If I asked you to name an endangered species off the top of your head, what would you say? I’m sure the first things that come to mind are pandas, polar bears, humpback whales, and other cute, charismatic animals. How many people think of honey bees, burying beetles, or cave spiders? It is often the more relatable, fuzzy animals that get the most attention in conservation. However, animals from all taxa are in need of protection, including insects and arachnids. In some ways, these animals need more effort, as people are less likely to see the need in saving them. Insects and arachnids can be entertaining, cute, and very interesting, yet we swat them on site and try to repel them with chemicals. Insects make up most of the life on the planet; I have heard estimates stating that there are one million insects for every human in the world. They have unique, often unseen worlds. Once you know more about them, you will want to save them too.
I never thought that my career path would take me into the world of insects, but indeed, that is what has happened. If you have read my previous blogs, you know that I was initially interested in cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), and later gained an interest in the great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, and gorillas). Great ape research is a hard field to break in to, and I am not one for trekking through the mountains in extreme humidity. Regardless of the species, I have always been interested in behavior. I have taken many pictures of insects in my yard; turns out they can be very photogenic. When it came time to seek out a professor to advise me in my master’s degree program, insect communication was the field that I fell in to. I must say, it is fascinating. I was able to take a course on animal communication this past spring, and many examples were of insects and arachnids. I had the opportunity to do a small project on the Madagascar hissing cockroach, which exhibits surprising aggressive behavior (The video below was recorded during my experiment) in addition to its characteristic hiss. I never thought much of these roaches, but after working with them, I sort of fell in love. It’s looking like they will be the focus of my research for my degree.
Through my own outside interest, and topics in the animal communication course, I have been able to learn about some amazing insects and arachnids. First, let me tell you about peacock spiders. Many people are afraid of spiders, including myself earlier in life. Although it is true that some species can harm humans, most of them are just trying to go about their business and survive like any other animal, and many species are endangered. Spiders play a vital role in the food web, eating insects (some also eat reptiles and amphibians, and even birds and small mammals). If you’re like me, the name “peacock spider” sparks your interest. Male peacock spiders, like their avian counterparts, are much more elaborate in coloration than females. To attract a mate, they perform an elaborate dance, that varies between species. At the same time, they produce vibrations that the females can feel. They are incredibly tiny, but so cool.
The American burying beetle is listed as critically endangered, and lives in only a few states (compared to 35 before their decline). The parenting behavior of these beetles is not only unique and interesting, but vital to the ecosystem. Burying beetles eat carrion, animal carcasses. The American burying beetle is unique among insects because it exhibits bi-parental care of offspring. When a male and female come across a carcass, usually a small bird or mammal, they work together to dig underneath the body and bury it completely, communicating with each other the whole time through sounds similar to a cricket chirp. The female lays her eggs on the carcass, and the larvae eat it once they hatch. The exact cause of their decline is unknown, but possible reasons include habitat destruction, pollution, and pesticides. A possible new threat is human energy use, including oil, natural gas, and even wind turbines. Current research on these beetles is ongoing (including at my university), and vital in creating a plan to save this species.
Another fascinating insect is the ant. Many children crush ant hills, and we squash them most of the time we see them. What many people fail to realize is how complicated the lives of ants are, enough so to indicate intelligence. Ants live in large, social colonies. Much like social bees, they have specific duties (guarding, caring for young, finding food). Desert ants are capable of counting their steps, to navigate and spend the least amount of time in the sun as possible. another pest species is the mosquito. Mosquitos come in a variety of colors worldwide, some of which are quite beautiful. Everyone is of course aware of the beauty of butterflies, but I also find dragonflies just as beautiful. I have had them land on me more times than I can count, and I have saved many from drowning in pools (along with saving them from my cat). Dragonflies are desired by gardeners, as they eat smaller, plant-eating insects.
So, what can we do to help the insect and arachnid species that are endangered? Spreading knowledge and awareness is key. Recently, several species of bee have been declared endangered. Although some species live in social hives, many species are solitary. So, rather than protecting hives or starting a bee keeping hobby, you can do something much simpler to help bees. In addition to planting native wildflowers for food, you can provide habitat for them. They often nest on the ground, or in small holes. This coming spring, I am constructing a “Bee motel” to help the bees in my yard. It’s fairly simple to gather materials, many of which you can find in your own yard or on the side of the road for free.
Often, a harmless insect can be mistaken for a harmful one. I have stopped friends from killing fireflies many times. When they fly, they resemble a hornet, and when they are just walking on the ground, they are obviously not lighting up. Knowing to spot harmful and harmless insects and spiders can be beneficial, and there are many websites and field guides that can help with identification. I once killed a bunch of lady bug larvae, because I didn’t know what they were, and I thought they would harm my rabbit (they were on his cage). The look very different from adults, so it’s easy to see why I made this mistake.
Insects and arachnids lead very interesting lives, that are often missed by us. It seems we are intrigued by them as children; raising butterflies in schools are having ant farms. Once we become adults we seem to lose this sense of wonder, and only see insects as pests which we must eliminate. Some are even feared, and many times this fear is unwarranted. The BBC series Life in the Undergrowth highlights the lives of the creepy crawlies. I highly recommend it. All animals on this planet are vital to local ecosystems, and it is important that we find a passion for them, and protect them. Engaging the public is key, and I hope after reading this you will think twice before swatting a bug.
Nicole is currently employed at a university, caring for lab animals. She has always been an animal lover, and more recently an animal activist.