Insects in the life of a farmer

Insects are important in the life of a farmer, as pest control, pollinators, and in fertilisation of the soil.

By Njoki Thuo, Africa Agriculture Consultant

Usually, the word ‘insect’ makes us think of a little flying animal that can sting or bite us, or even ruin our homes. However, despite the general negative view towards insects, they actually play a very important role in our lives. Insects are especially important in the life of a farmer and this blog is going to explain why!

So what are insects? They are members of the phylum arthropoda in the classification system. These insects play a very important role in the world and are vital within our food supply chains. Did you know, that if all insects were to die, human beings would run out of food in just four years?

Why you ask? Well, the bigger part of the insect population are not pests but good insects that help in the pollination of flowering plants, which produce most of our food. Without pollination there wouldn’t be any new seeds for more plants to grow. Very quickly this would mean no more food. This is just one way that insects are important for farmers. But there are many other ways that insects (arthropods specifically) have a big impact on farmers’ lives – both positively and negatively. Let’s find out how…

  1. Insects as pests and parasites

Arthropods are the insects of major interest in agriculture as they can either be good or harmful to our crops or animals. The harmful ones are mostly pests and parasites that destroy agricultural produce or spread diseases causing farmers serious problems on their farms.

The destructive group of arthropods are just a fraction of the total population but they have very serious economic effects. They include insects like moths, butterflies, grasshoppers, beetles and weevils to name just a few.

Many of them are not destructive in the adult form but in their larval stage. Insects like butterflies and moths are often seen as nice insects, but during their larval stage caterpillars are very destructive. Many caterpillars feed on the foliage of growing plants. Most of the crops they eat can be seen on farms, such as maize or cabbage.

One example of an insect that causes major problems for maize farmers is the larger grain borer (nicknamed Osama for it devastating effects in stored maize). This pest starts its destruction out in the field but it is most dangerous when the maize is in storage. Serious infestation can turn a sack of maize into flour within months.

  1. Insects in soil

Clearly, certain insects can cause problems for farmers but what about the insects that add value to a farm? Well, certain insects make soil ready for farming. In fact, 85% of soil fauna is made of arthropods! Burrowing arthropods like termites and ants increase soil aeration, soil porosity and generally improve the structure of the soil.

Insects that preserve their food in the soil like termites and ants also help increase the organic content of the soil. Their feces and excreta form humus, as well as their body masses when they die. Finally, as they feed, they transform the organic litter in the soil into simpler particles that are easily decomposed. All these activities contribute to soil fertility, which enable farmers to grow quality food for us all!

3 . Insects as pollinators

I already mentioned that if all insects died humans would run out of food in 4 years. This is because a huge proportion of our food is pollinated by arthropods – one out of every three bites of food we eat! Indirectly, arthropods have a greater role in the food chain where insects are the main pollinators of flowering plants. Insects like the honey bee, butterflies and some flies and beetles pollinate flowers as they go about looking for nectar and pollen to feed on.

The honey bee is the major pollinator making up 80% of the pollinators. Bee farmers can even rent out their colonies to big plantations in order to assist with pollination. This is a lucrative business which involves transportation of a number of hives to the said plantation for a specified time.

The benefits are double as the honey collected from the exercise is marketed by the beekeeper. Now that’s a sweet deal!

  1. Insect products

Apart from pollination, apiculture (beekeeping) is a booming agricultural enterprise for many farmers around the world. The honey bee is an insect of major economic importance for farmers as it is the source of many hive products (with honey the most popular).

Another insect that farmers keep for its product is the silkworm. The insect is responsible for the production of the luxurious silk fabric that has been called the ‘queen of fibers’.  

  1. Insects in pest control

Other insects that help farmers are those that act as a natural pest control. These are the predators that prey and feed on other insects. These insects are such an effective form of pest control that they are often bred in large numbers and released into the environment to kill other bugs that are doing damage. Each predator generally kills several or many prey during its lifetime.

Ladybird beetles, spiders, dragonflies and ants are just a few examples of predators of insect pest that a farmer might encounter helping on his farm.

  1. Insects as food – entomophagy

Directly, some insects have even found their way to the human diet. Insects like butterflies, moths, beetles, bees, grasshoppers, crickets, and dragonflies are delicacies in various parts of the world. The bee brood is a perfect example of a commercialised insect for food. The edible stage of most of these arthropods is the larval stage which has carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

Some farmers are developing entomophagy by starting insect farms for human consumption, or to supplement livestock diets.

As you can tell, insects play a huge role in the life of a farmer. Indeed, the average WeFarmer encounters insects in their farm on a daily basis! Not a day does go by without questions from our network of farmers about insects, from preventing pests to helping honey bees pollinate crops.

Insects play a very crucial role in the world. They contribute products that we can eat, pollinate the majority of the world’s food, and make our soils rich. We should join in with the farmers and thank insects. They maintain the ecosystem which all life on earth depends on.

Posted 11 May 2016 | Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,