Connexion: Why insects are so vital for our lives and health

By Joachim Ng

Last month on the 11th, a 55-year-old Felda settler was trampled upon by a wild elephant on the East-West Highway Gerik-Jeli Batu 11 and severely injured with broken ribs, a broken left leg, and head bleeding. Three days later on April 14, a young elephant was killed when a sports utility vehicle crashed into the calf as it was crossing the highway at Gerik-Jeli Batu 50.

Last year, also in Gerik, a 63-year-old woman who had gone to a durian farm was trampled to death by an elephant that was probably in search of food. The same year, a car travelling on the East-West Highway near Gerik slammed into a young elephant on the road, and five elephants in the herd then stepped on the car.

Wild creatures are wandering beyond their forest habitats as these are shrinking rapidly, in the face of ceaseless human economic development. With 100 to 10,000 species — from microscopic organisms to large plants and animals — going extinct each year, we are seeing up to one million plant and animal species facing extinction.

The increasing pace of biodiversity loss will also threaten humanity with near-extinction. There is no technology available that can halt this doomsday effect.

Our knowledge of how systems work informs us that the failure of several vital components will lead to collapse of the entire structure. As the base of the food web gets eroded by the disappearance of tiny animals, subsequent domino-effect extinctions set in leading upwards to humanity.

Let us cite just one example provided by a 2015 issue of the highly respected American Scientist magazine: Egypt had 37 larger-bodied mammals 20,000 years ago. Soon after civilisation came to Egypt some 5,500 years ago bringing large-scale agriculture with it, nine species were wiped out. The local extinction list grew to 29 with the ever-expanding human population, and today only eight larger-bodied mammals still survive.

It was the botanist Charles Darwin who gave the biblical term “tree of life” a grand new meaning with a statement in his worldview-shaking The Origin of Species: “I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.”

He amplified his statement with another divinely inspired remark: “All the members of whole classes can be connected together by chains of affinities.” This is what the loss of keystone species is — major breaks in the chains of affinities that cause them to fall apart and life to end.

Let’s begin our journey of species extinctions in the ocean where sharks live. Do you know why there is an ongoing campaign to ban shark fin soup from all restaurants in the world? It is because the hunting of sharks as food imperils every form of sea life. Sharks live at the top of the ocean food web and their extinction will cause the whole structure to collapse, leaving us with no more sea fish to dine on for healthy protein.

Predatory sharks feed on the sick and weak individuals in the prey populations, and also scavenge the seafloor to feed on dead carcasses. By removing the sick, the weak, and decaying flesh, they prevent the spread of diseases that could be devastating.

Sharks also regulate the behaviour of prey species such as turtles and prevent them from overgrazing vital habitats, thus keeping ecosystems in balance.

Let’s now move up to land in our continuing journey of species extinctions. Why is it so essential to preserve the Borneo forests? It is because they are the home of orangutans that act as an umbrella species by effectively protecting the many other species sharing the habitat.

Orangutans are the world’s largest seed dispersers, covering large areas as they forage for food. Orangutans spend most of their time moving through the forest searching the canopy (where 90% of their diet is found) for food sources.

How it works is that they eat fruit from the trees, the seeds come out the other end, and the forest spreads. Especially the larger seeds that don’t get spread by smaller animals. If orangutans were to disappear, so would several tree species, especially those with larger seeds.

Without the orangutans spreading seeds and helping plants to grow, these plants would die out. Then, the animals that rely on those plants for food would soon also go extinct, and the entire ecosystem would struggle to survive.

The extinction of relatively big wild animal species will allow small animals that behave as pests to proliferate in numbers and bring disease epidemics that kill millions of humans. One such pest is the rat that serves as a “reservoir” for the plague-causing Yersinia pestis bacterium that is spread mostly by fleas on rats.

A three-year research (2016-2018) by Universiti Sains Malaysia scientists Nadine Ruppert and Anna Holzner published in Current Biology in October 2019 found that each group of 44 monkeys living in oil palm plantations killed around 3,000 rats each year. They ate very little oil palm fruit, less than 0.6% of the overall harvest. So don’t kill monkeys, if you don’t want rats to scare your cats.

Our final step of the journey is a trip to the largest visible layer of the animal food chain — the world of insects. Two-thirds of the world’s more than 1.5 million animal species are insects. They are the foundation of key ecosystems and play the supreme role of keeping Earth liveable for all life forms above microorganisms.

The five crucial insect jobs, as listed by National Geographic in its May 2020 issue, are: (1) Providers — Insects are in nearly every food chain. Birds, fishes, amphibians, and small mammals such as bats eat insects before they in turn are eaten by predators. Even orang utans eat termites.

(2) Decomposers — Insects undertake macro-decomposition of leaves and wood and removal of dung and carrion, which contribute to nutrient cycling, soil formation, and water purification.

(3) Pest controllers — Insects perform the role of natural pesticides by feeding on crop-threatening pests. If farmers let them do the job instead of using chemical pesticides, toxic pesticide residue on crops will be removed.

(4) Pollinators — Our supply of fruits, vegetables, and nuts depends on insects that pollinate 75% of global crops including, cocoa, coffee, and almonds. Nearly 90% of flowering plant species rely on insects for pollination.

(5) Soil engineers — Termites can transform soil in hot, dry climates. Their tunneling aerates hard ground, helping it retain water and adding nutrients in some regions.

The Economist news weekly in a January 2024 article highlights one more function of insects. In Kenya, native acacia ants protect the whistling-thorn trees by scaring away with their bites large animals such as elephants that may break these trees. Whistling-thorn trees provide cover for zebras on the hunt.

In Malaysian cities, ants provide anti-litter services. Food discards and droppings are the second most common form of litter next to plastics. If not for ants laboriously carrying away bits of food strewn on the ground just about everywhere except one’s own home, Malaysia will be having disease outbreaks year-round.

But human activities have already caused the world to lose 5% to 10% of all insect species — or between 250,000 and 500,000 species.

According to a study published in the December 2023 issue of Nature, long-term surveys have confirmed the decline of land-based insects by 1.5% each year. Lead author of the study, senior scientist Roel van Klink explains that the most common species “are super-important for all kinds of other organisms and for the overall functioning of the ecosystem.”

Four authors led by entomologist David Wagner stated in a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences January 2021 article entitled Insect decline in the Anthropocene: Death by a thousand cuts: “A biodiversity crisis is accelerating as the planet’s human population grows, increasingly exacerbated by unprecedented recent climate changes and other anthropogenic stressors.

“Time is not on our side, and urgent action is needed on behalf of nature.” We are losing the limbs and twigs of the tree of life. We are tearing it apart.

In years to come we will have to say goodbye to birds and fishes, coffee and chocolates, bread and rice, and all things nice.

Some kinds of animals, though, are flourishing — the pesky types. Rats, cockroaches, and fiery ants find the allure of human trash irresistible. The smell of rotting garbage in poorly maintained residential and retail areas is like a pied piper’s call to rats and cockroaches to come, dine, and breed.

Fiery ants, whose venomous sting can send you to hospital, breed profusely in neighbourhood children’s playgrounds where litter and bits of food left on benches and tables provide ample food supply.

But the deadliest type of insect that is having a field day breeding as a result of increased human activity is the Aedes mosquito that infects us with the killer dengue fever disease.

Dengue, litter, and potholes are the three accurate socio-physical measurements of a nation’s ability to survive biodiversity loss and climate change should these get worse — and the situation is getting worse.

In another article, we will demonstrate the use of these three measurement devices in gauging Malaysia’s survival ability beyond the year 2080.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ipoh Echo

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