Friday, April 14, 2006

ENV: Insect Value

Six-Legged Workers Contribution? $57 Billion in Services
New Research Tries to Put a Dollar Amount on Economic Contributions Made By Insects

April 12, 2006 -- - The next time you spot a bug, you might think twice before squashing a loyal member of the U.S. workforce -- one who never complains about long hours, poor working conditions and a lack of health and dental care.

Insects are obviously an important part of the U.S. ecology, but new research suggests they're also a vital part of the U.S. economy -- to the tune of $57 billion a year.

"We're trying to turn these creatures into something people can relate to and understand how they contribute to our lives," said Mace Vaughn, an entomologist who co-wrote a new study on the economic impact of insects. The research was completed for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation -- a nonprofit environmental group where Vaughn works as conservation director.

"We scoured whatever was out there on how money was exchanging hands in our economy and related it back to insects," he said.

Vaughn and co-author John Losey, an entomologist and associate professor at Cornell University, discovered that insects are intertwined in many areas of our economy, and their contributions total what the authors believe is a conservative estimate of about $57 billion annually.

Insects in the Service Industry
"Because of all the things insects do that we couldn't account for, our value of over $50 billion is almost certainly an underestimate," said Vaughn.

The researchers studied four "services" native insects provide: pest control, pollination, wildlife nutrition and, of course, dung burial -- for their article in the April issue of the journal Bioscience.

They concluded that native insects annually provide more than $4.5 billion in pest control, pollinate $3 billion in crops and save ranchers more than $380 million by cleaning up grazing lands.

Feeding and Entertaining America
If you want to see how America's bug economy affects you, Vaughn points to the supermarket.

He emphasizes that our meals would be a lot less exciting and lot more expensive if we didn't have insects to cross-pollinate our crops.

"Without pollinators, all our food is going to get more expensive because of the environmental cost of farming the way that we do," he said. "Also, there's going to be less of the diversity -- all of the fun things that people like to eat."

While Vaughn and Losey say pollination -- particularly crop pollination -- is the best known service insects provide, the biggest dollar amount comes from recreation, a whopping $50 billion.

Because insects represent a critical source of food for many birds, fish and small mammals, the researchers show that they're an important component of small game and migratory bird hunting, as well as sport and commercial fishing, and bird watching.

"When we actually looked at what people spent on these natural activities, I was blown away," said Vaughn.

Is This for Real?
One of the study's main goals was to show people how important and valuable insects are to Americans and to explain their contributions in terms everyone can understand.

"The implications of the study are that there are some pretty significant ties between our economy and insects," he said. "We really rely on these insects even though they go largely unnoticed by most of us."

Other biologists say the $57 billion value of insect labor can be debated, but that it is not unreasonable.

"I have a feeling that you can calculate these numbers differently -- add and subtract things," said Laura Jesse, at Iowa State University's entomology department. "But this is a good place to start and to get people talking about how important insects are."

The authors admit there hasn't been enough work done on the economic impact of insects to thoroughly and accurately explain them, and that some of the data used in the article is dated.

"We do not include services from domesticated species or pest control from mass-reared insect biological-control agents," their report says. "We also exclude the value of commercially produced insect-derived products, such as honey, wax, silk, shellac and any value derived from the capture and consumption of insects themselves."

The Moral of the Story
Throughout the article Vaughn and Losey call for more research, better record keeping and increased funding to aid such work.

"We're already having to face the fact that insects are part of our economic infrastructure," said Vaughn. "Now we're faced by a situation where this infrastructure needs some support."

Entomologists say this may not be perfect, but it's a good way to explain how that support benefits all of us.

"I think that it's helpful to measure the enormous impact insects have on our lives," said Lee Townsend, entomologist with the University of Kentucky. "We try to give people both sides of what the impact of insects are in our lives."

"We often think of insects as harmful -- bringers of disease or destruction. But there are a lot of positive things that they do too, and this is an interesting way to look at that."

Vaughn and Losey argue that we as a nation need to take what we've learned about insects, agriculture and technology, and work to create a more harmonious farming and ecological environment that satisfies our needs but also recognizes that Mother Nature is part of everything we do.

Even the economy.


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