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Six-legged careers: working with insects

Logo: National Insect Week

Do you know how many different insects we have in the United Kingdom? Just over 24,000 species have been recorded and the Royal Entomological Society will celebrate ‘the little things that run the world’ during National Insect Week #NIW2020 from 22nd to 28th June 2020. This year our activities are online and we encourage the general public and organisations to appreciate insects with our online resources, provide habitats for them in their green spaces and help monitor the species that they find.

Anthony Cooper - Sawflies eating a birch leaf, 2nd Prize 2014 NIW Photography Competition, Insects Alive category
Anthony Cooper - Sawflies eating a birch leaf, 2nd Prize 2014 NIW Photography Competition, Insects Alive category

We rely on our six-legged friends for ecosystem services such as pollination, decomposition and biological control. Some of our insect species are sadly in decline, but there are also pest species that we need to control because of the economic damage they can do. Professional entomologists often work to balance both conservation and pest control using knowledge of insect ecology.

To conserve insects you need to know about a species’ requirements for survival, recreate what it requires and if needed reintroduce it. On a small scale we can do this in gardens by creating a range of habitats such as log piles, insect hotels, ponds, wildflower areas, shady and sunny areas and by providing floral resources throughout the seasons. On a larger scale this involves coordinated efforts across a region or even a whole country, to create a network of habitats for a species or ecological community and to change policies and therefore behaviours that may harm insects.

Sustainable control methods are increasingly needed in agriculture, horticulture and forestry. Natural enemies that are parasitic or predators of pest insects may be applied and traps with attractant colours and pheromones can help show pest presence. Companion planting and push-pull systems can also reduce or even eliminate the use of conventional pest controls, many products of which are being removed or heavily restricted.

Petar Sabol - Orange tip butterfly and mayfly sharing, 1st Prize 2018 NIW Photography Competition, Adult category
Petar Sabol - Orange tip butterfly and mayfly sharing, 1st Prize 2018 NIW Photography Competition, Adult category

Monitoring insects is important for both conserving and controlling insects. Apps such as iRecord are used to help identify insects and submit biological records of where and when a species was found, to help map its national distribution and highlight conservation concerns. Support for identification can also be found on social media and through societies focussed on particular insect groups. Professional apps are used to monitor insects in crops, looking at the balance of pests and predators across a site over time, to enable precision farming methods such as targeting interventions to specific problem areas.

Logo: Royal Entomological Society

Insect farming is a small but growing industry in the UK. We are familiar with beekeeping to produce honey, but mealworm beetles, black soldierflies, crickets and other species can also be reared and processed to provide protein to feed to livestock and, in due course, humans. Our legal framework is slowly catching up to where these businesses are heading, but it’s exciting to see this industry developing.

To be an entomologist you need to be comfortable with looking at and handling insects and have a detailed mindset to help identify what type of insect you are working with. You can find out more about careers with insects and study options on the Royal Entomological Society’s website

Francisca Sconce, Outreach & Engagement, Royal Entomological Society

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