Tuesday, 13 October 2009

We must learn to love insects

I recently attended a conference on insect biodiversity in gardens, organised jointly by the Royal Horticultural Society and the Royal Entomological Society. It was an opportunity for those of us working in the area to share our knowledge and to stimulate discussion on the importance of insects within the garden environment.

Most readers of this column will have a garden and most will also, at some level, engage with at least some of the insects that call the garden ‘home’. However, the form of this engagement is likely to vary dramatically, depending upon the gardener and the species of insect in question. Mention butterflies and bumblebees and you are likely to receive a positive reply (butterflies are honorary birds in many peoples’ eyes), but mention caterpillars and wasps and you’ll very likely get a different response.

Pippa Greenwood, who introduced the conference, picked up on this and noted how insects in general have something of an image problem; the sight of a ‘bug’ so often prompting a ‘yuk’, ‘urgh’ or ‘what is that horrible thing’ response!  The question of whether this loathing of insects was something innate or learnt was discussed; the general feeling among the audience being that since young children seem excited by the sight of some marvellous bug, it must be learnt. Are we, as adults, teaching our children a mistrust of insects because of some parental fear that an unknown insect might bite or sting? If so, then the problem is one of education, of helping people to recognise and appreciate insects for what they are. So few adults actually take the time to look at insects up close; they dismiss them out of hand. This is such a shame and suggests to me at least that they have lost that sense of fascination that we all once held as children. See a dung beetle up close and you cannot help but smile at its cumbersome movements or fail to draw a comparison with the solid form of a rhinoceros. Watch a tiny jewel wasp and marvel at the dazzling colours that adorn its body, colours that change with the angle of viewing.

One of the real contradictions to our lack of understanding of insects is that they remain one of the most readily accessible groups, living alongside us in our houses and gardens in great numbers. You don’t have to go anywhere special to see them; all you need is a hand lens (to do them justice) and some patience. Insects are of vital importance, supporting a vast food chain and pollinating our crops, so it is essential that we come to value them more highly. We owe it to our children to engage with them on more positive terms.

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