Entomology, chemical ecology, evidence-based environmentalism and science in general. I like big bugs and I cannot lie.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Go hug a bug!

I recently attended an event organised by a group of open-minded, environmentally conscious people. I realise that makes it sound like a sex party but I assure you it wasn't, I'm being deliberately vague because this isn't a complaint about a specific person or group of people, but a wider problem about our attitude to insects. At one point in the evening I got chatting to a bloke who was clearly a very intelligent person (this is sounding dodgier and dodgier) and evidently passionate about environmental issues. We discussed how the loss of hedgerows was reducing songbird habitats, and whether it was possible to compensate to some degree by growing hedgerow shrubs in gardens.  We discussed how little exposure city children got to nature, and how far it was possible to care about the environment if you weren't personally familiar with it. He told me he'd been working on a project to reintroduce willow coppice onto some neglected land that day and that he'd found a cluster of insects on one of the trees that he'd never seen before, which from his description sounded like large willow aphids.

Large willow aphids, winged and wingless forms.  Picture from the Sussex Wildlife Trust.

Every entomologist loves an easily identified insect, and as a description "it had three triangular spikes on its back" (especially if it was on willow!) is a great deal easier to work with than "it was small and black".  Although the large willow aphid is one of Britain's largest and most distinctive aphids its lifecycle is still surprisingly mysterious - no one has ever found a male (maybe it does without them) and no one knows where they disappear to for almost half the year. So I told him this, and he in turn told me that he'd killed them, and I asked "WHY?" and did a fairly decent impression of Jenna Marbles.


He at least looked a bit embarrassed about it, but told me that he always killed insects he didn't recognise because he lived in London, near Heathrow, and assumed that anything that looked odd (for example something with three horns on its back!) must be a dangerous invasive species that had come in on a plane or with some imports.  He explained that he'd killed loads of false widow spiders - even if all the spiders he killed were in fact false widows, which I think is unlikely, they're not nearly as dangerous as the media makes them out to be. Needless to say, hearing these attitudes from a smart, committed environmentalist made for a very sad entomologist.

I always find it rather sad that the reaction of so many people, including informed environmentalists who should probably know better, to arthropods is fear and disgust.  Not only are these creatures fascinating and, to my eyes at least, beautiful in their intricacy, they are also a vital lynchpin of the ecosystems that support all life on this planet including ourselves and (while this may seem an odd sentiment from someone who studies pest control) the sixty percent of invertebrate species that are declining are more vital for us to conserve than cuddly, charismatic mammals like tigers or gorillas could ever be.
If we and the rest of the back-boned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well. But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the world's ecosystems would collapse.’ Sir David Attenborough - See more at: http://www.buglife.org.uk/#sthash.xrwYmpio.dpuf
"If we and the rest of the back-boned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well.  But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the world's ecosystems would collapse" - Sir David Attenborough.

Although it's often assumed that we're hardwired to fear arthropods there is surprisingly little hard evidence for this theory, and it is by no means a universal human experience outside the west - insect collection is something of a Japanese national obsession, and insects are routinely included in peoples' diets throughout the world (very large pdf) as a vital source of nutrients which sadly is increasingly being abandoned due to the adoption of Western prejudices. (The fact that we entomologists don't feel the same way is also awkward for this theory as it rather suggests that we're the next stage of human evolution, and much as I love you all guys if that's the case we're probably doomed as a species.  Or at the very least about to become a great deal hairier).

Sadly I think much of the problem lies with our culture - what we're taught at school and what we see and read in the media.  So much reporting on arthropods seems to be about DANGEROUS INVASIVE SPECIES THAT WILL KILL YOU DEAD! or at least ruin your hairdo that it's hardly surprising that many people view insects as invasive aliens that will lay eggs in your eyeballs then kill you to death.  Even non-scaremongering stories are often negative - can you imagine a famous, popular columnist writing about mammals in this way for example?

Image from Simon Leather's post on the importance of communicating through social media for entomologists.
So what can we do about it?  In the case of the chap in the first paragraph I must confess I got his details through Facebook and sent him a copy of Chinery, and am expecting the restraining order any day now.  But for the general public the only solution is more engagement and education.  There is always a temptation, which I know I've fallen prey to at times, to focus on the horrifying or grotesque in the insect world as a way of grabbing attention.  But I'll try to avoid that in future - there's already plenty of that in the media so in the interests of balance I'll try to focus on what incredible, amazing creatures insects are and how they really don't deserve to be squashed on sight.

Insects need love too.
If we and the rest of the back-boned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well. But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the world's ecosystems would collapse.’ Sir David Attenborough - See more at: http://www.buglife.org.uk/#sthash.xrwYmpio.dpuf


1 comment:

sleather2012 said...

Totally gobsmacked that anyone would kill large willow aphids - they are such cool beasties; but as I have written before we have along way to go to get people to love insects as much as they do vertebrates - sad but true