April 2021 - 37
Humans have struggled for centuries with waste
disposal. But in the natural world, a variety of insects
have evolved to do much of the dirty work.
Termites are often regarded with horror by a civilization that has made a practice of building their
shelters from wood, but they, along with a host of
other insects, are masters at breaking down the components of dead wood and plant material, turning it
into soil nutrients.
Even more specialized are carrion beetles which
seek out dead bodies to lay their eggs. They can track
down the smell of decaying flesh from several miles
away, one of the reasons they also play a role in forensic
entomology. One particular family of carrion beetle
is the burying beetle, so named because one of their
many amazing talents is the ability to work together
to bury small animals in the soil before laying their
eggs inside the carcass, providing a ready food source
for their larva as they emerge and grow.
Third in this trifecta of decomposers is the indispensable dung beetle. Without their incredible ability
to process animal excrement, pastures could become
waste lands, literally, unable to grow new forage crops
under a blanket of undigested manure.
The decomposers serve to clean up waste by breaking it down and converting it into usable components.
With more learned about insects regularly, there is
a possibility that researchers could discover insect
decomposers capable of efficiently breaking down
substances that are difficult to get rid of in other ways.
Dragonflies can often be seen or heard buzzing back and forth as they feast on mosquitoes. (Photo by Kathy Lichtendahl)
Perhaps the greatest concern about the global
decline in insect populations is how much we don't
know. A variety of studies over the last few years have
revealed possibilities that could not have been imagined
just a short time ago.
Scientists determined African dung beetles navigate
by using the stars. Search and rescue operations now
use cockroaches in environments that are unsafe for
humans to venture. Antimicrobial compounds have
been discovered in black soldier fly larva. Asian honey
bees have been found using tools to guard their nests
How many more possibilities are out there waiting
to be discovered?
What you can do
There are actions each of us can take that will have
positive impacts on local insect populations.
Avoid the use of wide-spectrum insecticides. If you
are trying to get rid of a specific pest, find what works
against that insect without killing others. Consider
alternative methods of keeping insects away such as
fans, natural repellents, clothing choices or bug nets.
Plant native vegetation that will attract insects
Dung beetles have the ability to process excrement. This clears the waste from the land and can help reduce the
survival of some intestinal parasites surviving in the excrement. (Photo by Kathy Lichtendahl)
meant to be in that environment. Mow lawns less and
leave the leaves. Consider setting aside a small piece
of property that can be allowed to go wild. Don't be
a light polluter.
Involve kids, and other adults, in fun bug activities
such as bug bingo or citizen science projects, like butterfly counts. Explore the use of technology to record
insect populations in your neighborhood by using
apps like iNaturalist or websites such as BugGuide.
Perhaps most important of all, educate yourself
and those around you. You might be surprised to
discover just how beautiful and diverse the world of
insects can be.
- Kathy Lichtendahl is a photographer and educator in
Wyoming's Big Horn Basin.
Wyoming Wildlife | 37
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of April 2021
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