commercial food and seed crops are bee pollinated. In addition we get products like honey and wax. Other major pollinators are butterflies. While we all appreciate these lovely insects, we take great pains to rid ourselves of their juvenile stage - those destructive plant-eating caterpillars. Flies and beetles are also significant pollinators.

Bugs are a major food source, although perhaps not to us. Aquatic insects, and this includes mosquito and black fly larva, are important for fish and amphibians. They are also important food sources for other aquatic insects. Many bugs are predators or parasitic, consuming other bugs. Birds nest during the peak bug season because bugs are an important source of food for their young. Warblers and flycatchers are major predators. In some areas of the world there are even bee-eaters. There is a monument in Salt Lake City to the gulls for checking an outbreak of Mormon Crickets. Ants, termites, beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers and flies have all been used as food by humans in various regions of the world.

Silk is produced by the silk moth caterpillar, a scale insect produces the main ingredient in shellac, a red dye is derived from the Cochineal Bug, a scale insect found on Opuntia cactus in San Diego county.

Bugs have been used to investigate problems of heredity. Where would we be now without the fruit fly studies that have been done? In addition, they have been used to study evolution and sociology. They have been used as monitors of environmental quality. Some bugs have been important in treating diseases.

Bugs contribute aesthetically too - sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. We have the ear-splitting whine of some species of cicada and the disconcerting hum of a lone mosquito in a dark bedroom. We have the engaging dance of the butterflies and dragonflies and the annoyance of black flies and deer flies buzzing around us. Now we have our enjoyment of brilliantly colored flowers on a peaceful walk tempered by our fear of Africanized bees.

Whether we notice them or not, bugs are important contributors to our quality of life. Whether we like it or not, bugs do what they are supposed to do. Their roles are critical for the proper functioning of our ecosystem and our survival.

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Ron Lyons (volunteer 1990-1999)
Chula Vista Nature Center, 1000 Gunpowder Point Drive, Chula Vista, CA 91910-1201