This week, we have talked about the fascinating world of insects. My least favorite insects are mosquitoes. However, we have pointed out that mosquitoes perform valuable functions. Common flies are probably the second least favorite on my list, but even those flies have a purpose.
Of course, there must be some way to control insect populations, especially mosquitoes and flies. Humans create pesticides to manage them, but that doesn’t work very well. Insects evolve resistance to pesticides, and those pest-killing chemicals also kill helpful insects and cause harm to the birds and animals that eat them. Natural insect control by birds, bats, and even insects is safer and often more effective.
We can fear insects (entomophobia) or hate them, but we might as well love them because the fascinating world of insects is part of life on Earth. Thank God that we have insects to provide food for birds and other animals while pollinating the plants that provide food for us. Here is a final thought about “bugs.”
Many people fear insects, but those little critters are essential for life on Earth. Although they can be pests, insects perform valuable services, from pollinating the plants that supply our food to removing dead animal carcasses and waste. Yesterday, we looked at mosquitoes and ants. Today we consider the largest insect family – beetles.
We said that even though an estimated 20,000 ant species live almost everywhere on Earth, they are not the largest insect family. Beetle species make up more than one-third of the nearly one million scientifically identified species of insects worldwide. Here are some of the things we have written about beetles.
Someone said God must love beetles because He made so many of them. Although we might think that beetles such as stink bugs are ugly, many are known for their beauty. However, the most beautiful insects are the ones we will examine tomorrow.
When I go on a summer road trip, I always return with hundreds of insects smashed on the front of my car. Those bug remains are a real challenge to remove. So why don’t those little critters have enough brains to get out of the way? Bugs and cars colliding is a great summertime nuisance.
Okay, I know those insects that lost their lives playing a game of chicken with my vehicle don’t have very big brains – if they have any at all. I also realize that my car is much bigger than they are and probably traveling at a faster speed, so it’s hard for them to get out of the way. I also realize that the consequences of our brief encounter are much more tragic for them than it is for me. But I have never seen two bugs crashing into each other in mid-air. They can swarm in great numbers and never crash and fall from the sky. They must have some kind of collision avoidance system.
God gave insects the ability to avoid collisions with each other long before cars entered the scene. That fact led scientists at Penn State University to do some research on bugs and cars colliding. They probably can’t do much to give bugs the ability to avoid cars, but they wanted to give cars the ability to avoid hitting each other. Since bugs somehow avoid mid-air collisions with such skill, can their technology be applied to cars?
Even though only a fourth of driving occurs in the dark, half of all traffic fatalities happen at night. (It’s also when many insect species are most active, but that’s beside the point.) Present vehicle technologies for avoiding collisions use Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) or image sensors running sophisticated software. The systems are expensive and use lots of energy. The researchers wrote, “…task-specific obstacle avoidance algorithms allow insects to reap substantial benefits in terms of size and energy.” They wanted to learn how the bugs do it with tiny brains and micro-energy.
We have often talked about how scientistsstudying God’s creatures and creation have discovered ways to accomplish tasks more effectively and efficiently. For example, this new research shows ways to avoid vehicle collisions in a simpler, less expensive, and more energy-efficient way using a new algorithm based on the neural circuits of bugs.
God told Job, “If you want to learn, then go and ask the wild animals and the birds, the flowers and the fish. Any of them can tell you what the Lord has done” (Job 12:7-9 CEV). This research may not solve the problem of bugs and cars colliding, but it can help to solve the much more dangerous problem of cars colliding with other cars. Of course, you will still have to keep the scrub brush and bucket of cleanser handy.
One of the mysteries that concern farmers, medical researchers, and biologists alike is how bugs do what they do. How does the apple fly find the apple where it mates and lays its eggs that grow into apple maggots? How does a fly know when I lift a fly swatter that it needs to take off? How does that same fly find some food I left on the table? Scientists find a challenge in understanding insect brains.
The ordinary fly has 1/200,000 as many neurons as a human. But when robotics experts try to build a robot that can do what a fly can do using computer algorithms and bio-based solutions, they are spectacularly unsuccessful. Flying through three-dimensional space is especially difficult when ten meters is the farthest distance you can perceive visual information.
Research has shown that the common insect with wings, six legs, and several hundred lenses can solve problems in flight. They can locate objects of interest by combining sensory clues. Visual senses prevent them from running into things as they fly. Touch clues allow them to sense the wind. They have a sense of smell a million times more sensitive than what humans have. They use polarization patterns to help identify targets and temperatures ahead of them. According to leading entomologist Thomas Eisner of Cornell University, understanding insect brains requires us to “think like a fly.”
Remember that not running into things is only one concern an insect has. Avoiding enemies, mating, and recognizing an approaching object are also necessary skills. For example, apple maggots happen because the insect can identify color, shape, size, and odor to distinguish between an apple and a pear.
There are many reasons understanding insect brains is essential. For example, to avoid infestations of apple maggots without using harsh chemicals, we must understand the mechanisms of the apple fly and know how to defeat the process.
The skeptic will ask, “Why do these insects exist? Why did God allow apple maggots or the common housefly?” We must remember that insects are a staple in the food chain affecting many birds and mammals. Also, we must have living things that can process waste materials. Flies lay eggs that produce larvae called maggots that break down animal carcasses. Imagine a world where there were no processors of dead animals.
Thousands of years ago, God instructed the Israelites how to avoid most insect-carried diseases, such as by burying sewage instead of throwing it on the ground. Insects are a vital part of our world, and we could not exist without them. Managing resources intelligently is an essential part of human survival, and that requires understanding insect brains and how they work.
One of the big problems that humans face is mosquito infestations. Most of us know that mosquitoes can carry serious diseases, with malaria being at the top of the list. It is essential to understand that the presence of mosquitos is not a failure in God’s design of the natural world. What are the solutions to the mosquito problems?
Most mosquito species are pollinating insects. Of the problem species, only the females draw blood, usually from decaying remains of animals. Before humans invaded natural habitats, mosquitos were less of an issue than in modern times. The larvae do not survive well in running water, and mosquitos are such weak fliers that even a slight breeze will keep them at bay.
The human response to mosquitos has been badly misdirected. The most common response has been to spray areas with heavy doses of chemicals that kill mosquitos. The problem is that the spraying kills everything else as well. Pesticides do not discriminate between good insects and bad ones. Animals dependent on insects for food are radically affected by massive spraying. Since 1970, nearly three billion birds have disappeared from North America. The solution to mosquito problems is quite simple–let God’s natural agents control the mosquito population.
Dragonflies and damselflies are voracious mosquito eaters concentrating on mosquito larvae. Hummingbirds eat hundreds of insects every day. American bullfrogs have long sticky tongues designed to catch insects, and mosquitos are at the top of their list. Red-eared slider turtles are mosquito eaters, with one study showing a 99% drop in mosquito numbers in ditches where the turtles were introduced. Woodpeckers, warblers, and wrens all eat mosquitos. They are all solutions to the mosquito problems.
Mass spraying creates imbalances in insect populations and kills birds and animals that feed on mosquito larvae. The spray also has serious implications for humans who react to the chemicals, including some forms of cancer. Humans have contributed to the dilemma that mosquitos bring to all of us, but God has natural solutions to the mosquito problems.
The January 11, 2021, Proceedings of the National Academies of Science written by scientists from all around the globe raised an issue about problems associated with the decline of insect populations. The report points out that insecticides, herbicides, light pollution, invasive species, climate change, and agriculture and land-use changes are causing the loss of 1 to 2% of Earth’s insects each year. People hate bugs, and yet we can’t live without them.
We have written numerous times about the design of insects and how they benefit human life. Insects pollinate the food we eat. They are a significant part of the food chain, they get rid of waste, and in many cultures, they are a basic food. In my military survival training, I remember being taught how to eat grasshoppers, ants, crickets, and a variety of ground insects.
University of Connecticut entomologist David Wagner who directed the scientific study, said, “Insects are absolutely the fabric by which Mother Nature [we would say God] and the tree of life are built.” The classic example of this problem is the struggle that beekeepers have with the dramatic decline of honeybees. Wagner goes on to point out that in the midwest, we are “creating a giant biological desert, except for soybeans and corn, in a giant area.”
People hate bugs, and we tend to resist any desire to help insects prosper. We must remind ourselves that they are part of God’s design, and the problems they cause are always related in some way to human mismanagement. We must wisely use what God has given us.
We get many interesting responses to our daily articles on this website. Recently, several people responded to our emphasis on the value of insects. Bugs can indeed bother us. Some bite or sting, while others eat our vegetation encroaching on our food supply. Despite those things, we have pointed out that entomologists tell us that insects are beneficial.
Akito Kawahara, a curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History, said that most people are unaware of the value of insects. Kawahara points out that insects annually contribute 70 billion dollars to the U.S. economy by their roles in pollination and waste disposal processing. Everyone knows that insects are involved in pollinating flowering plants, but they may not realize that insects are the linchpins, holding together almost all land-based ecosystems. Also, insects provide food sources for birds, bats, freshwater fish, and numerous land animals.
Not realizing the value of insects, humans have done much to eradicate them. We have reduced their habitat, used massive amounts of pesticides, and made them victims of pollution. Sometimes, we have brought in invasive species of animals and plants that harm the ecosystems. We have also done things that accelerate climate change. The National Academy of Sciences suggests initiating a campaign to encourage people to avoid using bug zappers, practice insect conservation, do less mowing, and use insect-friendly soaps and sealants.
God set up a working system that has produced a high standard of living for thousands of years. We are threatening to unbalance the system by our capacity for high tech devices and materials. Sometimes insect populations get out of control and damage human resources, such as the locust invasions of recent years. It is often human interference with the natural controlling agents that have caused the insect infestations. People need to be aware of the value of insects to life on this planet.
The natural world is incredibly complex, with a staggering number of things that we are not even aware of. Every cubic meter of air above a grassy field can contain more than 100,000 living things, many of which we can’t see. We seldom realize that it is these tiny living things that make life possible.
In 2008, Dr. Thomas Kunz at Boston University helped to establish a new scientific discipline called aeroecology. Dr. Kunz and his team used radar, telemetry, thermal imaging, and acoustic monitoring devices to study our lower atmosphere. Other scientists have continued studying aeroecology, which provides useful information in biology and such diverse areas as weather, wind turbines, conditions around airports affecting airplane safety, and disease control.
Aeroecology also involves controlling and maintaining insect populations. Insects are pollinators, and they are critical in a variety of food chains. Recent problems with bee die-offs have affected food production in many areas. Birds and bats help control airborne insects, and their survival is essential to maintain healthy conditions for the success of farming. A purple martin will eat about 20,000 insects yearly, which means this one species removes roughly 412 billion bugs from the atmosphere every year. Some birds stay in the air eating bugs for months at a time, like the alpine swifts of Europe and Africa. They can fly continuously for up to seven months while eating, drinking, and even sleeping.
All of this atmospheric life has a direct bearing on our bodies. We take in massive numbers of bacteria from the atmosphere. Studies by the germ-free research center at Notre Dame University have shown that microbes are critical for life. Researchers found that germ-free rabbits were unable to reproduce. Babies exposed to antibiotics during the first six months of their lives are prone to being overweight. A lack of microbes alters the serotonin levels in humans, affecting many areas of our health. Healthy humans have 1000 microbial species in their mouths and more than 10,000 species in their digestive systems.
The bottom line is that the life of a plant or animal is not just about the organism itself. It is also about the tiny living things that make life possible. The air and the soil are full of these supporting organisms. This indicates design by an Intelligence far beyond what humans can comprehend.
As we get more and better tools to look into the very small, we are astounded by their complexity and function. The Bible simply says God created life. We don’t see any detail, nor should we expect to. How would you explain bacteria to a man with no microscope? “We can know there is a God through the things he has made” (Romans 1:20). Our ability to understand the tiny living things that make life possible leaves us in awe of what God has done.
Footnote: In 2011, Dr. Thomas Kunz was struck by a car and severely injured, ending his career. In 2020, Dr. Kunz, who introduced the science of aeroecology, died from an airborne disease—COVID-19. You can read more about his remarkable life HERE and HERE.
Many years ago, while working in a teen camp in Alaska, I heard a skeptical teenager disparage God’s existence by saying that if God existed, He certainly wouldn’t have made mosquitoes. I have heard similar comments about ticks, hornets, lice, locusts, spiders, and stink bugs. I suspect we have all had times when we were unhappy with annoying bugs, yet when you examine the role of insects, you realize they are critical to our own existence. The well-known entomologist E. O. Wilson said, “If human beings disappeared tomorrow, the world would go on with little change, but if invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt the human species could last more than a few months.” Why do we need insects?
Insects pollinate plants, aerate and fertilize the soil, decompose dung, and the bodies of things that have died. They control pests contributing 70 billion dollars every year to our national economy. Ninety-six percent of land-dwelling birds feed their young on insects, consuming approximately 400 to 500 million tons of insects. Most creatures in and around lakes and streams feed on insects, including fish and bears.
Why do we need insects? Humans are already seeing the cost of eradicating them. There are 68 species of bumblebees and roughly a fourth of those are in danger of becoming extinct. In Europe, the data shows a 76% drop in insects, including bees, beetles, lacewings, and katydids. The loss of pollinating insects has sharply affected the growing of many cash crops, and scientists are studying the effects of insecticide use.
Before we castigate God for what He has created, we need to be sure we have all the facts. We should learn what each creature does and how it contributes to our own well being. I dislike mosquitoes as much as the next person, but a majority of mosquitoes are pollinating insects. I am reactive to a bee sting, but bees contribute to much of what I eat. From our earliest existence, God has challenged us to take care of what He created. (See Genesis 2:15.) That includes caring for and protecting the agents that allow Earth to be hospitable to our existence.
We commonly think of animals as opportunists. They find their food and eat it or store it for future eating. One of the characteristics of humans that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom is that we prepare an environment that produces our food. Farmers plant seeds and tend the crops by fertilizing, protecting from threats, and watering when necessary. They also make arrangements for future crops. Entomologists are finding more and more cases where insects do these same things. For example, ant farmers work together to produce their food.
In Fiji, a plant called Squamellaria grows in a cluster with jelly-bean shaped bubbles inside. The opening into the clusters is just the right size for the Philidris nagasau ant to get into the bubbles. As the bubbles send out shoots, the ants defecate inside the cluster, fertilizing the plant. When the plant blooms, the ants eat the nectar it produces. The ants then plant the seeds where new clusters can grow.
Another family of ant farmers is the Atta genus. In their farms, they grow a fungus species that they nourish with leaf cuttings. After cutting off leaf sections, worker ants carry them back to the colony. As the workers transport the leaf cuttings, others ride on the leaves to protect against a parasitic fly species. You might call that pesticide.
At the colony, other ants pulverize and defecate on the leaves to make them ready to nourish the fungi. The ants can’t eat the leaves, but the fungi are their food, and only one fungus species is edible. If another fungus species develops, the ants produce a toxin, which destroys only the invading fungus. This is herbicide use at its best. The Atta ants inspect the fungus several times a day, tending it carefully. The system is so efficient that one Atta nest can grow enough fungus food to feed seven-million resident ants. In the process, the ant colony produces fertile soil that promotes plant growth.
If you saw the 1994 Disney animated Lion King movie, you saw Atta ant farmers at work. Remember that fungi are not photosynthetic. No sunlight is needed for Atta ants to grow their food. They simply carry in the nutrients for the fungi to grow, and then they eat the fungi. We do the same thing with much of our meat, providing plant material for chickens or pigs to eat, and then eating the animals that we fed. In the case of the ants, they eat only one food, which simplifies farming enormously.
We know it takes incredible planning and design to manage a farm. No chance process produces most of the foods we eat. It requires meticulous planning and careful application of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. As scientists study insect farming, they see a design that is carefully and intricately produced.
Data on the ant farmers came from Science News, April 25, 2020, pages 16-20. The subtitle of the article is, “Could our agricultural role models have six legs?” This reminds us of the challenge in Proverbs 6:6-8: “Go to the ant … consider her ways, and be wise. She has no guide, overseer or ruler but provides her food in the summer and gathers her food in harvest.” The title of the article is “The First Farmers.” We might amend that to be “God’s First Farmers.”