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Insects, like this rice paper butterfly at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, are crucial for pollination.

Insect extinctions will swat back at human life

by Christine Skopec
Jun 4, 2014


Christine Skopec/MEDILL

Entomologist May Berenbaum explains how humans rely on insects for pollination, waste disposal and inventions.

Most people would probably be happy to put away their fly swatters and bug spray for good, but insect extinction will have devastating effects on everything from technological advances to agriculture.

Entomologist May Berenbaum spoke about preventing animal extinction and preserving insects in particular. She has dedicated her life to the creepy-crawlies, which she explained are less appreciated than most other animals. She spoke at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum recently for a conference "Why Prevent Extinction?"

But would it really be such a bad thing for pests to become extinct? Well, yes.

“Agriculture depends heavily on pollinators,” said Berenbaum.

Without insects, humans would have considerably less food variety and would struggle to meet their nutritional needs. Additionally, insects are great waste management providers - eating our wastes and dead animals. They have given inspiration to technology and engineering advances like solar panels, modeled from butterfly wings, or a type of tire that will never go flat, inspired by the structure of honeycomb.

Despite the crucial role insects play in the world, little is known about just how vulnerable they are.

“They are considerably more at risk than the taxa we know much better,” said Berenbaum, professor of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The lack of awareness about insects is largely because of the sheer number of species.

While there are roughly 5,000 species of mammals and around 10,000 species of birds. But as for “class insecta – potentially 950,000 species,” Berenbaum said.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, about 1,212 insects fall in the range of near threatened to extinct. Berenbaum cites the IUCN as the most reputable source for this information.

“They’re the keepers of the list,” said Berenbaum. But she stressed that most species haven't been assessed, with lack sufficient data for them to be properly analyzed. “We don’t even really know what the status of those insects really [is],” she said.

While climate change may be partially to blame for growing numbers of endangered species, Berenbaum said there’s not a clear cause and effect relationship between the two. Other factors that contribute to the problem include human interference and environmental degradation.

Berenbaum’s address, organized by the museum’s senior curator of urban ecology, Steve Sullivan, comes on the heels of his realization that 2014 marks 100 years since the passenger pigeon became extinct here in the U.S.

“People sort of forgot the passenger pigeon story,” Sullivan said.

Once the most prevalent bird in North America, the passenger pigeon was driven to extinction because of habitat destruction.

Sullivan has been working with museums all over the country to spread the word about species extinction and convinced a number of other academics to come to Chicago for a conference on the topic. When he was looking for someone to deliver the opening address he turned to Berenbaum.

“She represents an underrepresented species,” Sullivan said. He thought it was important to shed some light on endangered insects.

This atypical approach to species endangerment drew interest from the community.

Michelle M. Frack, an urban ecologist and biology tutor, attended the speech and said she was particularly "blown away" by “the technology thing." She said she had no idea insects were responsible for advances in modern-day engineering.

A museum regular, Frack said “I like their educational outreach events.”

For more information about the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and its involvement with extinction prevention visit