What Insects Eat: Our Yuck, Their Yum 

Ants. Photo courtesy of Rowan Peter / Flickr

When you think about ants, flies, and food, what do you picture? Maybe the last time you had a picnic or backyard cookout and were annoyed by uninvited guests of the buzzing or marching variety? Still, these insects and others are some of the most dedicated workers, recyclers, and street cleaners around, and without them we would be up to our knees in “ick.” 

One creature’s waste is another creature’s dinner.  

Insects are animals, and like other animals they have varied diets and can be herbivores, carnivores, omnivores, scavengers, and even decomposers. Many decomposer insects make up these important cleanup crews:  

  • Cleaning up dead/dying plant tissues (ex. fallen trees and leaves, apple cores)  
  • Cleaning up dead animal tissues (also called “carrion”)  
  • Cleaning up feces/poop from other animals  

Perhaps eating rotting fruit, deceased possums or poop doesn’t sound so appetizing to you? All the more reason to celebrate the insects who turn this waste into nutrients for growing the fresh vegetables, flowers, and forests we enjoy.  

Video Break

Watch this short, fun video which illustrates how decomposers fit into the food chain and turn "trash" into energy.

"Pests" in the City: Tiny Diners Have a Big Impact

Where you have a lot of people, unfortunately you often have a lot of trash. A few years ago, a team of scientists headed to the medians (strips of plants, pavement, or both between road sections) in New York City. The scientists dropped hot dogs, potato chips and cookies and observed ants plus other insects and arthropods. They found that this cleanup crew could eat up to 14 pounds of food-waste per year on a single block! Scientific American did the math and pointed out, “This chomping adds up to 60,000 hotdogs, 200,000 cookies or 600,000 potato chips across Broadway and West Street.” That doesn’t mean we should go around throwing food out our windows, but it does mean we have some hard workers to thank for cleaning up after us. Read an interview about ants in the city with scientists and see some colorful illustrations here 

Video Break

Meet a beautiful North American beetle who eats bison poop (4-minute video from National Geographic). 

How Do Insects Eat? A lesson for Classrooms and Learners 

Insects are fascinating creatures! And while every species is inherently valuable to our ecosystem, some insects can cause significant damage to plants and trees. In our free, downloadable 30-minute lesson, How Do Insects Eat?” (best for grades 2–3) learners explore the various kinds of mouthparts different insects have, a big clue to what and how they eat.Get the lesson here, which can be adapted to virtual or classroom learning and includes extensions and more resources. 



Written by: Angel Horne

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