The insects are often dismissed as worthless, annoying bugs.
The small six-legged creatures are the most diversified living organisms on the planet. With around 1-million living species, insects are by far the biggest class within the animal kingdom.
The Philippines, one of the 17 mega-biodiverse countries in the world, harbors over 20,000 described insects, each unique in terms of size, shape, color, behavior and even diet.
While they may be tiny, insects play big roles in the sphere of things in the natural environment.
But not all bugs are insects, in the strictest sense of the word, as insects are strictly six-legged, usually with a pair of antennae and some adults have wings.
The extinction of one insect species may lead to the extinction of another, and so on and so forth, eventually leading to mass extinction that may eventually lead to the extinction of the human race.
Friend or foe?
Insects, sometimes called bugs, usually refers to familiar pests or disease carriers.
In the city, who doesn’t hate flies, mosquitoes, or cockroaches? Some people even abhor or fear ants.
Mosquitoes are the most feared among insects for causing outbreaks of the dreaded dengue or malaria diseases.
Flies and cockroaches can also cause a variety of diseases as these filthy animals have their feet onto anything from rotten food to animal manure, and end up flying on top of the food on the table.
Fortunately, these “pests” serve as prey to other animals. However, they are not a mere part of the food chain.
Important ecosystem services
They also provide very important ecosystem services.
Some insects act as pollinators. The bees and butterflies are among the most popular food producers.
Bees produce honey and act as pest controllers as they are also biological control agents by preying on other living organisms that carry diseases.
Some of them also act as scavengers.
Ants, for instance, hasten the degradation of dead plants and animals, in the process fertilizing the soil and keeping forests healthy.
Insects are amazing animals, says Entomologist Juancho B. Balatibat, an associate professor at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños’s College of Forestry and Natural Resources Department of Forest Biological Science.
Balatibat says some insects are capable of adapting to their natural environment, changing their color and appearance, and making themselves “invisible” to other animals, or even humans—either to avoid being a snack of a bigger animal, being captured and kept as a pet in a bottle, or to ambush a potential prey to feast on for the rest of the day.
Balatibat, currently the deputy director and head of the Makiling Botanic Gardens (MBG) at the Makiling Center for Mountain Ecosystem in Los Baños, shares his knowledge of some of the small creatures that dwell at the MBG. incidentally, the botanical gardens is a beneficiary of the Asean Green Initiative of the Asean Centre for Biodiversity (ACB).
Interviewed during a tree-planting ceremony on September 10 as part of ACB’s 18th founding anniversary at its headquarters in Los Baños, Laguna, Balatibat says thousands of species of trees and plants at MBG attracts a diversity of wildlife, including unique insects, making the place ideal for visiting school children to have fun while while learning about biodiversity.
He introduced native tree species that were planted by Asean envoys and dignitaries at the ACB event.
A haven for diverse plants, animals
The Makiling Botanical Gardens is a haven for a diverse species of trees, plants, and yes, animals that seek refuge in this man-made forest inside the Mount Makiling Forest Reserve.
According to Balatibat, there are around 2,000 trees in the botanical garden, mostly native trees, and other tree and plant species from other countries.
“Of course, because it is a botanical garden when visitors come here, they contribute trees and plant it themselves,” he says.
Because of the diversity of the trees and plants, it is no surprise that MBG attracts a variety of wild animals—including insects.
A school for biodiversity learners
“We inform our visitors, more about butterflies. But we have the stick and leaf insects, which are very unique,” Balatibat says.
Stick insects, he says, are basically leaf eaters.
“These insects perform natural pruning. In the natural environment, leaf feeders contribute to the benefit [of plants]. Plants bloom better by pruning, it allows the sun to reach and help sun-loving plants grow,” he tells the BusinessMirror in Filipino.
Speaking mostly in Filipino, Balatibat says that in agricultural areas, some insects like the grasshopper (tipaklong in Filipino), are considered pests when they destroy crops, like rice.
However, in the natural environment, they are important biological agents.
Stick insects and grasshoppers are both experts in blending with their environment.
A stick insect can change colors, depending on the environment it is into. But mostly, it pretends to be a stick by staying still, to avoid detection by potential prey, like birds.
On the other hand, grasshopper, which can also change its color, from green to brown, does so to easily capture prey.
“Unlike the stick insect, the grasshopper camouflages so that it can successfully catch a prey,” he says.
Some insects develop defense mechanisms to protect themselves from predators.
“We have a blister beetle, a ground crawler. It releases a chemical substance that is toxic to other insects, when it feels threatened,” he says.
The chemical substance harms other insects, forcing them to stay away.
“Another is the bombardier beetle. From its anus, it releases a chemical substance, like the ‘pantot’ [referring to a skunk that is unique to Palawan.] At a distance of maybe 100 meters, you can smell it. It is really stinky,” he says.
According to Balatibat, other insects grow hairs that can harm other insects, like the infamous hairy caterpillar, or “higad”.
These insects, like the large red ants, notoriously known as “hantik,” somehow become protectors of the ecosystem, too.
“When you knew there’s higad in that tree, would you still go to pick the fruits? Naturally not. The same with the hantik,” he says.
Regardless of their size, insects can travel great distances from one island to another. In fact, some insects are known to travel across borders in some Asean countries.
Bees, for one, can travel great distances to haul pollen from tree to tree, flower to flower, from one place to the next, and bring them back to the bee hive “for storage.”
ACB Executive Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim told the BusinessMirror via Messenger on September 12 that indeed, there are migratory insects.
“The most famous is the monarch butterfly,” but she says these amazing migratory insect does not naturally occur in the Asean.
Lim says Asean shares common insects, especially those who share protected area borders.
Tangible, intangible benefits
According to Lim, a licensed veterinarian, insects have tangible and intangible benefits.
“Tangible because some species can be alternative protein sources for local communities. Some serve as ingredients for farm feeds,” she says. Lim is a former director of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’s Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB).
According to Lim, some insects, like the pollinators, help in naturally propagating trees and plants.
“Some are detritus feeders, helping to break down organic materials to help enrich the soil. Some [bees] produce byproducts [honey] that can be important as part of the diet for humans and animals, and if properly packaged, can also be a source of livelihood for communities,” she adds.
“All these benefits, directly or indirectly, contribute to biodiversity in Asean,” she says.
According to Lim, the ACB’s programs directly or indirectly help raise awareness and promote the protection and conservation of plants and animal wildlife, including the “lowly” insects.
The ACB, which implements the Asen Heritage Park (AHP) program, values insects as part of the web of life.
“AHPs protect areas rich in biodiversity, including habitats of important insects,” she says.
Moreover, the Asean Green Initiative, which propagates native trees, supports the life cycles of native insects, either as part of their food source, as nesting ground, or as shelter.
“We also implement a project that encourages the protection of local honey bees by helping develop a local bee farming for honey production,” Lim adds.
Image credits: Gregg Yan