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Insects: Economic Importance & Control

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  • 0:04 Why Are Insects Important?
  • 0:49 Insect Economics
  • 3:11 Controlling Insect Populations
  • 5:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson, we'll be learning about some of the most common animals in the world: insects. Here, we'll focus on the economic importance of these small creatures as well as techniques to control their presence as needed.

Why Are Insects Important?

Although we typically think of insects as pests, they're actually one of the most amazing groups of animals on Earth. With millions of species, these animals thrive in nearly every environment on Earth. Although small, they are mighty. Did you know the leaf cutter ant is able to lift 50 times its own body weight?

So, beyond being super cool, why do insects matter to us? Insects are important for pollinating crops we use for food, as a food source themselves in some countries, and decomposing dead material to recycle nutrients. Insects are also important because of the damage they can cause to humans. Some insects spread disease; others can decimate our food supply. Today, we're going to look at how insects impact our economics, both in a positive and negative way. We'll also discuss the human control of insects.

Insect Economics

Insects are such a prevalent part of our world. They impact not only our ecosystem but also our economics. Here, we'll look at both the benefits and problems insects cause.

Let's start with the benefits. Picture an apple orchard. In the past, you might have seen bees buzzing around from flower to flower. However, this scene is becoming less and less common. Honeybees, which are required for fruit pollination, have become an endangered species. Bees are the natural pollinators of our crops, particularly ones that make up our food sources. The lack of bees is costing us not only in biodiversity, but also in cash. Artificial pollination is the process of humans painstakingly transferring pollen from one flower to another. This process is extremely costly and inefficient compared to bees.

Insect species also produce materials that are useful to humans. Silkworms produce silk fibers, which are woven into the delicate, smooth material used for luxurious textiles. Silkworms were incredibly important in shaping human history and our economy during the silk trade in China as early as 2700 BCE. Today, Asia still thrives as one of the main producers of silk.

Now let's take a closer look at the problems. Although insects do help in many ecological and economic ways, there are still problem species. Mosquitoes can be particularly harmful as they carry tropical diseases, many of which can be fatal if left untreated. Mosquitoes carry yellow fever, dengue fever, malaria, and many other disease-causing agents.

Malaria is a particular problem in tropical regions. Malaria is a parasite that is transmitted through mosquito bites. It infects the bloodstream and kills red blood cells in the body, which are needed to transport oxygen. Not only deadly, malaria is quite costly. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that malaria costs around 12 billion dollars per year in premature death, illness, and treatment.

Although honeybees are quite helpful in crop pollination, other insects can destroy entire crops quite quickly. The boll weevil is a historically devastating insect that feeds on cotton plants. It was a serious problem until the late 1970s when an intense eradication program began. The insect decimated cotton crops, decreasing the yield of cotton plants by up to 50% in some infected areas. The loss of crops combined with the money needed to eradicate this pest led to huge economic losses for farmers.

Controlling Insect Populations

So, clearly there is a need to control certain insect populations. How do scientists do it? There are three ways: pesticides, biological controls, and genetic engineering.

The most common way to control insects, especially historically, is to use pesticides. Pesticides are chemicals that kill insects or other infectious agents, while pesticides specifically directed at insects are called insecticides. Although pesticides are great for eliminating unwanted insects, and thus increasing crop production and economic gains, there are some serious drawbacks. These chemicals can be toxic to humans, both the farmers working with them and people who ingest their produce. Pesticides are also harmful to the ecosystem, polluting adjacent environments and water sources.

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