Understanding Insect Brains

Understanding Insect Brains -Apple Fly
Apple Fly

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.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Data from: “Insect Decision Making” by Shannon Olson and Pavan Kumar Kaushik, American Scientist, Volume 109, November/December 2021, pages 368-375.

Solutions to the Mosquito Problems

Solutions to the Mosquito Problems
Damselfly

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.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Data from National Wildlife April/May issue 2021.

People Hate Bugs, However…

People Hate Bugs, However...

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.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Data from Associated Press, January 16, 2021.

Value of Insects in the Ecosystem

Value of Insects in the Ecosystem

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.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Data from National Science Foundation

Tiny Living Things that Make Life Possible

Tiny Living Things that Make Life Possible

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.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

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.

Why Do We Need Insects?

Why Do We Need Insects when they are so annoying?

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.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Data and quote from National Wildlife magazine, June-July 2020, pages 26-31.

Ant Farmers at Work

Ant Farmers at Work
Leafcutter Ants at Work Taking Leaf Cuttings to the Colony

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.”

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Click HERE to learn about a special tool leafcutter ants use.

Why Do Birds Fly North in Spring?

Why Do Birds Fly North in Spring?

We all understand why birds of the Northern Hemisphere fly south in the fall. When the temperatures drop in Michigan, and the lakes are covered with ice, most birds have found a warmer place in the south. Michigan has many so-called “snowbirds” in the human population who leave us in November to go to Florida’s sunny shores. They come back in the spring to enjoy Michigan summers and because they have family here. The question is, why do birds fly north in spring? Couldn’t they save a lot of trouble by just staying in the south all year?

The answer to that question is food. The fact is that tropical areas simply don’t have enough insects to provide the protein that birds need to feed their chicks. When birds are in the south, they survive by eating berries, fruits, and nectar. None of those foods provide much protein. The time when birds return to the north coincides with the explosion of insects in the spring. They can enjoy less competition and longer days while dining on insects in the north.

The question remains as to how the birds know this? How do they know that they can benefit by traveling hundreds or thousands of miles in the spring? Why do the birds have the urge to fly north at the time that benefits them as well as the ecological systems they help to support? In other words, why do birds fly north in spring? The answer is that it’s built into their genes.

God’s view of Earth and the systems that make it work is far greater than ours. We are beginning to understand how many things, such as bird migration, must happen for the system of life to exist. It also speaks to us about how important it is that we take care of what God has given us.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Reference: Smithsonian magazine, May 2020, page 88.

How Many Bugs Are in Your Home?

How Many Bugs Are in Your Home?
Would you like to guess how many bugs are in your home? In the fall of 2017 researchers from the California Academy of Sciences published a survey of the bugs in 50 homes in and around Raleigh, North Carolina. The researchers took 10,000 samples from basements, bedrooms, kitchens, and attics. They identified 579 species from the 304 families of arthropods known to science. Arthropods include insects, mites and, spiders.

The researchers found ants, carpet beetles, gall midges, and cobweb spiders in 100% of the homes. In many of the houses, they found booklice, dark-winged fungus gnats, cellar spiders, scuttle flies, and dust mites. Misha Leong who was the lead author of the study says that most homes contain hundreds if not thousands of individual arthropods.

It is interesting that as people move toward buying organic and buying in bulk, they are increasing the bugs in their homes. Indian meal moths, for example, can contaminate oatmeal or chew through a sweater. They lay eggs in our food and closets, and the larvae chew through packaging leaving a mess of silk and frass (waste) behind. If we use the food quickly enough we eat the eggs, and since they don’t hurt us, we don’t even know they are there.

The reality is that we have and will always have lots of bugs in our homes. Many of them are beneficial to us. Booklice, for example, eat fungi and mold. Spiders eat insects and other harmful agents including flies and mosquitoes. Harmful spiders like the black widow and brown recluse are rare. Studies have also shown that many of our chronic diseases are related to our failure to be exposed to biological diversity. Leong says, “Rooms with more kinds of arthropods may be healthier rooms.”

God did not place us in a sterile world. The more we learn of what we live with each day, the more we realize the complexity of life. Living with bugs is essential to our long-term survival. How many bugs are in your home?
–John N. Clayton © 2018

Design Discovered in Insect Migration

Insects
Insects

It is easy for humans to minimize the design that is needed for life to exist on Earth. How do you feed massive numbers of birds, especially in the spring when winter has taken away most of their food sources, and their food needs are maximized as they lay eggs and feed baby birds? In the past scientists have shrugged their shoulders and imagined that there are food sources we don’t recognize that fill this gap until the summer season generates sufficient seeds and insects to sustain the growing populations. Similar problems exist for many other animals like bats that depend on insects for their nutritional needs.

In the April 2017 issue of Scientific American (page 84), there is an interesting report about previously unknown migrations of insects. We have known about monarch butterflies for some time, but this study by British researchers shows that migrations of insects are massive. Over southern Britain alone there are 3.3 trillion insects migrating. That is an average of 3200 tons of bugs moving through the skies over Britain every year. The study also reports that similar patterns have been observed in Texas, India, and China.

The complexity of this migration is astounding. Insects don’t live long enough for one bug to complete the migration. Researchers found that in some cases six generations were involved to complete a migration. The insects do not just get randomly blown about. They travel in a well-programmed pattern taking advantage of wind direction and speed. The elevation at which they fly to get the strongest support for their journey is carefully chosen. For a number of reasons, spring migrations are different from fall migrations.

We have much to learn from insects. Solomon made reference to ants as an example for us to learn from in Proverbs 6:6-11 and 30:24, 25. In our modern times, we see an amazing design that allows for the feeding of birds, bats, and other forms of life that need insects to survive. Constructing a chance model for all of this takes a huge amount of imagination. Recognizing God as the intelligence that gave this migration pattern to insects makes what we see just another example of knowing there is a God through the things he has made (Romans 1:20).
–John N. Clayton © 2017