Wolleman: Insects have impact in Finger Lakes

It’s hard not to be scared of insects. Many fly and buzz around us, just out of reach, reminding us of the times they hurt or annoyed us in the past. But not all insects are out to get us. In reality, these small creatures do much more good than harm. Beneficial insects get their name rightfully so, as their actions benefit both man and nature immensely.

If we just take a step back from our human-centered world, it is easy to see just how helpful insects are. For a moment, imagine a world without flowers. This may seem like an extreme reality; but, in fact, flowers are not here for our enjoyment. Intriguing colors and a sweet fragrance serve to attract pollinators to an abundance of free pollen and nectar. In exchange, these insects spread pollen and assist with fertilization, a necessary step in the reproductive life of the flowers and fruit that surround us.

Pollinators are only a fraction of the equation. Recyclers provide services including churning soil, transporting nutrients, and dispersing seeds. Ants are an example of this recycling group, whose underground tunnels aerate the soil and ensure the presence of vital elements in the soil’s structure.

While parasitic and predatory insects sound concerning, these small creatures ensure that the natural order of the world is maintained. This balance is known as “natural control,” and is present to ensure a sustainable ecology. Unfortunately, when this balance is disrupted, biological controls or human intervention may be necessary to restore the natural order. Therefore, when making any sort of decision regarding insects, it is important to know what you are working with and how actions may cascade through the ecosystem.

In Eric Grissell’s book Bees, Wasps, and Ants, he explains “it is not easy taking the role as champion for the underdog, but my sympathies distinctly lie with the largely unknown and misunderstood members of the order.” In order to improve this misunderstanding, it is best to start with a bit of information.

A “sting” is administrated from the rear end of the insect, while a “bite” refers to an action from the front. Nuisance insects like sugar and protein-feeding ants may find a way into your snack drawer. In this scenario, restoring natural order would mean implementing a biological control in response to the influx of a particular insect.

When ecological balance is disrupted, spikes in insect populations cause many to see them as “pests” who need to be exterminated. In some cases, when an infestation is extreme, it may be necessary to get rid of an invasive colony or call in some specialized assistance. This is especially true when dealing with vespid wasps – yellow jackets, hornets, and paper wasps – arguably the most feared group within the insect community. Certainly, if you find yourself dealing with an overwhelming colony of insects, it is best to seek professional help in order to address the problem properly.

It should be pointed out, however, that it is best to leave the natural order untouched. While some bugs do have the potential to sting, their main goal is to perpetuate a vibrant habitat and be productive within it. Some insects may even perform functions you are benefitting from without your awareness. Yellow jackets, for example, serve as a natural control of other insect populations including flies and spiders.

Alternatively, native bees, who nest and overwinter in separate holes or the ground, are often overlooked and unsupported. Unfortunately, without the wild species present, our global food system would be in turmoil. Therefore, it is important to consider what insect you are coming in contact with and how your intervention may affect other parts of the ecosystem at large.

Once we acknowledge the impact of insects, it would be wise to stop exterminating the innocent creatures and start helping them. Cornell Cooperative Extension is a great resource to utilize in dealing with insect-related questions and concerns. If you reach out to your local Extension office, staff will do their best to provide relevant information and advice in solving a variety of issues you may face. And if you want to learn more about beneficial insects, please join us at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Schuyler County Teaching Garden for a Party for the Pollinators on August 7th from 5-7 pm.

Danielle Wolleman is a junior at Cornell University majoring in Communication and pursuing a minor in Nutrition and Health. She is currently an intern at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Schuyler County, utilizing her background to enhance the work she does for the garden-based learning project.

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