What’s Bugging You?

Young girl with tarantula crawling over hand while other children look onMany people feel the only good bug is a dead bug. My mother is one of those. She will shriek if she spots a cricket. And indeed, it is difficult to find much good press for some bugs. Take mosquitoes, for example. Even the scientific literature can find only secondary value for these pests. (They are at least food for other species.)

But life in the insect world, as everywhere, is not that simple. Bugs–scientifically known as arthropods–have roles that, while not conspicuous, are vital. Consider the vast number of plants and animals that have lived and died before we got here. Where are they now? What if their bones, carcasses, and substance were still lying around? Where has all this gone? Decomposers are an important group of the animal kingdom. Insects can achieve overwhelming feats that would be difficult for any of us to tackle. They move silently and unnoticed much of the time undertaking the job of cleaning up the dead plants and animals that litter the planet, often consuming the parts left behind by larger animals.

I witnessed the amazing job some tiny dermestid beetles were doing on the skeleton of a fox at the Youth Science Institute (YSI). The role of these beetles is to clean up old bones. Eggs laid on the skeleton had hatched into larvae that were feeding on the seemingly inert and unyielding bones. Right before my eyes a specimen that seemed to be impervious to the ravages of time was being consumed mouthful by tiny mouthful. Moth holes in favorite sweaters and termite weakened houses give ample testimony to the diversity of dietary needs among the more that 700,000 kinds of insects in world.

The role of insects as pollinators is widely known. Probably not a day goes by that you don’t eat something that has required the services of an industrious bee or other insect. And, of course, there are the silk blouses and ties that come to you compliments of the world of arthropods.

But not all bugs are good bugs either. And this good-bug, bad-bug business is, after all, just a human notion. Plagues of locusts and medflys, mosquitoes carrying malaria and ticks spreading Lyme disease, tomato horn worms and cabbage beetles all set about their business, and at times their business interferes with people’s lives.

So what should you do about the bug dilemma? There are poisons that can kill the “bad” bugs. Sometimes they work, at least temporarily. Often they backfire and kill or poison more than the “bad” bugs. Sometimes the “bad” bugs resist and become stronger bugs. And, very occasionally, the “bad” bugs can kill you. Who told you the world has easy answers?

The Youth Science Institute’s annual Insect Fair will be held at Sanborn Park, May 20, 10-4. Admission free to YSI members; non-members, adults $3, children $1; county parking fee $4/vehicle. Sanborn Park is located on Sanborn Road off Highway 9, just 3 miles from downtown Saratoga. For more information call (408) 867-6940 or (408) 356-4945.

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