Insects may bug you, but plants thrive on them

The insects are dying. It’s fall, and it’s turning cold. The honeybees in my hive are balled up at night now, and there isn’t much foraging even on the sunny days.

I see spiders laying their eggs on the side of the house. A daddy longlegs, technically not a true spider, hangs lethargically by the front door. The praying mantises are big and fat and slow.

The word mantis means prophet, and so I assume this foretells the coming of winter.

The garden is dead. Only wilted and discolored flowers remain in most places. Fruit has been set, seeds have been shed, and nuts are in the shell.

I still need to clean out the old growth in the garden, but I don’t feel any hurry. Fall is for slowing a little, taking one’s time and feeling a little glad that the work is over, but feeling a little sad that the growing is over.

Sometimes, the most important truth can be hidden in plain sight. More than 250,000 flowering plants have been described. That is probably a modest estimate, but I am not a botanist and don’t want to oversell. More than 750,000 insects have been described. That number is actually much bigger and is expected to top a million.

Together, this means that two-thirds of all life forms are monopolized by these two groups. This is not an accident. These two groups of living things live together in an intimate way.

Flowering plants could not exist without the service of insects to aid them in sexual reproduction, which we call pollination. And most insects could not exist without the shelter, surface and food (nectar, pollen and plant parts) provided by the plants.

These two groups are completely symbiotic: dependent on living together.

This concept of living together is a delicate and changing arrangement. Flowers such as Passiflora incarnata, the Maypop, are common in the southern United States in areas such as Tennessee that are only pollinated by Xylocopa virginica, a carpenter bee. If the bee is lost, the flower will also become extinct.

Or the “bearclaw poppy,” Arctomecon humilis, which is only pollinated by a solitary bee named Perdita meconis, unknown until just a few years ago. If the flower is lost, the bee will go extinct.

These last two live near the Virgin River in Southwest Utah, or northwest Arizona, as you see it.

Sometimes, this balance between organisms is upset, and we call the result predation, or parasitism, or disease, or extinction, or pollution or some other term.

The problem is that it is very difficult to know what will upset the balance between any two or three organisms. How do we know what to avoid or how to avoid it?

It is akin to a complex structure built out of toothpicks. It is hard to predict which toothpick can be removed and which cannot without causing the collapse of the whole system.

Generally, humans don’t have a clue what we are doing in this regard.

Mankind has put a lot of energy into killing insects. Many insects compete with us for our food. Some insects transmit diseases. But ironically, mankind relies heavily on the flowering plants for food and fiber.

High mountain peaches, cherries, apples, pears and apricots are just a few of the hundreds of plants we find desirable that rely on insects.

So if plants need insects, and insects need plants, and man needs plants, then doesn’t man need insects?


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