Insects are often misunderstood by humans, and many people tend to overlook the importance of these six-legged creatures. Insects are essential to life on the planet, performing many necessary functions in our ecosystem from pollination to acting as nature’s trash service. Being great lean sources of protein, they are also very important food sources for other animals such as birds and bats, as well as mammals (including humans). Without insects, our world would lack much of its amazing diversity.
Insects are truly fascinating for several reasons. Many possess very intriguing methods for survival, such as the bombardier beetle, who squirts noxious chemicals from specialized glands in its abdomen when startled. Parasitoid wasps lay their eggs inside other animals such as insects and mites, which are then devoured from the inside out by the wasp larvae. Insects are also quite beautiful (or bizarre) when closely inspected. Their bodies are remarkably symmetrical, and look like tiny, perfectly molded robots. Some, such as the halictid bees, appear to be plated with jewels, while others may resemble sticks or bird droppings. The sheer number of species and diversity of the insect class is astounding.
My graduate research focused upon Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which is a form of controlling pests by utilizing a range of practices that will have the least amount of impact upon the environment and other non-target species. Monitoring is a very important component of IPM, and must be done to decide if and when to implement control methods. These methods for controlling pests may include altering planting or harvesting dates to escape peak pest pressure, tilling to destroy larvae or eggs laid in the soil, removing diseased plants to prevent the spread of infection, and the list goes on and on. Pesticides are used, often as a last resort, and are usually as specific as possible to target the pest, while leaving other species unharmed. These chemicals are applied at the optimum time, to have the greatest impact upon the pest, and so that the minimum amount of pesticide is applied. IPM also utilizes natural enemies, which are creatures such as predatory insects and mites, as well as birds, to help keep pest populations down. The presence of these animals may be encouraged by providing an adequate habitat, or they may even be purchased and then released into the desired area. IPM is primarily focused upon maintaining a healthy balance within the system, which allows for the presence of pests, but in low enough numbers that they do not cause economic harm to the crop. IPM is not focused upon killing every single creature within the crop, since this could cause a variety of problems, such as a sharp increase in the original pest population once it moves back into the crop; or there could be secondary pest outbreaks, which tend to occur when the natural enemies are killed off.