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Mint moth Credit Fabian Harrison
Mint moth Credit Fabian Harrison

Entomology is the study of insects.

Insects are part of the group of animals known as arthropods. Arthropods are animals with exoskeletons, which is a hard outer covering and jointed legs. They are an extremely successful group of animals throughout history and evolution.

More than one million different species of insect have been described to date. They are the most abundant group of animals in the world and live in almost every habitat. Insects have lived on earth for more than 350 million years. Entomology is crucial to our understanding of human disease, agriculture, evolution, ecology and biodiversity.

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Why are insects important?

Pollination and food production

Insects play a key role in producing agricultural crops such as oilseed rape, field beans, apples and raspberries. 84% of crops grown in Europe rely on pollinators like bees, flies, wasps, beetles, butterflies, moths and even houseflies. Insect-pollinated plants attract insects with nectar to then carry pollen to other plants and fertilize them to create seeds and fruit.

Insects also contribute to human health and wellbeing directly through the production of honey, pollen, wax for food processing, propolis in food technology, and royal jelly as a dietary supplement and ingredient in food. Without insects, many foods would be off the menu, including onions, cabbage, broccoli, chillies, most tomatoes, coffee, cocoa, most fruits, sunflower and rapeseed oil. Fewer types and less quantity of food would be available. We would also need more synthetic fibres as pollination is necessary for cotton and flax for linen.

Seven spot ladybird and aphid-©Rachel Travis

Biological control of more harmful insects

Some insects are predators that feed on other invertebrates that may cause harm to humans or human crops. Ladybirds for example are fantastic biocontrol for aphids that eat away at food producing plants. They also make quick meals of immature scale insects, mealybugs, mites and other soft-bodied insect pests as well as insect eggs. This is just one example for the importance of insects in an agricultural sense in particular.

Animal feed

Many birds, fish and mammals, including agricultural animals like cattle, have a diet consisting of invertebrates. Black soldier fly larvae, for example, are a natural source of methionine – an important nutrient for chickens, their natural diet consisting of mealworms, crickets, and earthworms all containing more essential amino acids than grain feed. This promotes better overall health and longevity. Insects have a huge importance in the natural food chain, as they are a primary food source for many other animals.

Black Soldier Fly Head (Hermetia illucens) Photo by Thomas Shahan
Fly (Muscidae) resting on a leaf, photo by Sarah-Fiona Helme

Recycling and waste clearance

Lots of insects will eat and help to break down dead and decaying debris which can clog or infect soil and water streams. Their role in recycling is very important as this break down of waste helps create healthy, fertile soil.

Without insects to do this naturally, dead animals, plants and food waste would build up very quickly. Some flies are particularly beneficial in industry with their ability to convert organic waste into high-quality nutrients, as well as residue fertilizer for soil amendment.

Insect protein

In some parts of the world, insects are considered a delicacy and regular addition to one’s everyday diet. Around two billion people around the world would consider them a very normal and imperitive ingredient in meal preparation as they are packed full of protein.

Food and Feed - image of insect protein creating burger filling on a chopping table
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Entomologists are people who study insects, as a career, as enthusiasts or both.

The Royal Entomological Society supports entomology through its international scientific journals and other publications, scientific meetings and by providing a forum for disseminating research findings. The society also funds, organises and supports events and activities for anyone that wants to learn more about insects and entomology through its outreach and education programmes.

Planthopper nymph with the 'fibre optic' tail Credit Weixiang Lee
Planthopper nymph with the ‘fibre optic’ tail Credit Weixiang Lee

Why should we study insects?

1. Over half of the two million living species described in the world are insects. If you’re interested in global or local biodiversity, then insects need to be studied.

2. Insects have been around for over 350 million years and have evolved solutions to many physical and chemical problems. Engineers are increasingly looking to insects for solutions in material science and chemistry. The more understanding we have of insects, the more we can put that understanding to use.

3. You can travel the world working on insects. Insects are found on all seven continents, even Antarctica.

4. Insects are hugely economically important in agriculture. They can be beneficial as pollinators and decomposers, or they can be detrimental as pests and vectors of plant diseases.

5. Insects are vectors of many serious human, animal and plant diseases across the world. Understanding the biology of insects is key to understanding the diseases that they carry and spread.

6. Insects are excellent models for physiological and population processes. For example, the common fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, has been used as a model species in genetic studies for over 100 years. Its short generation time, small size and the ease with which it can be reared in the laboratory makes it an ideal organism for such studies.

7. More species of insect have had their genome sequenced than any other group of multicellular organisms. Insects are an excellent model for studying the molecular basis of life.

8. Insect are everywhere. No matter where you live in the world or what language you speak, you will come into contact with insects.

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