Insects interacting with plants play mighty roles on Earth for millennia Conrad Labandeira looking at a fossil in the Karoo Basin, South Africa. (Smithsonian/Depiction by Mary Parrish, Smithsonian)
Insects interacting with plants play mighty roles on Earth for millennia
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Some systems that sustain life on Earth have been operating for a really long time. Cycles of oxygen, water and minerals all come to mind. But what about the green world of plants around us? And what of their abundant associates, the insects? Insects and plants have been interacting on Earth for hundreds of millions of years. They interact in a complex array of relationships. Insects may be physically small, but their ecological roles on the planet are mighty. They provide structure to the ecosystems we rely on.

Take a walk outside. It is hard to overlook insects in action. Rifle through a plant, and you'll find a menagerie of insects looking for food. Some are making holes, scraping off plant tissues and skeletonizing leaves. Others are piercing plants and sucking up sap, or making squiggly paths as they mine leaf tissues. Plants may also serve as nurseries for insect larvae; adult insects leave distinctive scars where they have inserted their eggs. Some insects even co-opt developmental machinery of plants to make tumor-like galls that provide protection and food for the larvae.

Many insects are also pollinators, enabling plant reproduction while scoring a food reward. Pollination is the foundation not only of natural ecosystems, but also of our food supply. Without insects, we would be hard-pressed to feed our burgeoning human populations on Earth. On the other hand, defending crops from insect herbivores is also part of agriculture. Insects have evolved a huge variety of adaptations for exploiting plant organs and tissues.

Paleobiologists who study fossils for evidence of insect-plant interactions have traced damage marks on 385-million-year-old leaves to insect feeding. The fossil evidence points to pollination also having a long history on Earth – showing up an estimated 125-170 million years ago. Compare those ancient relationships to our mere 200,000 years of human history on Earth. 

Scientists like Smithsonian Paleobiologist Dr. Conrad Labandeira continue to gather evidence to understand the deep history of plant and insect relationships on Earth. Learn more about Conrad’s research in the "Smithsonian Science How" webcast on Thursday, Feb 8, 2018. During Fossil Forensics: Plant and Insect Relationships (airs at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. EST on the Q?rius website), Conrad will take you on a journey through time while answering your questions live. You can also get teaching resources to use with the webcast.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why are insects important to our planet?
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COMMENTS (21)
  • AkshayB-del
    2/08/2018 - 04:04 p.m.

    This article is about how insects interacting with plants play mighty roles on Earth for millennia. If you rifle through a plant you'll find a menagerie of insects looking for food. Some are making holes, scraping off plant tissues and skeletonizing leaves. Many insects are also pollinators, enabling plant reproduction while scoring a food reward. Without insects, we would be hard-pressed to feed our burgeoning human populations on Earth.

  • JuliaA -del
    2/08/2018 - 04:11 p.m.

    The article is how insects are important to our planet. They pollinate the flowers. Pollinating is the foundation.

  • GregoryM-del
    2/08/2018 - 04:50 p.m.

    Insects interacting with plants play mighty roles on Earth for millennia. Insects and plants have complex arrays of relationships.

  • ZofiaT-del
    2/08/2018 - 05:02 p.m.

    This article is about how insects can play a key role in the ecological structure of our Earth. Many insects are pollinators that help pollinate flowers and other plants. This helps maintain our vegetative food supply.

  • EvanC-del
    2/08/2018 - 05:19 p.m.

    When plants pollinate insects spread that across to other plants. That makes life and brings food to the other plants. Insects are very important to us even though they are disgusting they bring life to plants so we should thank them for their service. This topic reminded that I should thank insects so... thank you.

  • AnnabelleA-del
    2/08/2018 - 05:22 p.m.

    The article was interesting because it brought up a topic that I don't think about very often. It brought up the topic about insects and their relationship with plants. Insects lay eggs, protect larvae, make holes, destroy tissue, pollinate, and eat in plants.

  • ChloeR-del
    2/08/2018 - 05:31 p.m.

    This article tell us that insect interactions with plants has been on Earth way longer than we have. It has been on Earth for 385 million years. These insects make holes in plants to keep larvae, sucking up sap, and making squiggly paths. Some of them are also pollinators.They take in pollen to help plants reproduce and get a food bonus. Others in the agriculture sector are harmful to plants that feed humans. The interaction between insects and plants has been a key feature of life on Earth

  • NatalieH-del
    2/08/2018 - 06:51 p.m.

    When insects and plants interact, they make a big change in their lives. You may not think it, but it's true. Plants serve as a home for bugs, while the bugs return the favor during pollination.

  • ChloeT-del
    2/08/2018 - 07:15 p.m.

    This article is about insects and plants working together and playing important roles in our lives. Many insects are pollinators that allow and help plant reproduction. Without insects, it would be hard to feed our population. Without insects, there wouldn't be any pollination so there would be no vegetables and fruits. Scientist Smithsonian Paleobiologist Dr. Conrad Labandeira today still gathers information on insects and their history with plants.

  • MikhailP-del
    2/08/2018 - 07:16 p.m.

    This article is about about how some things on earth have been here for a while and help sustain life on Earth. There are many things that we already know though like oxygen, water, food, and carbon dioxide. There are also many things we didn't know like plants and many insects. They help structure to ecosystems we rely on. One way they help structure the ecosystem is by pollinating plants because that will create new plants.

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