Today, we look for emissaries to send to the insect
empire. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Entomologists, the people
who study insects, tell about a professor who once
said that DDT would put an end to their field. When
entomologists met in Washington for their hundredth
anniversary in 1989, they showed us the grim
outcome of that 40-year-old story. Dr. Thomas
Eisner, from Harvard, remarked,
Bugs aren't going to inherit the earth. They
already own it. It's time to make peace with the
To make their point, insect scientists
give us biomass figures. The social insects alone --
ants, bees, and the like -- outweigh vertebrates 7 to
1. Don't forget, that means weighing termites and
wasps against people and whales. That's a lotta bugs!
We've identified 750,000 species so far, but ten
million insect species are still unclassified. We can
identify only one bug out of 13.
So, what about DDT? Forty years ago, bugs ate seven
percent of our crops. Now they're eating 13
percent. Does that make sense? It does when you
consider two facts. One is that insects quickly
adapt to chemicals. We've created whole new
taxonomies of DDT-proof bugs. Our farmers also grow
far more hybrids today. And hybrids don't have the
same Darwinian talent for survival. They need more
protection from bugs, and we can't provide it.
Disease-carrying bugs are also on the rise. Malaria
mosquitoes have found their way around
insecticides. Malaria deaths are back up to a
million a year. River blindness hits 40 million
Africans annually. Elephantiasis affects 400
So what's to be done? Experts tell us we should
quit trying to exterminate Earth's largest species.
The time has come to start forging a peace with
them. We don't need soldiers. We need diplomats. We
need far more entomologists to help us coexist with
the insects. And entomologists are becoming rare.
Our schools graduated 170 PhDs a year in the 1970s
-- not a whole lot. Now that's down to 130 a year.
So the fellow who predicted DDT would do away with
entomologists was close to right after all. The
problem is, DDT left the insects themselves
stronger than ever.
Like any good crisis, this one hides opportunity.
Insects offer vast untapped possibilities. They
secrete every kind of potential healing drug,
repellent, fungicide, and even foodstuff. Honey is
only one. The bugs are ready to show us how to
survive among them.
So if you're still young, and you're looking for a
field, give it a thought. Insects are coinheritors
of the Earth. It could be fun getting to know them.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds