Insects: Our Most Under-Appreciated Neighbors

Why should I want bugs, insects, and creepy crawlies in my yard or green space?

Insects are an incredibly diverse group of organisms, with 91,000 described species in the United States and likely an equal number yet to be described by scientists. Only an exceedingly small fraction of these species ever have negative impacts on humans as “pests” (<1% of species). Often the overabundance of pest species is due to human agricultural and landscape practice choices. The vast majority of insects in shared spaces with humans like yards and parks are going about their own lives. In addition to being fascinating creatures deserving of habitat in their own right, they also often contribute to unnoticed but very important tasks that help humans, termed “ecosystem services.” The next time you see one of these critters in your yard, consider thanking them rather than smashing them.

What are ecosystem services?

Ecosystem services are benefits that humans gain from the environment. Examples of ecosystem services include water filtration, raw material production, erosion control, and pollination. Some ecosystem services, like the maintenance of atmospheric gasses (e.g. plants remove carbon dioxide and produce oxygen that humans breathe), are noticeable and directly impact our everyday lives. On the other hand, services like decomposition may go unnoticed because they indirectly affect us.  

Insects (and their arthropod relatives like spiders and earthworms) play vital roles in many ecosystem services. This is often due to insects interacting with plants in some way, though insects also provide food for many other animals. Below are some examples of the ecosystem services that insects contribute to.

Water filtration

Filter-feeding insects positively affect water quality because they remove particles of dead organic material. Insects retain many of the nutrients they filter out of the water, thus reducing the likelihood of algal blooms, their associated toxins, and dissolved oxygen “dead zones.” This is crucial because clean water provides habitat for other plants and animals like fish and amphibians. It also means less effort is required to purify water for human use. 

Types of insects that improve water quality:

  • Blackflies, mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies (Note: the underlined insect groups are not “true” flies in the taxonomic Order Diptera; they are part of other orders.) 

Other types of organisms that improve water quality:

  • Mussels, crayfish, snails

More information: Why Care About Aquatic Insects

Biocontrol

Biocontrol is when natural enemies are used to suppress pests and reduce the amount of damage they cause. Natural enemies are insects that are antagonistic to pest insects. There are three types of natural enemies: predators, parasitoids, and pathogens. Preserving natural enemy populations is crucial to reducing our reliance on pesticides because when natural enemies are active, pest outbreaks are less likely to occur in the first place. Predators need food all year, so they also need alternate prey available in order to prevent pest outbreaks. Pesticides eliminate beneficial insects in addition to pests, so they should be used only as a last resort.

Fun fact: Fireflies spend much of the year as larval predators belowground, feeding on pests like grubs in turfgrass yards. If no prey is available in yards, then there will be no display of adult fireflies in the summer.

Types of insects used for biocontrol:

Other types of organisms used for biocontrol:

  • Fungi, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals

More information: Approaches to the Biological Control of Insect Pests.

Seed dispersal

Seed dispersal is when seeds are moved away from the parent plant. Seeds are moved when insects knock them off while feeding or when insects collect and then move seeds to a new location. Seed dispersal is important because it reduces resource competition between the parent plant and offspring plants. It also makes germination and seedling survival more likely, especially in arid climates. 

Types of insect seed dispersers:

  • Ants (most effective), beetles, wasps, thrips, and some moths

Other types of seed dispersers:

  • Fruit-eating animals (frugivores), such as some monkeys, lizards, and bats
  • Unwitting animal dispersers of sticky seeds like this

More information:

Seed Dispersal – The Australian Museum

The Conservation Physiology of Seed Dispersal

Decomposition & nutrient cycling

Nutrient cycling and decomposition are two important processes that rely on one another. Nutrient cycling is when soil nutrients are taken up by plants, insects eat plants, and then those nutrients are reintroduced into the soil when dead insects and droppings are broken back down into nutrients via decomposition. Decomposer insects help clear dead animals and plants off the ground which would otherwise accumulate everywhere. They also help create soil texture and circulate nutrients back into the soil, which plant populations and productivity depend on.

Types of insect decomposers:

  • Many beetles, springtails, termites, wood cockroaches, and some fly larvae (maggots)

Other types of decomposers:

More information: Decomposers

Supporting food webs

Insects are a main source of protein and nutrition for many animals (and even some plants). They play a crucial role in transferring energy from plants to larger animals that eat insects like spiders, birds, frogs, fish, bats, foxes, opossums, and bears. This wide food base that they provide allows for functioning, stable ecosystems that are resilient to disruptions.

Fun fact: By weight, there are roughly 300 times more insects than humans on Earth.
There are so many animals that eat insects, but here are just a few examples:

  • Terrestrial bird species, in particular, feed their babies almost exclusively with insects, and if there are fewer insects, baby birds are less successful at fledging from nests.
  • Popular fish like salmon, bass, and trout eat insects, especially when they’re young.
  • Grizzly bears will eat tens of thousands of moths a day to prepare for hibernation.

Pollination

Pollination is the transfer of pollen between flowers, resulting in flower fertilization and seed/fruit production. It is an unintentional consequence of pollinators going from flower to flower to feed themselves. Pollination is crucial for human survival, as 80% of plant-based foods and products rely on animal pollination. According to the USDA, pollinated crops are worth $18 billion in the US alone. Foods requiring pollination include apples, blueberries, chocolate, coffee, grapefruit, peaches, peppermint, sugarcane, tequila, and vanilla. 

Fun fact: beetles were likely the first insect pollinators– starting 200 million years ago!
Types of insect pollinators:

  • Bees, wasps, beetles, flies, ants, butterflies, and moths

Other types of pollinators:

  • Birds and bats

More information:

Pollination Basics

What is Pollination?

Why is Pollination Important?

Pollinated Foods

By Yasmine Helbling, Kelsey McGurrin, and Karin Twardosz Burghardt, from the University of Maryland Department of Entomology, Burghardt Lab

We are still alive! How to protect pollinators in the slow season

Even when they look dry and “dead,” our green spaces are full of life. When we think about plants, for example, we can see that herbaceous perennials seem dry but they are actually just retreating underground, while annuals continue their life cycle by spending the winter as seeds in the ground. The same is true for other organisms that live in our green spaces: squirrels become less active, snakes retreat to sheltered spaces, and insects may overwinter as adults underground or in crevasses or as juveniles in their nests or chrysalises. Among these insects, there is a particular group that we seem to take a lot of effort to protect in season, but that we may then forget about in the fall and winter: our pollinators. In today’s post, I would like to talk about some specific ways that allow us to take care of our green spaces in the fall, all while continuing to support these organisms we worked so hard to support throughout the growing season.

Where are our pollinators in the winter?

As we mentioned in a previous post, pollinators don’t disappear in the winter. Instead, they either migrate to warmer conditions (like monarchs do; check out this website to know where they are now!) or stick around and overwinter right here in protected spaces such as crevasses, underground nests, and within plant stems. If we have been enjoying supporting them throughout the season, it may be a good idea to continue to do so also throughout the winter. Let’s see some ways to do this.

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Biological pest control: parasitoids

¿Hablas español? Aquí esta una traducción: Control biológico de plagas: los parasitoides

Parasitoids are natural enemies of pests that, like predators (ladybugs and flower flies) can help us keep pest populations at bay or eliminate them from our gardens.

Parasitoid or parasite? Let’s learn the difference between these terms

Before saying more about this group of natural enemies, let me tell you that it is very common to confuse the term “parasitoid” with the term “parasite.” Parasites and parasitoids have in common the need for a host for their development. The difference between the two types of organisms is that parasitoids kill their host to complete their life cycle. That is, the parasite can live at the expense of the host without having to kill it, while the parasitoid ends up killing its host upon completion of its life cycle. Parasites are generally known to be annoying and even transmit diseases to animals, plants, and humans, while parasitoids are beneficial insects, as they help us control pests.

What is a parasitoid?

Parasitoids are insects that insert their eggs into the body or egg of another insect (host) in order to complete their life cycle. Parasitoids go through complete metamorphosis, four different stages of development: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. To finish their development, the parasitoids must feed on their host, and the females first deposit their eggs in their host. As soon as the parasitoid egg hatches, the larvae begin to devour the tissues of their host. Once the larvae reach a certain size, they become pupae, after which the adult emerges, killing the host.

Parasitoids can be classified according to their oviposition (egg-laying) behavior. Endoparasitoids are the parasitoids that lay their eggs inside the body or egg of their host. In contrast, ectoparasitoids oviposit on top of the body of their host, that is, on the surface of their body. To see these fascinating creatures in action you can, watch a video of endoparasitoids and one of ectoparasitoid activity.

Life cycle of an ectoparasitoid (adapted from Presa-Barra et al 2020)

life cycle steps of an ectoparasitoid

Life cycle of an endoparasitoid (adapted from Presa-Barra et al 2020)

life cycle steps of an endoparasitoid
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Celebrate National Moth Week

A moth feeding on nectar of a purple  verbena flower
Hummingbird Clearwing. Photo: M. Talabac

The last full week of July is National Moth Week, and I encourage everyone to take a closer look at the vast diversity of moths that fill our natural world. Butterflies and moths belong to the same insect group, but moths far outnumber butterflies in species diversity. Since many moths have muted colors or fly at night, we’re largely unaware of this bounty. Let’s take a whirlwind appreciation tour of the group to illustrate the amazing, bizarre, and quirky features of this major insect order.

Moth adults come in all shapes and sizes, and like butterflies, wings are their most prominent feature. There are “micro-moths” whose wingspans are less than an inch, and giant “silk moths” up to 6 inches, making them the largest moths in North America. (Our native silk moths are not closely related to true silk moths, but they got the name because people thought they could be farmed for silk.) The wings of some moths look like mere slivers, seemingly insufficient for flight, while others are tucked around their body so they look fairly cylindrical. Some lay so flat at rest with their wings spread that you’d swear they were two-dimensional.

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The more the merrier: community actions for pollinators

bumble bee on a purple coneflower

Besides it being the month when summer starts, June is a great month because it is when Pollinator Week happens! 😊

Tagging along with that week, in today’s post I want to talk about some actions you can take with(in) your community to help pollinators! Because, if we want to help pollinators, a very valid and effective way to amplify your actions is to get others on board! Here, a non-extensive list of ideas.

1. Become a Bee City

Ask your City or Campus to become a certified Bee City or Bee Campus USA. Bee Cities and Campuses are certifications that cities and campuses across the USA can obtain if they implement a series of actions (“commitments”) established by the Xerces Society. Once these actions are done, the City or Campus in question becomes certified as a pollinator-friendly space. The types of actions outlined are really activities that lead to increasing education on pollinators and pollination, to improving pollinator habitat on the institution’s land, to promoting actions in the way that the institution functions that may allow for increasing pollinator support (see here for city commitments and here for campus commitments). Becoming a Bee City or Campus is not hard, and most institutions say yes if their members ask. If you think this is something you would like your City and/or Campus to do, reach out to your representatives or leadership and get them on board! And to have an idea of what cities and campuses are already involved, take a look at the Bee City USA affiliates.

2. Organize a Pollinator Week Event

Pollinator Week is a National event organized by the Pollinator Partnership and includes many possible actions that lead to increasing pollinator survival and/or awareness. This year, Pollinator Week will be happening June 20-26. One can participate in activities already organized by others, or one can propose and host an activity! If you would like to get together with your community and organize an event, do it, and then submit it to the Pollinator Week event list! That way, others will know about it and will participate as well! To submit (or participate in) an event, go to the bottom of the Pollinator Partnership page.

Pollinator Week, June 20-26, 2022 logo

3. Ask your city to host a No-Mow Month in early-spring

Early-spring pollinators emerge usually when very few plants are flowering, meaning that the early spring is a critical time for these pollinators. In human-occupied landscapes like cities or suburban areas, a lot of the landscape is occupied by lawns, which can provide some flowers early in the spring. No-Mow Month (usually April or May, depending on the city’s conditions) is an action that seeks to allow the availability of the early flowers in lawns so that local pollinators can survive during the early spring. Once other plants in the landscape start flowering (usually at the end of April in most of Maryland), the lawn can be mowed with this not negatively affecting pollinators.

It is important to note that this action is based on voluntary participation, meaning that participants opt-in (instead of being mandated to do it). This action has been shown to be effective in increasing pollinator diversity and abundance in regions where it is implemented, and is not associated with excessive lawn growth because it occurs so early in the season. Further, it can be strengthened with native plantings, which can boost its effects and also support local landscapers during the reduced-mow month. Localities where the action has been implemented tend to have high adoption rates, increased nature awareness, and willingness to further support biodiversity around homesteads, with no- to very-reduced vermin occurrence.

This action usually requires some temporal amendments to City Code (e.g., to ensure that participants will not be penalized if their lawns surpass the maximum allowed height during the no-mow month) so it needs approval by City Councils. Although this may sound really complicated, it is not, and several Cities in Maryland have implemented this program very successfully during the month of April (see here for College Park, MD, and here for Greenbelt, MD), following Appleton, WI’s trailblazing action. If you think this is something you would like to implement in your community, get in touch with these cities’ Bee City USA committees so they can share their expertise, and then contact your representatives to ask them to adopt this action where you live!

No Mow April Collage Park sign

4. Ask your community to establish pollinator-friendly plants and nesting resources

Communities can also support pollinators through the way they decide to landscape their land. Requesting your community leadership to implement pollinator-friendly gardens and offer nesting resources for pollinators (e.g., bee hotels, create small wild spaces) is a really good way to help pollinators at a larger scale. To do this, you can get in touch with you City/Town Horticulturist and/or Public Works people, and request this. If you would like to implement this in your neighborhood and on private land, you can coordinate with your neighbors and create plots of native plants or small nesting areas in everybody’s green spaces. A very effective way to do this in Maryland is by establishing a neighborhood Green Team. If you would like to know about how to do this, take a look at this page of recommended native plants and this list of native plants that do well in our area.

Chart listing easy-to-grow native plants that support pollinators

5. Ask you city/town/neighborhood to adopt an IPM plan

Although we tend to think about helping pollinators only by planting flowers and maybe creating nesting spaces, pollinators also can be helped by the way we manage our landscapes. For example, herbicides and pesticides can be sometimes very harmful to pollinators, or cutting plants at certain times of the year can really negatively affect them. Reducing the use of pesticides and herbicides, or changing the way we manage our own private land is one possibility. However, cities, towns, neighborhoods, schools, and campuses also manage their public lands! For that reason, they can also implement actions to manage spaces in ways that support pollinators.

chart explaining Integrated Pest Management in 5 steps

A very good way to institutionalize this is by requesting these institution to implement Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plans. IPM is a way of controlling pests and increasing “beneficial” organisms in a given space by means that reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides. These plans establish a framework that allows institutions to still control pests and diseases, while reducing the negative impacts on biodiversity that some conventional practices have. These plans can be very general or very specific, and if your institution does not have one, it may be time to ask them to implement one! To do this, get in touch with your institutional horticulturist or your government representative. Here are some examples: city, campus and school district plans.

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.

Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!

Bees to look out for: leaf-cutter bees!

Spring is well-established and many flowers have already started to bloom. In my garden, I have seen several sizes and shapes of insects visiting flowers, going from small flower flies to butterflies, to very tiny and shiny, fuzzy large, and very large bees. And with all these flying organisms starting to come around us, I thought today would be a really good time to introduce you to some really cool bees that are very common in our area: the leaf-cutter bees!

What are leaf-cutter bees?

As its name suggests, these are solitary bees known to cut leaves (now you may be thinking, “duh, I could have guessed that without a blog post”, but bear with me!). These bees belong to a very large family of bees called Megachilidae, which is present on all continents except Antarctica and well-represented in our region.

Like most solitary bees, the female of leaf-cutter bees builds nests with small brood cells, in each of which a food provision is left and one egg laid. And this is where the “leaf-cutter” name comes from. When building their nests, many of these females line their brood cells with specific materials, in particular plant tissues. In fact, many of the species are known to cut leaves and/or petals to line their nests, using them to stabilize the brood cells, and likely to provide protection to the larva and the food provisions. In a fascinating way, it is suspected that these bees are able to exploit the antimicrobial effects of certain compounds present in these flowers and leaves, indirectly using them to protect their offspring until they finish their development in the nests.

If you ever saw neat and relatively large holes that seem to suddenly pop up on certain plants in your green spaces, it is very likely that they were made by some of these bees that may be nesting close to you! If you keep an eye out on those plants, it is very likely that you will end up seeing these busy bees carefully cutting, then rolling, and finally flying away with the neat plant circles!

Female leaf-cutter bee cutting a leaf
Leafcutter bee nest and brood cells made with leaf pieces
Megachilids are known for cutting leaves that they use to line the brood cells of their nest. Note that here the nest is in a soil mound and each brood cell is completely covered with leaves but capped and separate from the neighboring cells. In this nest, each cell contains one egg. Photo: E. Soh.
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How do pollinators find plants and flowers?

As we know, pollinators help plants spread their pollen among flowers, and many plants do indeed need them to be able to reproduce and set seeds. We also know that by planting flowers and providing nesting habitats, we can help pollinators’ populations and thus assist with plant pollination. However, how do pollinators find plants? In this post, we will talk about that topic, which can help us become even better at helping pollinators and the plants they pollinate.

The big picture – pollinators need to be in the area

In order for pollinators to find plants, pollinators need to be present in the general region. In fact, although the vast majority of pollinators can move and travel from place to place, all of them have limitations on the distance they are able to travel. For example, hummingbirds can travel for miles (in Maryland, they are migratory), while large bees are able to travel relatively large distances for an insect (~500m-1km), and smaller insects will not be able to travel that far. This means that if, say, we lived in the middle of a very developed area with very few pollinator-friendly resources (few flowers, lots of cement, no green areas, etc.), planting a pollinator garden will attract few pollinators at first. This is due to the fact that it is likely that few pollinators are present in that area, and thus it will take a while for certain groups to arrive and establish in our garden.

It is for this reason that many communities tend to try to establish joint pollinator-friendly actions, and encourage many people in the region to participate (e.g., becoming Bee City USA-certified, creating “pollinator highways or corridors”). By increasing the regional number of pollinator-friendly resources, the whole region becomes more pollinator-diverse, and any supplementary action is more likely to improve pollinator support. As we talked about in a previous post, if you are interested in promoting pollinator-friendly habitat on your property, it may be a great idea to talk to your neighbors or your City, and see if others may also want to participate. In terms of pollinator-friendly activities, the saying “the more, the merrier” is very much true!

pollinator habitat sign in a garden
Pollinator-friendly actions are very effective when they are coordinated across regions. Photo: A. Kokai.

The local picture – different pollinators prefer different plants

As we mentioned in other posts, not all pollinators are made equal, and this is also true in terms of what plants will be found by what pollinators. For example, hummingbirds tend to visit tubular and reddish flowers, while syrphids prefer open flowers, and bees tend to visit flowers that they can access with their mouth parts (see this post to learn more). 

These floral preferences are due to the different pollinators’ abilities to see different colors, the presence of specific attractive floral scents in different plant species, and the ability of different pollinators with different body and mouth part shapes to handle and feed on flowers, and the matching of pollinator presence and flowering time. The practical consequence of this is that if we want to help many different pollinators find their preferred plants, it is necessary to grow different types of plants in our green spaces. By doing this, we would always provide resources that will be preferred to at least one pollinator, and by providing different types of resources, we can make sure that many different types of pollinators are supported by our plants. In order to do this, there are different floral mixes that exist that allow us to plant diverse floral resources appropriate for our region, which lets us build a diverse and welcoming floral bed for many pollinators.

Planting diverse floral resources will attract many different types of pollinators. Photo: C. Celley/USFWS.

The super-local picture – pollinators need to see the plant to access it

This will sound silly, but pollinators need to be able to have access to the plant to find it. For example, if a plant is not clearly displayed or hidden by many other plants or structures, it will be hard for pollinators to find it… even if the pollinator is present in the area and the plant in question is a preferred plant. This means that for us to help pollinators, we need to make sure that our plants are findable by the pollinators. Picking appropriate parts of our green spaces to plant our pollinator-friendly plants is thus key! For example, plants that require full sun to grow should be planted in those conditions and not under the shade of other plants or behind structures.

To know what these specific conditions are, there exist several resources (for example, see this useful and simple resource (PDF) published by the City of College Park, MD). These resources allow us to pick the best growing spot for our plants, making them easily findable by their pollinator friends.

Finally, pollinators are more likely to find plants if there are several of them! This is particularly true for smaller herbs, which may not display many flowers. By increasing the number of plants planted in an area we are also making the plant species more easily findable to the pollinators.

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí. Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!