There are about 40,000 different insects and their close relatives in Britain. Colloquially known as ‘bugs’ they easily outnumber all other animals and plants put together. The charity Buglife describes them as ‘ The small things that run the planet’ . This reflects their crucial role in supporting all other life on earth, including us. Despite this most people only notice a few brightly coloured insects such as  butterflies and dragonflies, and pests, such as aphids and mosquitoes.

A recent exhibition at Paignton Zoo demonstrated the relevance of insects to modern society with a wide ranging look at what we have learned, borrowed or taken from them. Desert dwelling beetles, for example, have informed the design of irrigation systems based on their ability to harvest water from dew and mist. More indirectly, the way light is reflected from other beetles is being used to build faster computers. In the same field some software applications are based on algorithms which mimic decision-making amongst social insects.

In the physical world search and rescue robots draw on the ways in which spiders move and explore their environment. In the air designers of pilotless aircraft, or drones, are inspired by the ways in which insects fly. As for medicine, whilst  bugs (no pun intended) are usually thought of as a problem rather than a solution, even here the exhibition organisers describe ‘ the list as endless’  with regard to insects and potential new cures.

David Attenborough says ‘ If we and the rest of the back-boned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well. But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the world's ecosystems would collapse .’ You can see the truth of this if you add to the above the everyday services which insects provide, such as clearing up waste and detritus, pollination, being the food supply for many birds and animals, and bug eat bug pest controllers.

The next time you hear that insects are in trouble, and many are declining, give a thought for what you may be able to do to help them. By sparing the sprays and tolerating a bit of damage to your plants you could help to save the world!

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* Information for this article taken from the Royal Entomological Society’s magazine Antenna.

Twitter: @PeteWestbrom