Some Extraordinary Facts About Insects

Here are some remarkable revelations from Oliver Milman's new book about insects.


Bumble bee pollinating a daisy.

Bees: Most of us are aware of the crucial pollination role that bees play in ensuring a steady supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. But researchers have uncovered an array of abilities in bees that may cause some surprise. For example, honeybees understand the concept of zero, can add and subtract numbers. Some bumblebees, meanwhile, are able to fly at an altitude of 5,500 meters (18,000 feet) above sea level (a height just shy of Mount Kilimanjaro’s summit), and all of this is energy-intensive work. If a human male devoured a Mars bar, he’d burn the energy off in about an hour; a bumblebee of an equivalent size would use the same energy in just 30 seconds.


Beetles: The world is awash with around 350,000 species of beetles. A horned dung beetle is so strong that if it were a human, it would be able to hold aloft six double-decker buses. Another type of beetle, a water beetle called Regimbartia attenuata, can even survive being eaten by a frog by swimming through the amphibian’s stomach and crawling out of its bottom.


Cockroaches: The only insects that rival mosquitoes in our displeasure are cockroaches. However, objectively, these creatures are marvels. Slow-motion video footage reveals that the cockroach can crash into a wall at high speed with no loss of momentum before scaling it vertically. These great survivors can fit into cracks as thin as a small coin, bite with a force 50 times their body weight, and survive for two weeks after being beheaded.


Moths: Often slandered as powdery vandals that enjoy chomping their way through the clothes in our wardrobes. This is largely unfair - it’s the moth larvae, not adults, that feed on clothes, and even then only a couple out of the thousands of moth species do this. Behold, instead, the Hercules moth of northern Australia. The world’s largest moth, the species has a wingspan as wide as a dinner plate but no mouth – it lives off the food reserves gobbled up while a bulky caterpillar – and has two false eyes in its rear to confuse would-be predators.


Wasps: They aren’t just the pillagers of bucolic picnics. They are also important pollinators of plants and predators of the pests that chew through our most valued flowers and crops. Research has additionally found that paper wasps can grasp transitive inference, a logical arrangement whereby if A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A must be greater than C. These wasps can also recognize other individual wasps by looking at their faces.


From Oliver Milman's book: The Insect Crisis - The Fall of the Tiny Empires that Run the World.

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