Lately we are experiencing extreme weather conditions in many parts of the world. The unexpected flash floods in a part of Majorca not usually known for such occurrences and the deaths of two people on their way from the airport to their hotel, drowning in their taxi, the destruction of parts of the eastern US, our relentless heatwaves that damaged crops, floodings, the lashing of storms across Europe and the plastics pollution of oceans, begs the question – have we left it too late to avert the destructive changes that could in the end wipe us out?
As a salutary lesson we should remember the fate of Easter Island. In the beginning, the Polynesian arrivals, who settled at the fertile paradise which the island was then, grew crops and were self-sufficient. But their cultural/spiritual needs, still not fully understood, made them cut down trees to use as ‘sledges’ on which they transported the gigantic stone statues from the quarry to the edge of the land. There, propped upright, the stony-faced moai (the heads) stood looking out to sea. Perhaps towards their ancestral homeland and to guide seafarers to the safety of the island. When all the trees were gone, winds swept the soil of the island into the ocean and they could no longer grow crops. Famine made the tribes fight each other for whatever food was left. After that, to this day, the island stands abandoned and uninhabitable.
We are now facing spiralling destruction of the planet that is our home. The overpopulation (9 billion people), global pollution of oceans and land, deforestation of rainforests, rise of conflicts and wanton destruction of some countries through civil wars, lack or shortage of water in many countries, signals that we urgently need to address those issues, and while something is being done, it isn’t enough. The main problem is that it is impossible to change or control the habits of 9 billion people. As an example of this, I am citing the example of tons of rubbish left by young people who attended a recent music festival in this country. When they left the field where they had been camping, it was as if a hurricane had just swept through. Tons of rubbish, including hundreds of disposable cheap tents and hundreds of bottles, were left for others to clear. The young people in question are no doubt going on marches protesting about many things, but they didn’t have an ounce of decency or common sense to take their rubbish with them, leaving the field as clear as it was on their arrival. We cannot predict how much time we have left, it could be fifty or five hundred years, estimates vary wildly, but as most governments behave as if we could live as a species forever, there is this nagging question – who will last the longest?
There are well over one million different species of insects on earth. They belong to a very ancient group, and we have fossils of insects crystallised in tree sap that are several million years old. Those globules of tree sap become golden-brown and are highly prized now – amber. The diversity of insects is most impressive, not only because of the way they feed or defend themselves, but also because they metamorphosise. At the very beginning when various organisms crawled out of the water (the ocean), they had to adapt to breathing oxygen, and so it meant that they had to develop lungs. Insects solved this by incorporating small tubes (tracheae) into their bodies. The land, outside the sea, was still mainly brown but tree-ferns, one of the first plants, gave cover to those insects who didn’t fly – cockroaches and beetles. Insects were in abundance. All of them had wings. To fly, their bodies had to be light. It is known that the process of growing wings was slow. The first wings protruded stiffly from their bodies like the wings of today’s dragonflies. The advantage of being able to fly and thus feed better and mate within different groups of insects made their progress stratospheric. Streams of air helped to propel the insects to greater heights. Even non-flying beetles became so abundant in species that we will never be able to name all of them. J.B.S Haldane when asked what characteristics God might display, answered: ‘An inordinate fondness for beetles.’
So what it is so interesting about insects? Just about everything. The body of an insect has three parts; the head, the thorax (central part) and the abdomen. On the head there are feelers with an acute sense of smell. An insect’s eyes are compound, made of several little facets and designed in such a way that they can see behind and to all sides. I love a little wooden gadget that mimics dragonfly vision through special diamond-cut lenses fitted to both ends. An insect’s mouth can also vary wildly to serve contrasting purposes: a beetle has strong jaws to chew, but a butterfly has a sort of trunk which can lengthen to allow sucking of nectar. The central part of the body has three pairs of legs and two pair of wings. Again, the wings are different on insects depending on the needs of their owner. We admire the beauty of the delicate wings of butterflies, while beetle wings are hard sheaths that fold to protect them and look metallic. Similarly hard wings belong to a ladybird, but dragonfly wings are created mainly to allow them the freedom of flying to great height at the speed of lightning. An insect’s abdomen is composed of parts and this allows some of them to ‘unroll’ and administer a sting to the unwary.
And then there is the most astonishing process that insects display – metamorphosis. It starts as a grub that can be dormant in water or on land, changing into a brown pupa, and then into an insect like a butterfly or a dragonfly. Insects have a heart and they breathe. The heart pumps colourless blood around their bodies, but they have no skeletons or even a backbone. The time involved in stages of insect development means that they have to from the beginning rely on instinct to know how to survive, as their parents have been a long time gone. Bees, ants, cockroaches, termites, among others, are well-known for their intelligence. Their diversity, their overwhelming numbers, and the many ingenious methods they employ in surviving, make them the most likely species to succeed us. Perhaps they will make a better job of protecting the Earth than we have.