Why Insects Matter: Earth’s Most Essential Species

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In many ways, insects are just like us. Elaborate mating rituals, a variety of parenting styles, and a plethora of jobs—from architects and engineers to farmers and ranchers. Like us, they’re able to share complex information essential for survival, significantly impact their environment, and recycle. But insects outdo us in so many respects. They are mostly terrestrial, but some can live underwater. Their six legs are great for walking or running, but some can glide through the rainforest canopy, and many can fly. And some, as a solitary task on any old day, can create a material many times stronger than steel.

The truth is, our planet belongs to the insects. Taken all together, they outnumber us, outweigh us, and could quite possibly outlast us. They are by far the most diverse group of organisms on Earth, with more than 1,000,000 species identified, as of now—2,000 times more species than the mammals. In fact, beetles alone account for 23% of all plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi combined.

In 24 captivating lectures beautifully illustrated with graphics, photos, and video footage, Professor Scott Solomon shares his passion for these extraordinary creatures. Why Insects Matter: Earth’s Most Essential Species will open your eyes to evolutionary accomplishments you had never even imagined. As many biologists have pointed out, if Homo sapiens simply disappeared one day, the loss would not be terribly disruptive to the rest of life on Earth. But if the insects disappeared, life on this planet would descend into chaos. Insects are Earth’s most essential species.

You are probably already aware of how important insects are to our own food web. About 35% of global crop production by volume relies on insect pollinators. But even more important, insects are responsible for recycling almost half of all dead organic matter on our planet; without insects, our world would be absolutely filled with dead plants, animals, and excrement.

Having established themselves on Earth 480 million years before any of our genus arose in Africa, insects have survived three mass extinctions; while 75% of all living species were extinguished, these animals endured. Just imagine all that we can learn from them.

Insect Superpowers

There is hardly a human physical accomplishment that insects can’t put to shame. In Why Insects Matter: Earth’s Most Essential Species, you’ll learn about some truly spectacular insect abilities. From monarch butterflies that use the Sun and the Earth’s magnetic field to migrate “back” to a home they’ve never seen to sea skaters living on the surface of the ocean hundreds of miles from shore to burying beetles whose incredibly sensitive antennae allow them to detect a dead animal up to two miles away, these insects have certainly evolved some superpowers. In addition, you’ll learn about:

  • Click beetles. Lacking the chemical defenses of some other beetles, this insect uses the element of surprise to get away. By arching its body in a specific way, a hinge-like structure makes a clicking noise as it launches the beetle a foot into the air—25 times its body length.
  • Dracula ants. This ant has developed the fastest animal movement ever recorded—jaws that snap together at a speed of 200 miles per hour in just over 1 millionth of a second.
  • Tiger beetles. Imagine running so fast that your brain can’t keep up processing the visual information coming your way. Tiger beetles can run 125 body lengths per second! They often have to slow down in order to see what’s in front of them—to give their brain time to catch up.

Avoiding the Ravages of War

Few insects are pacifists. And yet, like any animal, it is best to avoid the consequences of violent conflict, if possible—whether the conflict is within a group or between competing groups. While many insects do fight to the death, in this course, you’ll learn about several species that have evolved fascinating strategies to solve conflict without loss of life. These include:

  • Desert honeypot ants. When workers from rival colonies encounter one another, they line up and extend their legs, making them look as if they are walking on stilts. Based on the number of workers each side recruits, the ants figure out which colony would win if they were to fight. The larger team wins; it’s as simple as that.
  • Stalk-eyed flies. These flies have two long stalks that protrude out from the sides of the head, each of which supports an eye at the end. The longer a male’s eyestalk, the better his chances of mating and passing on his genes. Instead of physically fighting, the males gather together to compare their physiques two at a time. The male with the shorter eye stalks simply leaves.
  • Honeybees. In the wild, honeybees have to find a new place to live each year as the colony grows. But without any real hierarchical structure, how can they avoid fighting over such a momentous decision? Although each colony does have a queen, her only job is to lay eggs—hour after hour, day after day. She does not function as a group leader. To meet their goal, scouts visit possible new home sites and evaluate them using the criteria honeybees care most about—entrance size, location, and volume. These bees return and “tell” their hive-mates about the potential new location via their waggle dance. Eventually, the site that is best suited will end up having more bees “waggling” in its favor than other sites. A completely democratic process in which each waggle counts.

Insects Did It First

One of the most significant milestones in human history was the development of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. But as it turns out, agriculture isn’t unique to humans. Insects have been using both agriculture and ranching for tens of millions of years. In this course, you will learn about:

  • Agriculture. Leafcutter ants are famous for carrying leaves across the forest floor, but they can’t digest them on their own. Instead, they feed the leaves to the fungus they tend in their garden, and then eat the fungus, which they can digest.
  • Pest Control. Some ants fight fungus-garden parasites with antibiotics. Bacteria that grow on the ant’s exoskeleton produce antibiotics that help keep parasites at bay.
  • Ranching. Many ants keep other insects as livestock, protecting them and feeding them. In particular, aphids are often tended by ants because the ants like to eat the sugary liquid that aphids produce as waste. This substance is known as honeydew and it contains not only sugars, but also other nutrients.

Insects have certainly evolved some amazing physical and social abilities. Could we learn to develop flying machines as agile as the common housefly? Could we learn from the recycling, farming, and pest control practices of ants? Could we learn to build structures using the engineering intelligence of termites? In this course, you will join the scientists who are trying to do just that, and you might never look at the natural world in quite the same way.

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