The Perils of Playing Favorites


When it comes to imperiled species that get the shaft, invertebrates — in all their backboneless-glory — often top the list.

And of those invertebrates, insects, with exception of the ever-adored butterfly and economically-key bee, have a particularly tough time garnering societal sympathy. 

People tend to be suspicious of or "grossed out" by insects or assume bugs are booming because they see cockroaches in sewer drains and flies buzzing around their apartment's dumpsters. But insects, the world over, are struggling.

Insects are predicted to make up the majority of future species extinctions, many of which will happen to insects we have not even discovered yet, says Zoologist and author Rob Dunn in his article "Modern insect extinctions, the neglected majority".

Unfortunately, as Dunn puts it, "insect conservation remains the awkward "kid sister" to vertebrate conservation." People seem to sleep better if the conservation community dotes on cuddly, wuddly panda bears (that do little more than chomp bamboo and googly-eye one another) than, say, burying beetles, which, as some of the planet's most important insect recyclers, help rid the landscape of rotting animal carcasses. 

North America is home to 31 species of burying beetle, including the federally endangered American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus).

In the West, this conservation favoritism is bad news because insects are indispensably intertwined with the regions' economy and natural history. And not in the nebulous, New-Agey way you might think.

The West is home to a number snow-loving, mountain dwelling insect and arachnid species that are extremely vulnerable to changes in climate and receding snow lines, like beetles in the genus Nebria which have evolved to live and hunt on mountain-top snow fields. As the climate warms and tree-lines creep peakwards, the beetle's frozen hunting grounds melt away and they are forced to retreat ever upwards in search of the frigid climes to which they are so marvelously adapted.

In addition, the West benefits from a number of insect and arachnid-rendered ecosystem services. Dung beetles, animals sacred to the ancient Egyptians, "clean-up" the West's vast acres of range and ranchland, protecting livestock by removing dung that, if left behind, would attract harmful flies and parasites.

Spiders are important biological control agents and are efficient predators of agricultural pests. Southwestern pecan growers have ghost spiders (Family Anyphaenidae) to thank for eating many of the yellow and black pecan aphids that ravish pecan orchards.

As Gilbert Waldbauer explains in his book What Good Are Bugs?

If all the insects, or even just some critically important ones, were to disappear from the earth—if there were none to pollinate plants, serve as food for other animals, dispose of dead organisms, and do other ecologically essential tasks--virtually all of the terrestrial ecosystems on earth…would unravel.

In E.O. Wilson's words, insects are "the little things that run the world."

Recently, a quartet of researchers published a notable, if long overdue, essay in Biological Conservation that explains why people are not paying more and closer attention to insect and invertebrate conservation, why we should, and what can be done be to minimize society's cold-shouldering of these invaluable creatures.

The essay entitled, "The seven impediments in invertebrate conservation and how to overcome them," which outlines seven problems currently facing invertebrate and insect conservation,  including poor public "marketing" and awareness, political indifference and underfunded scientific research, as well as some possible solutions. Click here to read the essay.

As humans continue to dominate and impact the landscape, monitoring, inventorying and protecting those creatures nearer the base of the food webs that sustain us will become increasingly important. Think Jenga. Those foundation-type blocks near the bottom represent insects and their kin. If we continue to ignore and devalue them, we are pulling the block and toppling the tower of life on which we depend. From E.O. Wilson:

If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change. …But if invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt that the human species could last more than a few months.

Marian Lyman Kirst is an intern for
High Country News

Images of crab spider (top left) and bee (bottom right) by Marian Lyman Kirst

Image of burying beetle courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Image of dung beetles courtesy flickr user Arno and Louise Wildlfe