Many people dismiss insects as pests, but without them, as entomologist Gilbert Waldbauer puts it, “life as we know it would be impossible, and human beings would probably become extinct.” Waldbauer was interviewed on Saturday on Sierra Club Radio about his book Fireflies, Honey, and Silk, in which he reveals the vital and surprising ways that insects enrich our lives. Listen to the Sierra Club interview (Waldbauer is the last guest).
Waldbauer recalls how his fate as an entomologist was sealed when he discovered a cocoon in an apple tree, took it home, and watched “the most beautiful and amazing insect I had ever seen” emerge. This spectacular creature turned out to be a cecropia moth (left), and Waldbauer still has this same wonder and reverence for insects. Silk, of course, comes from silkworms, but you may be surprised to know that the cocoon of a single silkworm unwinds into 1200-1600 yards of silk fiber, and that silkworms helped Louis Pasteur show that bacteria caused disease. And honeybees make honey, but they are not the only ones—stingless bees and some kinds of ants and wasps do, too. You can thank the fruit fly Drosophilia for its role in the study of genetics, the cochineal insect for the rich red dye developed by the Aztecs, bees for wax candles, and and gall wasps for creating the galls used to make ink. Waldbauer reveals how bugs of all kinds have been friendly and useful
companions to us, contributing to fashion, medicine, communication, and
our very survival.
Moth photo: Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora cecropia) by Marvin Smith, Wikimedia Commons, available under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license