A jumping spider at high magnification

Spiders perform vital roles, such as controlling many insect populations by eating them. Image © Plamuekwhan/Shutterstock

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Speaking up for the little ones: why bugs need our help more than ever

Over recent weeks there have been plenty of sensational headlines about insects and spiders invading our homes and causing the evacuation of schools.

But rather than reviling these vital creatures, the Museum's Dr Gavin Broad says we should be giving them a helping hand. 

Reports of 'swarms of insects' and 'invasions of bugs' have featured in the press in recent weeks, fuelling concern about the antics of arthropods. 

Dr Gavin Broad, the Museum's Curator in Charge of insects, however, says that these events are nothing out of the ordinary.

'To me, it's always odd that some people think lots of insects are a bad thing,' says Gavin. 'They use pejorative terms like swarm or invade. I think it's quite nice to see a lot of insects, and it's just a natural phenomenon. 

'At this time of year, you may see a lot of certain types of insects but that is normal.'

While insects and other arthropods may be a source of distress for some, they are in real trouble. A 2019 paper suggested that up to 40% of insects, including bees, butterflies and ants, could be at risk of extinction in the next few decades.

If these insects go extinct, the consequences could be catastrophic. Many plants would go unpollinated, rotting plants could pile up, and species which consume bugs of all kinds could risk starvation. 

A crane fly sits on a leaf

Crane flies are an important food for many animals, and break down decaying plants to renew soil. Image © Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock

Who's afraid of the big bad wolf spider? 

Insects and other arthropods often feature as a source of consternation across the world. While in some places some creatures like spiders can be lethal, those in the UK aren't able to inflict fatal bites. 

A recent study, published in Plos One, found that people react to different types of arthropod in different ways. While spiders and scorpions were often associated with high fear scores, other insects weren't so much feared as caused disgust.

The authors suggested that a fear of spiders may have been evolved as a defence against more dangerous species in the past, while disgust could be related to an association between insects and a lack of cleanliness or disease.

Gavin, who was not involved in the study, attributes our feelings as a 'social quirk'.

'I think a lot of people don't want to see insects, and so really dislike them,' explains Gavin. 'When they start to make themselves very obvious, people start to worry about what they're doing. 

'It's odd for us to see insects in our human landscape, but people seem to be forgetting that really our world should be full of insects all the time.'

One insect that featured recently in headlines was the cranefly, also known as the daddy longlegs. At this time of year, many species of cranefly are maturing as adults. During their limited remaining life, it's a rush for these insects to mate, lay eggs and then die.

This year's weather may also have contributed to the numbers of craneflies we are seeing. However, while the craneflies may be a bit disconcerting to look at, Gavin says they're an important part of the ecosystem.

'Craneflies are totally harmless and I think rather lovely,' says Gavin. 'For whatever reason, they spook people. Maybe it's the long legs, or perhaps it's the larvae eating the roots of various plants. 

'On the other hand, I would have thought we would welcome them in our gardens because starlings love them, as the birds probe around in the soil and looking for the larvae to eat. They're a big food source for starlings, which are a red listed species with a declining population in the UK. The insects also help break down decaying plants for soil.'

Another underappreciated insect Gavin singles out for attention is the earwig. Having scarred a generation thanks to George's Marvellous Medicine, he says they're 'unfairly maligned'.

'They tend to creep people out, but they're relatively innocuous things really,' Gavin says. 'They just go about their business eating other insects and take amazing care of their young. The name might put people off, that and their pincers, but they're no threat to people whatsoever.' 

A parasitoid wasp emerges from an aphid

While they may not always be pleasant, parsitoid wasps help control crop pests. Image © Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock

Insect appreciation

While it may be difficult to get people to love all arthropods, Gavin says there are plenty of things that can be done to make people more interested in them.

'My research interests are in wasps, and trying to get people interested in wasps is always interesting,' says Gavin. 'I've found that you can't get people to love wasps, but you can get people to respect them. 

'That's just through giving people some knowledge of what the wasps are doing, and the amazing behaviours most might not be aware of, rather than just thinking of wasps as annoying buzzy things.'

For instance, parasitoid wasps can go after pests such as aphids which damage flowers and crops by laying their eggs in them, while predatory wasps will hunt them down. 

Of course, there are downsides to this approach. 'You just have to accept that sometimes the wasps go after pretty butterflies!' Gavin says.

Focusing on beauty can be a way of getting people to appreciate insects if they can look past their initial appearance.

'A lot of insects are quite small, so you don't see the beauty of insects until they're blown up in pictures,' explains Gavin. 'Whichever insect you look at that is maligned, when you look at them in detail they're amazing things. 

'They're very other, so to get a handle into what they look like and what they do in their world makes people start to appreciate them. 

'Of course, it's mysterious to me why people don't appreciate them in the first place!'

Getting the public to love bugs is particularly important now, with many species seeing sharp population declines. For instance, insect traps in Germany over a 27 year period found that flying insects declined by over 75%. Climate change and agriculture have been given as causes, threatening essential roles such as pollination and nutrient recycling.

While widescale change is needed, there are some steps that everyone can take to support these creatures. Chief among these is changing how we garden to create habitats for a wide variety of insects.

'Make sure your garden has some long grass in places to provide a bit of habitat, as it's not just about providing nectar sources for bees,' Gavin says.

Allowing native wildflowers to grow, cutting back on pesticide use and limiting outdoor lighting are also ways that bugs of all kinds can be supported. While these creatures may be a small nuisance now, a world without them doesn't bear thinking about.