If bugs wrote books, they would probably begin their book on the human era, “It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times…..”  They would probably consider it a slightly scary book.

I thought the Master Gardener Volunteer program (see my post Becoming a Master Gardener )  I enrolled in would teach me more about plants, but the most thought-provoking class so far was this week’s lecture on insects.

...Here's looking at you!

Phil Pellitteri, University of Wisconsin insect diagnostician, took the class on a whirlwind tour of the bug world, and  I am now more than ever in awe of insects.   They were here with the dinosaurs, and they’ll be crawling and flitting about the planet long after our species has been invited to join the Nameless Fossil Club.

Insects are, as Pellitteri said, a little hard to warm up to.

Whenever sci fi film makers have to come up with a new alien menace, it’s likely to look like a bug.  It’s too bad we see the relationship as adversarial, because, there isn’t enough Raid in the world to keep these billions at bay.  Lucky for us that  99 percent of the world’s insects go about their business without harming humans or their crops in any way.

Why Do They Look So Strange?

Insects are built differently than us from the inside out.

We are propped in shape by our skeletons.  Insects go through their adult life mooshing around inside a set of armor that defines their shape.  Just imagine living inside a skin-tight, brittle plastic coating.  It would not be so easy to taste, hear, see, smell or feel inside a bug suit.

..Helmet beetle, one of the biggest insects in Wisconsin. Harmless.

But insects have ways of taking in the world.  All those creepy looking little hairs are sensors.  Butterflies taste flowers through pads on their feet.  A male moth’s antennae can pick up chemicals emitted by a female moth half a mile away.  And what must the world look like through those crazy eyes?

Their world has looked different to bugs since a Swiss chemist rediscovered DDT in 1939.  Really, our world has looked different too.  He was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for finding out that DDT killed bugs.  It was the beginning of Better Living through Chemistry.  But within three years, DDT already didn’t work on some bugs.  They had mutated resistant strains that fast!

No problem!   Chemists had a whole new arsenal of nerve gasses to play with after WW2.  It was and is a profitable business, making and selling these poisons.

Farmers and home owners started drenching everything they grew, “just in case.”

...We'll never get rid of all insects, but we've done in a number of species. This Karner blue butterfly is endangered.

In the process we have made pests out of insects that were not a problem before by destroying their natural enemies, presenting them with huge fields of tasty monocultures.

Really, just reading the history of modern agriculture is scarier than any science fiction book published.

Whether you see them as the enemy or as fellow earthlings, it makes sense to get to know more about them.  Pellitteri recommends a book called Garden Insects of North America: The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs by Whitney Cranshaw.  This is a good book!  It’s gardener friendly  because it is organized by the plant area affected by the bug.

I’m on my way to the book store now!

2 replies

  1. Insects are so critically important to our world. And even more so are the microbes and soil organisms. E.O.Wilson once said something to the effect that the smallest things are the most important. Of course they are also the most invisible to almost everybody. I like the idea that good farmers are soil farmers (not beef or vegetable farmers); if you have good, active, healthy soil then you will have healthy livestock and veggies. And if we have a healthy insect population, then we will have active pollination and a healthy soil. The biology of farming/gardening is, I think, the most interesting and fascinating subject in the world.

    • I have to agree, Dennis. I’m working on my second E. O. Wilson book at this moment. My first one was “On Human Nature,” which was amazing. Now I am reading his new fiction “Ant Hill.” I have been waiting in line to get this from the library for months, and I’m finding it a bit plodding — except for the segment where he is writing about populations of ants in Nokobee County, Alabama. That part is very gripping. If you love insects, get this book and be sure to read the section called The Anthill Chronicles.”

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