by Deidra Wirakusumah, Workshop Designer and Webinar Instructor
Have you ever sat down and thought about all the things we throw away on a day-to-day basis? I’m not just talking about packaging, but things like food waste, loose hair, nail clippings, things that end up in your toilet...yuck!
Those last three are examples of natural organic waste. While at home we may simply throw things into the trash, out in nature those things up somewhere, and it isn’t the landfill. Turns out, one of the major benefits insects provide for us, is processing our (organic) waste. Without them, we would soon be overrun by all the gross things our, and all animal and plant bodies, shed on a regular basis. The world would smell a lot worse, and would be a much more unclean place for us to live!
Organic waste are those wastes that can naturally decompose and break down in the environment, unlike inorganic waste, which will not break down and include things like plastic bottles, metal cans, and styrofoam boxes. Organic waste is actually quite useful, and is a treasure trove of nutrients for those organisms that know how to use it. Many different organisms will process this waste so we don’t have to; they are called decomposers . They break down the dead organic waste into simpler compounds that can go on to be used by plants to grow, and in turn can go on to feed other animals. Insect decomposers are part of a smaller group called detritivores.
Detritivores are a type of decomposer. Detritivores in particular, refer to animals like some insects and worms, that do the “breaking down” of these organic materials in their own digestive system, a.k.a inside their own bodies. This is different from other types of decomposers, bacteria and fungi, that do the “breaking down” outside their bodies, in the surrounding environment. Detritivores break down dead things into simpler parts, so that they can go on to be used by plants to make new things, like fruits and flowers.
Why Are They Important?
In short, detritivores, and more broadly, decomposers, help to clean up our environment. Without them our waste would steadily pile up. They are the true recyclers of our ecosystems, helping to close the loop wherever in the food chain waste is made. This includes dead plants, leftover food from predators, and the poop every animal inevitably produces. They deal with those things so that we don’t have to. And while it is great that they keep our natural environments “tidy”, another important benefit is that by cleaning up, they prevent the disease that would have otherwise been spread by all the rotting waste. They are an integral part of how energy and matter move through an ecosystem.
Still confused? Check out this video by Crash Course Kids, that explains how decomposers fit into our food chains. Click the here.
What Are Some Examples of Insect Detritivores?
Otherwise known as the Scarab Beetles, these ultra-strong poop collectors were associated, by the Ancient Egyptians, with Khepri, god of the rising sun (actually, Khepri has the face of a scarab and the body of a person). You might wonder why such an ancient and long-lived religion would worship an insect that spends its life rolling up balls of poop - and they’re not the only ones. Evidence of other, older, civilizations worshiping dung beetles go back several thousands of years before the Ancient Egyptian civilization existed!
The god Khepri not only symbolizes the rising sun, but also renewal, creation, and rebirth. This is meant to parallel not only the natural behavior of the dung beetle, but also the critical role of that insect in the environment. It is believed that the dung beetle, in rolling the ball of dung, was like Khepri as he brought the sun up from behind the horizon. Dung beetles also lay their eggs inside their balls of dung, where they hatch as larvae, develop, and emerge from the ball as adult beetles, mirroring the resurrection of Khepri as a fully formed god. The Ancient Egyptians also likely understood the importance of these insects to the health of the ecosystem, and more importantly, to the health of their crops. This is a lesson that is being rediscovered by modern farmers as they come to understand the importance of these insects as our allies.
A group of insects that is mostly made up of long bodied insects with many pairs of legs who love to eat leaf litter and other dead plants. While the latin name means “thousand feet”, no known millipede species actually has that many legs. Most have closer to 50 to 200 pairs of legs.
Millipedes are generally slow moving, and are important citizens of the forest floor. While they are often considered pests in our gardens, millipedes have long played their role as ground cleaners in natural environments. These leggy insects make up some of the first animals known to have lived on land. The first millipedes were thought to have been around during the Silurian Period - that’s almost 450 million years ago. During that time, most of life was still underwater. And while most millipedes are quite small now, their ancestors, Arthropleura, grew to more than 2 meters long. Try getting that to leave your garden!
Yes, you read correctly, some butterfly species are detritivores. Some enjoy poop or urine, while others will sip on rotting animal meat. Flower nectar is an important part of many butterfly diets, but unfortunately does not provide them with some important nutrients, such as salts. To find this, some butterfly species rely on what we would consider unsavory sources of food. They can’t even really eat any of this decaying matter because they do not have a mouth with teeth, what they do instead is similar to licking. Still, these butterflies do their part to cleaning up waste. So who are we to judge their dietary choices?
Insect detritivores and other decomposers are integral parts of a healthy ecosystem. We benefit from the work they do, dealing with organic wastes so we don't have to. So remember to thank your local detritivore for all their help with cleaning!
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