Some biologists have called this the µAge of Insects.¶ Among animals, certainly the diversity of insects is unrivaled. Nearly one million species have been described to date, and some entomologists estimate that as the tropics are fully explored, we will find that there are actually more than three million insect species. The large number of insects is often attributed to the divergence of plants (angiosperms), which provide numerous hosts and places to feed, but if plant feeders are excluded from the tabulation the biodiversity of insects remains unrivaled. Virtually every environment has been exploited by these resilient organisms. Even if one dislikes insects, they are impossible to ignore, and a little knowledge about them could be indispensable should one have a µclose encounter¶ of an unpleasant kind. Insects are remarkable biological organisms. They are small enough to escape the detailed scrutiny of most people, but I have yet to meet anyone whom, once provided the opportunity to examine insects closely (through a microscope) is not completely amazed by the detail and complexity of these exquisitely designed (by natural selection) beasties. They are fascinating in function as well as form. Insects are the only invertebrates to fly, they are disproportionately strong, and their ecological adaptability defies belief. For example, some insects produce their own version of anti-freeze, which allows them to be frozen solid yet to regain normal function upon thawing. Their sensory abilities are beyond human comprehension; a male insect can sometimes locate a female by her µperfume¶ (pheromone) from several kilometers distance. Although not normally considered intelligent, insects display surprisingly complex behaviors, and altruistic social systems that could well serve as models for human societies. Insects and their close relatives are important for many reasons besides their sheer diversity. Their effect on humans is profound. Insects are our chief competitor for food and fiber resources throughout the world. Annual crop losses of 10 to 15% are attributed to insects, with both pre-harvest and postharvest losses considerably more at times. Insects also are the principal vector of many human, animal, and plant diseases, including viruses, mollicutes, bacteria, fungi, and nematodes. The ability to transmit diseases magnifies their effect, and makes it more difficult to manage injury. Over the course of human history, insect-transmitted disease has caused untold human suffering. For example, introduction of flea-transmitted bubonic plague to Europe centuries ago killed millions of people and caused severe disruption to western civilization. Though less dramatic, mosquito-transmitted malaria kills thousands annually throughout the world, and unlike plague, which is now mostly a historical footnote, the toll continues to mount. Advances in technology, particularly the introduction of chemical insecticides, have done much to remove the threat of insect-related damage from the consciousness of most humans. Insecticides are applied preventatively to avoid pre- and post-harvest damage to crops, to our dwellings, and to our landscape. This is an oft-overlooked but remarkable achievement that has increased stability in the supply and price of resources, and in the lives of resource producers. No longer are people faced with starvation or economic ruin due to the ravages of insects; in almost all parts of the world, the ready availability of insecticides can be used to prevent massive insect population outbreaks. However, we realize increasingly that this approach is not without its own set of health, environmental and economic costs, and alleviating dependency on insecticides, or making alternatives to insecticides more readily available, has assumed greater priority.
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