Small in Size, Big in Importance

Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn more about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here!

Inside the Children’s Zoo lies a hidden alcove that is sometimes overlooked. This building next to the Petting Paddock is called the Insect House, and contains exotic and strange-looking bugs, such as a leafcutter ant colony, hissing cockroaches, and praying mantis. It even houses a beehive with glass walls, so observers can see exactly what goes on inside the home of bees. It was at the Insect House we met entomologist Paige Howorth, who enlightened us about the massive importance of these tiny subjects. The exhibit’s purpose is to educate Zoo guests about their significant role in the ecosystem and hopefully increase their appreciation for their existence.

It is true that insects can be difficult to appreciate during the hot, bug-ridden months of summer. Even during the other months of the year, many people wonder about the reason for insects. What do they even do? How do they help us? Insects’ massive importance is veiled by the fact that they do very little for us directly. Plants give us food, cows give us milk, and dogs and cats give us companionship. To many, insects seem to be there for no reason at all. Though insects may appear to do nothing for humans, they are actually essential to our survival and the survival of the world. They each play a role, whether small or large, that keeps ecosystems in balance.

Ecosystems are communities in which animals and plants interact with an environment. This process works like a pyramid. At the bottom are the main food sources, such as plants and insects. Small animals, such as birds and lizards, eat these insects. These animals may then serve as food for larger predators, at the top of the pyramid. Insects serve as part of an ecosystem’s foundation, and if a foundation collapses, so does everything on top of it. Without insects the ecosystem would become unbalanced, and the area would eventually go into chaos.

Insects’ roles in the environment are also much more than serving as a food source. They are gardeners, pollinators, and decomposers. Flies may not be particularly pretty to look at, but they are decomposers that cleanse the world decaying matter. Leafcutter ants prune trees and bushes, allowing them to rejuvenate and continue with new growth. Ants and other burrowing insects also air out soil for improved fertility. Bees and wasps pollinate flowers, aiding in the creation of more plants, and help feed millions, even billions, of people around the world. Some people consider each of these insects to be pests, but their roles in the environment are what allow us to continue living the way we do.

Insects are cultivators and helpers in the creation of life. Having to coexist with insects is a small price to pay with the knowledge that they help keep trees, crops, and even entire ecosystems alive. What would we be without trees that produce oxygen, ecosystems that contain valuable resources, and animals that provide food for many of us humans? It is astonishing that these miniscule creatures can have such an effect on our huge world. Thank you, Mrs. Howorth, for helping us respect the massive importance of insects.

Keira, Real World Team
Fall 2012