Insects are creepy-crawly, six-legged creatures that infest garbage, plague our beloved pets (fleas, anyone?), spread diseases, and can cause serious mayhem in agriculture. I mean, these things look like they could have come from another planet... what's the big deal with getting rid of them? Well, as it would turn out, these little critters did not come from another planet, but have a rich history with our own. The first insects are believed to have first appeared between 412 and 479 million years ago and managed to not only withstand several mass extinctions, but flourished during some periods (think dog-sized dragonflies during the Carboniferous period), and developed a special relationship with flowering plants.
Fast-forward several million years to today and you’ll see that insects still fulfill a specific niche in the ecosystem. The well-known examples of this are the bees and the butterflies, which act as fantastic pollinators for wildflowers, home gardens, and mass agricultural operations. However, even flies, which are often considered pesky nuisances around the house, have been known to act as pollinators as well as assist the process of decomposition, speeding up the formation of compost. Another often scorned insect, known to interrupt many a picnic, is the humble ant. Many places on earth are fortunate enough to have loose soils, packed with organic materials. This is not so in the arid desert landscape of Phoenix, Arizona, which instead has dense, clay soils. Ants persevere in these harsh conditions and act as the “earthworm of the desert.” That’s right! If you see ants in your garden, don’t be so quick to break out the pesticide, for they may very well be creating pockets of oxygen for your plant’s root systems to enjoy.
As with home gardeners enjoying the fruits of the insects’ labor, large agricultural corporations also reap what they sow, specifically because insects are out there pollinating and protecting their crops. Farmers who limit or choose less toxic forms of pest control products also get free labor in the form of beneficial insects like green lacewings, ladybugs, assassin bugs, trichogramma wasps, and praying mantises, which eat the “bad” bugs like aphids, mealybugs, and hornworms. All of this amounts to saved time and money. A 2006 study published in BioScience estimated that “vital ecological services provided by insects,” such as pollination, pest control, and others amounted to an annual value of at least $57 billion. Imagine how much the cost of goods would go up if farmers had to pay for those free services. In fact, if you eat almonds or drink almond milk, you know all too well how much costs have gone up. This is due in part to almond farmers being forced to purchase bees for hire because local bees have disappeared. Even if you're not into almonds, chances are high that your wallet will be affected at some point because of the choices we are making today.
This Earth Day, let’s celebrate this amazing planet and all it has to offer by choosing to use less toxic pesticides. Some good alternatives include neem oil, cedar oil, lemongrass-based oils, and BT. It is best practice to use these at dawn or dusk when beneficial insects aren’t as active. Comment below with some of your favorite methods to control pests or increase pollination.