In many ways, insects are just like us. Elaborate mating rituals, a variety of parenting styles, and a plethora of careers—from architects and engineers, to farmers and ranchers. Like us, they’re able to share complex information essential for survival, significantly impact their environment, and recycle. But insects outdo us in so many respects. The truth is, our planet belongs to the insects. In 24 captivating lectures beautifully illustrated with graphics, photos, and video footage, Professor Scott Solomon shares his passion for these extraordinary creatures. Why Insects Matter: Earth’s Most Essential Species will open your eyes to evolutionary accomplishments you had never even imagined.
Why Insects Matter: Earth’s Most Essential Species
Discover why the world belongs to insects, in this 24-lecture course dedicated to one of Earth’s most populous and vital creatures.
Scott Solomon is an Associate Teaching Professor at Rice University, where he teaches ecology, evolutionary biology, and scientific communication. He received his PhD in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior from The University of Texas at Austin. He has also worked as a visiting researcher with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC and with São Paulo State University in Rio Claro, Brazil.
Scott has taught field biology courses at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado and in the rainforests and coral reefs of Belize. He has also been a resident associate at Baker College, one of Rice’s residential colleges, and served as a faculty fellow at Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence, where he acted as a liaison to other faculty. He received the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching and the Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor Award from Rice University as well as the Rising Star Award from the University of Illinois Laboratory High School.
Scott is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Society for the Study of Evolution. He also serves as an associate editor for the Journal of Tropical Ecology. He regularly lectures on science topics at museums, schools, churches, and TEDx events. His writing and photography have appeared in such publications as Aeon, Nautilus, Slate, and WIRED. He is the author of Future Humans: Inside the Science of Our Continuing Evolution.
01: Insects Living All around You!
There’s a good chance insects have made themselves at home in your home. From the carpet beetles in your living room, to the silverfish in your sock drawer, to the cockroaches in the basement, they’re everywhere! What should you do about them? Learn why “nothing” might be both your safest and most effective answer.
02: Insect Bodies and Human History
Discover the unique properties of insects that distinguish them from mammals and all other animals. They all have exoskeletons for strength and protection, six legs to propel their movements, compound eyes, antennae, and even more attributes in common with one another. But within this framework, their astonishing variability has allowed them to live in almost every ecological niche on the planet.
03: Insect Life Cycles and Reproduction
Insects have contributed to the human economy since the beginning of our civilization. Consider the humble silkworm moth creating its cocoon from one continuous thread of silk. Discover how this caterpillar creates one of the strongest and most durable materials in nature, and explore the fascinating lifecycle and migration journey of the beautiful monarch butterfly.
04: Insect Behaviors and Communication
Reveal what honeybees are really communicating with their waggle dance and why specific dances are used in specific circumstances. From waggle dances to pheromones, insects have developed unique efficiencies in their communication and actions, both at the individual and group level. Scientists have been taking notice—and mimicking the insects wherever possible.
05: Why So Many Beetles?
The beetles seem to have it all—from the incandescent beauty of the jewel beetles, to the unmatched speed of the tiger beetles, to the burning hot, noxious defense mechanism of the bombardiers. Explore why beetles are more diverse than any other group of insects, and one of the most successful groups of any organism alive today.
06: Pollinators We Cannot Live Without
Insect pollinators contribute about $195 billion to the global economy, pollinating approximately 80% of the most important crops worldwide. Explore the complexities of these insects, the many types of pollination they perform, and the coevolutionary dance that continues today between these animals and their plants.
07: Insect Herbivores
Insects are the most significant herbivores worldwide. Along with the rise of the forests about 300 million years ago, insects evolved the ability to feed on and digest plants. Discover the diversity of strategies these animals have developed to feed on the many parts of plants—and how some have developed their own specialized microbiome to help them do the job.
08: Insect Pests
While the vast majority of insects pose no threat to humans, there are a few that compete with us for food, destroy our construction materials, and threaten both our natural and cultivated environments. Learn about the best and latest tools we can employ to control those insects, and why developing an understanding of the insect lifecycle is almost always a better investment than pesticides.
09: Insect-Borne Disease
One of the most profound ways in which insects have affected people throughout history is by transmitting disease. The worst offender? Definitely the mosquito. Mosquitos can transmit yellow fever, malaria, dengue fever, West Nile virus, Zika virus, and more. Discover the many methods we have used to try to cure this problem, and the many ways in which we’ve failed. But there is hope on the horizon.
10: Plants That Partner with Insects
Explore the many fascinating pairings in the coevolutionary dance between plants and insects. Step by step over millions of years, both insects and plants have developed ways to meet their own needs while increasing their value to their partners. No insects have done this better than the ants; from the plants’ point of view, it’s always a good idea to have a million or so of your best friends living nearby.
11: Insects as Food for Animals and Plants
So many animals rely on insects for food that most ecosystems would collapse without them. Birds alone consume almost 500 million metric tons of insects every year. Explore the relationship between insectivorous animals and their prey, as well as the 600 species of plants that also get in on the game. Of course, as you’ll learn, the insects do not make it easy for them.
12: Insects as Food for People
You might never have eaten beetle larvae, locusts, ants, or termites, but chances are your ancestors did—just as many people do today. Explore the insect-rich diets of people around the world and learn why many scientists and dietitians believe insects just might be the food of our future.
13: Insects as Predators
In addition to being food for others, insects are also predators—and quite efficient ones at that. Discover the predatory adaptations of a variety of insects, including mantids who can strike their prey in one-twentieth of a second with a head that can turn 360 degrees, and the assassin bugs whose beaks can impale their prey, deliver enzymes to liquefy the tissues, and suck them out.
14: Insects as Parasites and Parasitoids
While some insects are herbivores and others are predators, a third group gets their energy and nutrients as parasites and parasitoids. Grisly though it might sound to us, you’ll discover that some insects inject their eggs into the bodies of insects and other animals, and some even insert their eggs into others’ eggs. Sometimes the hosts live through this process, but sometimes they do not.
15: Insect Recyclers
Insects play a crucial role as decomposers of dead organic matter, recycling the chemicals and making them available for other organisms. Explore the feats of one of homeowners’ most dreaded pests—termites. These insects not only clear forests of dead wood, but are also stellar engineers. In fact, their 30-foot-tall mounds are being copied by human engineers to produce more energy-efficient structures.
16: Insects That Fly
Forty million years ago—long before birds, bats, or flying pterosaurs—the skies were dominated by insects, the first animals to develop the ability to fly. Unlike every other subsequent flying animal, insect wings did not evolve from modified limbs; insects kept all six limbs and added wings. Explore a variety of flying insects and learn the unique physiology that gives them such precise control and maneuverability in the air.
17: Insects Adapted to Aquatic Life
Few terrestrial organisms can be as comfortable in the water as insects. Look at the unique respiratory physiology and fascinating adaptations that make it possible for them to maintain oxygenation underwater, as well as the adaptations that allow water striders to take advantage of water’s surface tension to skim along its surface.
18: Insect Songs and Sounds
Most insects use sound to call for help and to attract a mate. With a variety of ways to produce sound, insects also have a variety of ways to hear. Consider the significance of sound for crickets, katydids, and cicadas, as well as the expansive and complex “vocabulary” of the bess beetles, with one species that uses 14 sounds to communicate among family members.
19: Insects as Farmers
Although we thought we invented agriculture, insects were using agriculture more than 50 million years before our arrival. Explore the world of the leafcutter ants; they can cut the leaves but not digest them. Instead, they feed the leaves to their fungus garden and eat the fungus, which provides them with a complete source of nutrients.
20: Fruit Flies and Other Research Insects
Although we tend to think of rats and mice as lab animals, insects—particularly the fruit fly—have played critical roles in research. Explore the many discoveries made in the field of genetics using fruit flies, as well as the fascinating opportunity to watch natural selection in action thanks to the peppered moth and smoke from the Industrial Revolution.
21: Insects in Art, Literature, and Film
Throughout our history, we have experienced admiration for insects and their unique abilities, as well as fear and disgust. Explore how those conflicting emotions have been reflected in our arts, from Aesop’s fables to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, from the films Alien to A Bug’s Life, and characters from Jiminy Cricket to Ant Man.
22: Collecting Insects
Learn everything you need to know about starting an insect collection and making your own observations about your local environment. Discover how to start a collection of preserved insects using materials you probably already have at home. From nets to aspirators to pitfall traps, you’ll have everything you need.
23: The Disappearing Insects
You might already have heard in the popular press about this disturbing trend: researchers have noticed that many insect populations are declining both in number and diversity. Although many animals have been affected by climate change and habitat loss, discover the human activities that have a disproportionate impact on insects—especially the use of pesticides.
24: Sharing Planet Earth with Insects
What can we learn from this amazing group of animals? Biologists and engineers believe we can learn quite a bit—especially about our own future. Discover some of the exciting work that’s being done today to learn from insects in a wide variety of fields, from organizational structure to the significance of biophilia.