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How Arthropods & Humans Interact

Instructor: Jayne Yenko

Jayne has taught health/nutrition and education at the college level and has a master's degree in education.

Arthropods and humans have been interacting for centuries, and not always to the benefit of humans. Find out more about how arthropods and humans interact, how we share resources, and how arthropods spread disease.

What is an arthropod?

Grab your flyswatter! Things like bugs, creepy crawlies, and no-see-ums are what we call arthropods. They are actually insects of all kinds, plus spiders, millipedes, centipedes, and crustaceans like lobsters and crabs. There are more arthropods on Earth than any other group of animals. There are more than one million species of arthropods that inhabit almost all of the environments on Earth. They are often found in dry environments, but many live in aquatic areas as well. Some arthropods, like cockroaches, prefer to live with humans, and we share resources with many others as well. Some have important jobs like pollinating crops, some provide food, and some spread disease. But before you use that flyswatter, let's find out more about how humans and arthropods interact.

Example of an arthropod
Japanese Spider

Competition

Many arthropods are herbivores and they eat many of the plants that we use for food, clothing, and/or building materials. We are in direct competition with them and there are way more of them than there are of us. For example, our gardens and orchards attract arthropods called aphids. Aphids are to plants like mosquitoes are to people. They have needle-like mouth-parts to pierce plants and suck out the carbohydrate rich liquid that acts like the plant's blood. Now, one aphid is just annoying, but aphids don't like to be alone. Where there is one, there will be hundreds or even thousands of them and together they can damage or kill a plant. We call arthropods like aphids pests.

Aphid infestation
Aphid Infestation

Arthropod pests can cause enormous amounts of damage to cotton, corn, and wheat crops, as well as other important plants. For example, the mountain pine beetle is currently destroying pine forests in the West at an alarming rate. We use insecticides to control the populations of arthropod pests, but insecticides can kill more than just arthropods. Birds and fish may be affected, as well as other things in the environment (including ourselves) that come into contact with the chemicals that make up insecticides.

Food

Crab, lobster, shrimp - sounds like a seafood smorgasbord. These crustaceans in the arthropod phylum have been part of the human diet for centuries. Many cultures traditionally consume insects and their grubs because they are high in protein, but due to their size you would have to eat a lot of them.

About 2000 different species of arthropods are eaten all over the world. Some are surprisingly small, like aphids, and others are quite large, such as giant water bugs. In fact, some arthropods are being cultivated intentionally for food. They're referred to as mini-livestock.

The arthropods that are eaten the most are beetles and weevils, but caterpillars, ants, bees, wasps, crickets, and grasshoppers are also popular. For example, centipedes are commonly eaten in China, bamboo worms in Thailand, emperor moth caterpillars in Africa, tiger beetles in Mexico, witchetty grubs in Australia, and tarantulas in Cambodia.

Arthropods as food
arthropods as food

Arthropods are beneficial for other foods that humans eat, especially through the pollination of crops. More than 100 food crops are pollinated by arthropods on a yearly basis. Bees, one of the major plant pollinators, also produce honey. On the flip side of this, humans themselves are a food source for arthropods like mosquitoes, biting flies, fleas, and ticks.

Other Arthropod Contributions

Other contributions to humans by arthropods include the red dye carmine which is produced from a Central American arthropod called the cochineal. The blood of the horseshoe crab contains a clotting agent which is used in testing antibiotics, as well as to detect spinal meningitis and some cancers. If you watch any cop show on TV, you know about the use of arthropods to determine time of death, and sometimes the location and/or the cause. Forensic science wouldn't be nearly as interesting without arthropods.

Arthropods are also a natural pest control. Cockroaches, spiders, mites, ticks, and other carnivorous arthropods prey on smaller species. Just one ladybug can eat 100 aphids in a day.

Silk, which is produced by silkworms, is woven into fabric for clothing. Spiders' webs are an essential material for Kevlar vests, fishing nets, surgical sutures, and adhesives. And another arthropod called the lac bug is the source for an organic resin called shellac.

Spread of Disease

Arthropods can spread many diseases to animals and humans, though vaccines, antibiotics, and good sanitation practices can prevent us from getting many of these diseases. Some examples of diseases spread by arthropods include:

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