In another month or so the humid air will start rolling in and we won’t be able to go outside after dark without getting bitten up by mosquitoes. Then we won’t be able to sleep because of the flies that slip through our window screens and buzz around all night long. There will be clouds of midges attempting to fly up our noses and ants marching through our kitchens. Not to mention our old friends, the roaches. We will be declaring war on insects and using every means at our disposal—swatters, citronella, toxic chemicals—to annihilate them. Except the pretty ones, like butterflies.
But wait! Not so fast! May Berenbaum, a professor of entomology at the University of Illinois (and also the organizer of the university’s annual Insect Fear Film Festival and the inspiration for the Bambi Berenbaum character on The X-Files), believes that insects are useful, and even helpful, to us in ways our little human minds can’t comprehend yet. She’ll be here this weekend to give the keynote address at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum’s Why Prevent Extinction? conference, but earlier this week she took some time for a chat over the phone about our friends, the bugs.
“Maybe it’s not scientific to quote Joni Mitchell,” Berenbaum says, “but you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
She continues: “It’s utilitarian. We’re relying on biodiversity to make a living as a species. Insects make our existence comfortable in so many ways we don’t even know. It seems profligate to eliminate them before we find out what they can do for us.”
And then she rattles off one example after another. Both the cacao and fig tree failed to produce fruit after they were transplanted to different continents until it was discovered that they needed insects—no-see-em flies and wasps, respectively—to help them pollinate. (“The sex life of figs is complicated and involved,” says Berenbaum.) The immunosuppressant drug ciclosporin, used in transplants, is made from a compound produced by a fungus that develops in the needle grub.
“Because we don’t know about it doesn’t mean it’s unnecessary,” she concludes. “Nature is a much more creative incubator than we are.”
And often times when we do try to mess with nature, we set off a whole chain of events that we never anticipated. In Hawaii, scientists introduced a parasitic wasp to attack the tobacco moth (its larvae eat tobacco plants), inadvertently also killing its relative, the oleander hawkmoth, which helps pollinate the alula, a native plant that grows on cliffsides. Now botanists have to rappel down the cliffs to do the pollination by hand.
“We’re blundering around, assuming we’re the most important organism in whatever natural community we’re stumbling through,” says Berenbaum. “We don’t like bugs, but we like flowers, and we can’t have one without the other.”
Berenbaum finds that the most persuasive arguments about insect preservation are the economic ones. People may lament the loss of an especially pretty bug, but they’ll get really upset if the loss costs them money. “There are hundreds and hundreds of examples of critical goods and services that insects provide that we’re unaware of, until someone jeopardizes them.” And, of course, she’s able to provide a good one: when sheep and cattle were introduced to Australia, the existing dung beetles were unable to process their shit. (They’d evolved to only eat marsupial shit, not placental mammal shit.) So the bush flies descended and made large parts of the continent uninhabitable. Land, of course, is money. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when dung beetles from other continents were imported, that the flies were brought under control.
“There’s potential profit in every genome,” Berenbaum says. “That’s the only argument that will win hearts and minds.”
But what can an ordinary non-entomologist, non-botanist, non-business tycoon do to help preserve the bug population, aside from nobly self-sacrificing themselves to feed the mosquitoes?
“Plant more flowers,” Berenbaum says simply. “Chicago is doing a wonderful job of greening up the city. The honey harvested near Millennium Park is marvelous because of the diversity of flowers. City life isn’t necessarily sentenced to be separated from biodiversity.”
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And her X-Files alter ego? Berenbaum just laughs. “Initially it was a surprise. It took a year and a half to confirm with a screenwriter that the character was actually based on me. He used my books as research. The character was meant to be a ‘luscious babe,’ so the resemblance ends there. But I’m a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and I got more e-mails about Bambi Berenbaum than I did about getting elected.”