We Need Insects More Than They Need Us

Image Credit: NAUTILUS

Inside the world of plastic-eating worms, dung-rolling beetles, and agricultural ants..

By Kevin Dupzyk | NAUTILUS

The interconnection of the world is a wonder. Consider the United States Declaration of Independence, says Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson, a conservation biologist. It was written with the help of a wasp.

In July, 1776, when Timothy Matlack, a clerk with stately penmanship, copied the bold resolution on parchment, he dipped his pen in ink derived from tannins inside galls, tiny pods or growths, formed on trees. Normally trees produce tannins, an astringent chemical, to help fight infection by invading bacteria. The sour tannins also discourage predators from eating a tree’s fruit. Opportunistic wasps land on trees and secrete chemicals that induce the tree to produce a gall. The wasps then use the galls to shelter their larvae until they hatch. Centuries ago, ingenious human chemists came along and discovered that tannins inside tree galls, mixed with iron sulfates and Arabic gum, produced an ink that penetrated paper and wasn’t easily washed away by moisture like previous inks derived from lamp soot.

“The fact that we have all these writings, drawings, and musical sheets—everything from Bedouin writing to Shakespeare to Beethoven symphonies—written in ink induced by a tiny wasp that most people have never seen and never thought of, is really quite amazing,” says Sverdrup-Thygeson.

The tale of gall wasps is one of the many splendors in Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects, a new book by Sverdrup-Thygeson, a professor of conservation biology at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. It arrives at an auspicious time, as scientists and writers are increasingly drawing attention to the potential for a collapse of insect populations around the world. Sverdrup-Thygeson illuminates the ecological role of insects and challenges the common notion that some insects are useful and the rest are pests. She studied history before biology and brings a historian’s eye to her work.

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