Insects: an introduction

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Like many people, you may be thinking the less you know about insects, the better. But, really, the more you know, the more you’ll grow to respect them, and maybe even like them. Most of us are drawn to cuddly, fuzzy, cute wildlife — and insects, with only a few exceptions, look like creatures from outer space. Their features are odd and mysterious. They often look menacing, and some truly are dangerous.

Some bite and sting. Others harass. They invade our homes, swim in our coffee, dip into our ice cream, find their way inside our clothes. They’re spoilers at every outdoor party. In spite of all this — the inescapable reality is they’re essential to life on earth and that includes a backyard wildlife habitat. You don’t need to know anything more about insects than this: Don’t kill them. No insects means no wildlife habitat. But, if you read on, you’ll learn about some things about creatures that lead fascinating lives and benefit both wildlife and humans.

Not all insects are little devils like, say, the bedbugs and houseflies — think of butterflies, like the lovely Monarchs that add beauty to our flower garden, and the tiny, cute ladybugs that help rid the garden of aphids. Did you know that 97 percent of insects are helpful or inoffensive? It’s the nuisance insects that draw our attention, while all the rest attend to their daily business without so much as a glance in our direction.

On the world stage, it’s from insects we gain honey, wax, silk and medicinal compounds. They aerate the soil and spread pollen from one plant to another, ensuring new production of flowers and crops. (Imagine humans having to hand-pollinate everything they grow.) Insects are themselves food for other animals: They’re the main food source for many fish, mammals, birds and reptiles. Insects are also food for humans in many cultures.

For every “undesirable” insect in your yard there’s another that will prey on it, thereby helping to maintain a natural balance in a successful wildlife habitat. For instance, Green lacewing larvae, sometimes called “aphid lions,” love the aphids that munch on our plants. A Preying Mantis will greedily free your yard of just about any insect it encounters. Some wasps parasitize caterpillars, which helps to halt the defoliation of your flowering plants and vegetables.

If you’ve liberated your yard from pesticides, there’s not a square foot in it that doesn’t contain at least several hundred insects. These are busy insects, not resting on their laurels, but instead repaying your hospitality with purposeful lives.

A close look at insects doesn’t appeal to some wildlife enthusiasts. To many, however, insects are part and parcel of their project. They want to know about all the lives living in their yards. Before you say, “no way,” give it a try. The more closely you observe insects, the un-scarier they become. You’ll grow to respect them.

By the way, the study of insects isn’t only for boys and men. Women are well represented as hobbyists and as professionals in the field of entomology (the study of insects). Visit BugGuide.com to “meet” some of these knowledgeable women (and men). If you want to dip your toes, so to speak, into the waters of entomology to see how it feels, click on the “Explore” link above.

Keep this in mind: With only a few exceptions (mosquitoes and chiggers, for instance), insects aren’t interested in humans. A bee that buzzes around your head is merely checking to see if you’re a flower and unless you “attack” by swatting at it, it will soon buzz off. If you walk into a spider web, you’ve destroyed something the spider spent hours constructing in order to catch food. Is it going to bite you? Not likely, but even if it does, its tiny bite will be harmless. The spider’s mind is on food, and its time on earth is short. Don’t make it shorter by killing it. It just wants to get off of you; point it to the exit by sweeping it away. And about those June Bugs — so creepy-scratchy when they land on us — they’re harmless. As most insects are.

Still, always know what you’re about to handle, because insects do have defense mechanisms, some of them painful, like a wasp’s, or even dangerous, like a Brown Spider’s. The vast majority of insects can be held on the palm of your hand with no more consequence than some tickling or scratching as they make their getaway.

* Top photo: Seven-spotted Lady Beetle. (Sanna R / Flickr; cc by-sa 2.0)
Read about some interesting insects here: Explore an insect-friendly yard

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