In Part I I pointed out that part of my bias towards flowering plants and insects comes from the distribution of species in nature. Flowering plants make up about 16% of all known macroscopic species, and insects make up about 58%. With all of these flowering plants and insects surrounding us, it’s easy to find and photograph them. The ubiquity of these organisms has a more significant effect, however. Since flowering plants and insects are the largest groups of macroscopic organisms on the planet, they’re both of vital economic importance to humans.
The vast majority of our food comes from flowering plants, either directly (from crops) or indirectly (from animal feed). All of the top crops, including corn, wheat, oats, barley, soybeans, sugarcane, and all fruits and vegetables come from these plants. Livestock feed comes from many of these plants as well, and the animals build their own biomass from plant matter. Whether you’re eating a bowl of Corn Flakes or a porterhouse steak, the bulk (if not the entirety) of your diet comes to you courtesy of flowering plants.
Many other products that are vital to civilization also come from flowering plants. Cotton, hardwoods, soybean ink, natural rubber, and some plastics, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals are just a few examples.
The economic value of flowering plants is quite impressive. In 2007 American farmers produced nearly $144 billion in crops, and nearly $154 billion in animal products (USDA 2009).
So what about insects? Honey production by domesticated bees is obviously important, and in 2007 Americans collected over 152 million pounds of it (USDA 2009). Many insects, however, serve a number of other vital roles that aren’t often considered. They support our agriculture by providing a number of essential services, including pollination, pest control, and soil aeration. Pollination is performed by a wide variety of bees, wasps, ants, flies, beetles, moths, and butterflies. While many insects are crop pests, many also feed on these pests and control their numbers. Ants alone often do more to aerate topsoil than earthworms (Werle and Vittum 1999).
Although tiny, insects are incredibly diverse, incredibly numerous, and incredibly important to human activity. The economic value of wild insects may exceed $57 billion annually in the United States alone (Losey and Vaughan 2006).
Flowering plants and insects are all around us, and they also provide us with products and services necessary to our survival. This vital economic importance makes the study of these groups imperative to human endeavors.
Losey, J.E. and M. Vaughan. 2006. The Economic Value of Ecological Services Provided by Insects. Bioscience 56(4):311-323.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). 2009. 2007 Census of Agriculture. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.
Werle, S.F. and P.J. Vittum. 1999. The turfgrass ant: a necessary nuisance? Golf Course Management, Jan. 1999: 49-52.