Part One: Decomposers on Duty
This is part one of a three-part series on beneficial insects — how to make them work for you in your garden or on your farm.
Insects are central to the functioning of ecosystems and play many important roles in our gardens and on our farms. These tiny animals with three body segments, six jointed legs, two antennae, two eyes and an exoskeleton, are found in almost every habitat – from forests to deserts to the highest mountains on earth. They walk, swim, hop, fly, hover and crawl on the ground, in the soil, on plants and in freshwater. There are millions of species of insects, and their benefits can be incredibly diverse.
Some insects are producers, consumers or pollinators, others are decomposers – mother nature’s recycling centres. Decomposers eat dead plants, animals and other organic material, breaking them down into tiny nutrients which are then returned to the soil. Some examples include ants, flies, mites and certain beetles. These insects provide two critical services: waste management and nutrient cycling.
Decomposers play a crucial role in our gardens and on our farms by cleaning up dead plant and animal matter. Without them, fallen leaves, dead animals and decaying plant material would pile up and become breeding grounds for pathogens and pests.
A practical example of a waste manager that we see in the Credit River Watershed is the dung beetle. On cattle farms, dung beetles have an important job. They break down manure by tunneling beneath it, moving through it, or rolling it in balls. This reduces the build-up of manure on the farm. Flies lay their eggs in cow manure, so less manure means fewer flies. This benefits both farmers and livestock as some fly species negatively affect cattle health and productivity by causing stress and spreading disease.
Decomposers also break down complex organic matter into simpler forms, such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus compounds. These nutrients are then recycled back into the soil, water or air, making them available for uptake by plants and other organisms. Without decomposers, essential nutrients would remain locked away in piles of organic material, leading to nutrient depletion and imbalance in ecosystems.
Stay tuned for parts two and three of this series for more on the unique benefits insects provide, as well as tips and tricks on how to make them to work for you.