What Good Are Bugs?

Boston Globe – 4/5/2003

What Good Are Bugs?
By Vicki Croke

As warm weather arrives and you find yourself slapping mosquitoes against your neck or stomping on ants in the kitchen, you may be drawn into a seasonal fantasy of a world with no bugs. Be careful what you wish for.

Without all those pollinating, seed-dispersing, waste-recycling creatures, life as we know it would end. So says entomologist Gilbert Waldbauer in his persuasive, rollicking, and informative new book, ''What Good Are Bugs?, ''published by Harvard University Press.

He may not get you to hug your termites, but you will see them in a whole new light.

Bugs are truly awesome in numbers and variety. ''For every insect we see,'' Waldbauer writes, ''there are tens of thousands that we do not see.'' Anyone who has ever spotted a cockroach in the apartment has already made this calculation. But the actual figures are staggering: A single survey in Chicago showed that the synchronous emergence of adult cicadas one spring produced 1.2 tons of them per acre, or 533 per square mile. In Africa, the total ''biomass'' of bugs far outweighs that of all the big mammals – elephants, buffalo, rhinos – combined.

On the surface, bugs seem so alien to us. But in anecdote after anecdote, Waldbauer gives us plenty with which we can identify.

Certain ants actually ''garden,'' bringing soil, organic debris, and fertilizer to plants called epiphytes that grow on the bark of trees. Other ants are like dairy farmers, herding tiny sap-sucking aphids. The aphids' waste material is basically sweet sugar water, called ''honeydew'' (should it be called ''honey doo-doo''?) and the ants love it. So they maintain groups of them, and stroke their hind ends to ''milk'' the aphids for it. Still other ants act like guard dogs, massing and biting viciously even big creatures that come to browse on the acacia trees that the ants live and depend on.

Some people might identify with moths and butterflies. As youths (caterpillars), they are ''eating machines,'' Waldbauer says, and when they mature they become "sex machines."

Fine, fine, you might say. They are just marvelous – from a distance. But how about all the creepy things that drive us crazy? Can Waldbauer defend their lives?

As a matter of fact, he can. Going down a punch list of the bugs that bug us, Waldbauer ticked off their ecological roles:

Hornets: ''They are here to sting you,'' Waldbauer says laughing. No, actually, they eat other insects and keep down populations.

Bees: ''Oh my God,'' Waldbauer says in horror that these little stingers would even be questioned. ''They are major pollinators – and not just of posies, but things like squash and cabbage.'' Insects pollinate the majority of flowering plants.

Cockroaches: They are recyclers. They eat rotting wood and other stuff, returning it to the soil.

Termites: Important recyclers of material, especially – surprise, surprise – wood.

Mosquitoes: Every species overreproduces, and bugs help counteract that. Boy, do they ever. They transmit diseases such as malaria, which keep down animal populations, including ours. And their larvae feed on microorganisms and often become fish food.

Waldbauer celebrates not only the good things bugs do but also the bizarre. The mouthparts of insects, for instance, are highly modified legs (picture them on us). Formidable army ants in South America can include hundreds of thousands in their roving colonies, sweeping the forest floor ''on a front that may be as much as 60 feet wide.'' Crows and other birds trying to rid themselves of parasites will lie down on an ant nest in a behavior called, appropriately, ''anting.'' The ants hop aboard and act like mine sweepers, consuming the parasites.

What Waldbauer shows is that bugs are vitally important to our planet. They help plant life grow. They are great cleanup crews, removing waste material – even dung. They till and aerate soil. They provide food for all kinds of animals, including fish and birds and some mammals.

Clearly, bugs are good. But if you still don't feel moved, think about this: Waldbauer says there are tiny ''hyperparasites'' that live off bigger, more familiar parasites. So, when you are slapping and stomping, take comfort: Even bugs have bugs.




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