Recently, I had the opportunity to go into the field with my colleague, Ojit, an entomologist by training. While Ojit was observing the mating behaviour of dragonflies, I was extremely fascinated with the eyes of the insect. And so, I inquired about vision in insects. Ojit informed me that insects, like the three dragonflies that I was observing, have several eyes, which collectively enable them to have a keen sense of vision. While the human eye is made of a single large lens, insect eyes, also known as compound eyes, are composed of several tiny lenses. In the insect kingdom, dragonflies have one of the most complex compound eyes with around 30,000 lenses per eye. Similarly, the brain of insects such as bees may be smaller than a pinhead but is capable of producing extremely sophisticated and complex behaviours, which enable them to learn and memorise, just like many vertebrates. For instance, honeybees can learn the location of a flower patch from where it can obtain nectar, besides memorising the shape, colour, and scent of a particular flower that it finds beneficial (Wyatt, 2017).
Image Credit: Thomas Shahan
Challenges to Insect Conservation
Insects are invertebrates with a three-part body consisting of the head, thorax and abdomen, and are the largest group in the arthropod phylum. They come in all shapes and sizes and account for the majority of terrestrial diversity (Basset & Lamarre, 2019). They provide vital ecosystem services as pollinators, decomposers, prey in food webs, and even enemies of pests. Interestingly, cities are where humans and insects encounter each other most frequently, and therefore, urban, suburban and exurban areas have the potential to serve as hotspots for the conservation of insects (Hunter & Hunter, 2008). But what are the present challenges for the conservation of insects?
Firstly, all insects are lumped together and collectively labelled as pests, contributing to the largely negative public view of insects (Hunter & Hunter, 2008). Many humans view insects as invisible, boring, ugly, indestructible, vectors or disease, and as having to do very little with the everyday lives of human beings (Samways et al., 2020). Secondly, insects are not ascribed value by people for the simple reason that there is insufficient funding for entomological science, resulting in the lack of dissemination of scientific knowledge and awareness (Basset & Lamarre, 2019). While conservation programmes for charismatic megafauna such as tigers, lions, elephants and rhinos garner huge sums of money, uncharismatic creatures such as insects hardly find any mention in global conservation efforts (Barua et al., 2012; Michael, 2004). Thirdly, it is usually the aesthetically appealing species such as butterflies, or pollinator species such as bees that are most appreciated by the public, although butterflies and bees together account for less than 4 per cent of the insect species described globally (Basset & Lamarre, 2019).
Creating Awareness: The Way Forward
Personally, I was uninformed about insects until a few years ago when my colleague, Ojit, conducted a day-long workshop on insect ecology and took me and my colleagues out in the field to look at the diversity of insects present in the Dheerpur Wetland Project Site (DWPS) – an urban wetland in Delhi that is being restored and maintained by the Centre for Urban Ecology and Sustainability (CUES). We learnt about the basic anatomy of insects and were taught how to collect, preserve and identify insects. After a basic theory session, we went into the field with insect collecting nets and collected several insects including butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies, bees and beetles.
A most recent initiative by CUES has been the creation of an ‘Insect Hotel’ at DWPS. The primary aim of the hotel is to create a variety of habitats to attract a range of insects. While the concept of an insect or bug hotel has been a matter of debate among entomologists and ecologists, one of the other aims of setting up such a structure in the Dheerpur wetland was to create awareness among the public about the importance of insects and their role in maintaining ecosystems. For instance, the security guards and gardeners working at the wetland became curious about the insect hotel as soon as we started working on it. This provided us with an opportunity to tell them about insects. What is encouraging is that today, our guards and gardeners often introduce the insect hotel to visitors who come to the wetland. Another aspect about the insect hotel is that it is a zero-cost structure that was built entirely using locally sourced materials such as the trunk and bark of fallen trees, grasses, discarded wooden planks, stones, bricks and spare flower pots.
As stated previously, species such as butterflies and bees are aesthetically pleasing, and their function as pollinators are understood to a limited extent. One of the ways forward is to build on this common public perception and use these insect species as insect icons and flagship species to draw attention to insect ecology and conservation as a whole (Samways et al., 2020). In other words, these flagship species are “charismatic microfauna” which could be used to promote public awareness about insect diversity and the role of insects in pollination, seed dispersal, soil development and decomposition, and in general, catalyse conservation action for other lesser-known invertebrate species (Barua et al., 2012). Darwin describes the work of worms as one of the “small agencies” whose “accumulated effects” turn out to be enormous (Bennett, 2010). In the same way, although insects may seem like “unworthy ‘things’”, there is a need to create awareness among the general public about the role and importance of insects in maintaining ecological functions (Samways et al., 2020). Cities, in particular, must anchor insect conservation initiatives since cities have the potential to serve as safe havens for some vulnerable species, protecting them from the adverse impacts of climate change (Hunter & Hunter, 2008).
- Barua, M., Gurdak, D. J., Ahmed, R. A., & Tamuly, J. (2012). Selecting flagships for invertebrate conservation. Biodiversity and Conservation, 21(6), 1457–1476. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10531-012-0257-7
- Basset, Y., & Lamarre, G. P. A. (2019). Toward a world that values insects: Rapid adoption of conservation measures is key to protecting insect populations. Science, 364(6447), 1230–1231. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw7071
- Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. London: Duke University Press.
- Hunter, M. R., & Hunter, M. D. (2008). Designing for conservation of insects in the built environment. Insect Conservation and Diversity, 189–196. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1752-4598.2008.00024.x
- Samways, M. J., Barton, P. S., Birkhofer, K., Chichorro, F., Deacon, C., Fartmann, T., … Cardoso, P. (2020). Solutions for humanity on how to conserve insects. Biological Conservation, 242(February). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108427
- Wyatt, T. D. (2017). Animal behaviour: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.