Close-up of wildflowers in a meadow. Credit: Leanna Dixon

Why should we care about bugs?

Invertebrates are vitally important to a healthy planet – and are on the front line of our battle against COVID-19.
12 May 2021 , Paul Hetherington of charity Buglife

A lot has been written about bees and pollinators and how important they to our own future. But their fellow invertebrates are also under threat and are equally important in supporting life on earth.

There are more than 40,000 invertebrate species in the UK, and many of these are under threat as never before. Buglife is the only organisation in Europe devoted to the conservation of all invertebrates. Actively working to save Britain’s rarest little animals, everything from bees to beetles, worms to woodlice and jumping spiders to jellyfish.

Invertebrates are vitally important to a healthy planet. Humans and other life forms could not survive without them. The food we eat, the fish we catch, the birds we see, the flowers we smell and the hum of life we hear simply would not exist without bugs. Invertebrates underpin life on earth and without them the world’s ecosystems would collapse.

Invertebrates are facing an extinction crisis. Today, thousands of invertebrate species are declining and many are heading towards extinction. Worldwide 150,000 species could be gone by 2050 if we do nothing.

People are familiar with plants being a rich source of medicines, but scientists are increasingly turning to small animals to discover chemicals and processes that help prevent suffering and death in humans.

Invertebrate animals have been on the front line of our battle against COVID-19. Two insects and a living fossil are proving crucial to the production of effective vaccines, and medicines developed from leech saliva are saving thousands of lives.

This underscores our dependence on biodiversity and the need for increased resourcing for the protection and restoration of invertebrate populations so that, as we emerge from the pandemic, we start to halt the worldwide declines in insects and other biodiversity.

Worms crucial to Novavax vaccine
The US-developed Novavax vaccine consists of proteins created in cultures of fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) cells. The cells are infected with an engineered virus that causes them to start producing the protein spikes that coat SARS-CoV-2. When injected in humans the proteins produce an antibody response. The vaccine is achieving high success rates against all main variants of the virus and is entering authorisation processes around the world.

Silkworms help create test kits for COVID-19
In Japan, silkworms (Bombyx mori), have been turned into factories producing the protein spikes. The process takes around four days to make sufficient quantities and the caterpillars are then harvested. The spikes are being used in a home test-kit for antibodies that reveals COVID-19 resistance.

Crabs help ensure safety of vaccine
The blue blood of the horseshoe crab has almost miraculous qualities. Chemicals in the crab’s blood react to harmful bacteria that might contaminate the vaccine. The test makes sure that that vaccines are in good condition. A synthetic version of one of the proteins has recently been authorised for use in Europe, China and Japan and is used by the Pfizer vaccine, but most of the world still only uses this marine arthropod’s blood.

Each year in the US and China hundreds of thousands of crabs are caught and taken to laboratories, where they are bled from a vein near their heart. In the USA crabs are released, but around 15% then die. Due to this and other pressures on their habitats and populations, particularly bait catching, Atlantic horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) are now classified as ‘Vulnerable’ to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

In China the tri-spine horseshoe crab (Tachypleus tridentatus) is less fortunate: bled crabs suffer 100% mortality because they are sold for food and chitin production. The Tri-spine horseshoe crab is listed as ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN red list.

Because the blood is already fundamental to so many life-saving injections, the need to test COVID vaccines is not expected to result in a big increase in harvesting. But conservationists are calling for increased protection levels for the crabs and to move over to synthesised versions of the protein as soon as possible.

Leeches save thousands of lives every year
From mediaeval times to the modern day the medicinal leech (Hirudo medicinalis) has played a role in medicine. Sixteen chemicals discovered in leeches are now used to save thousands of lives every year. Bivalirudin is a synthetic version of hirudin, that was first found in the leech saliva, and is a commonly used anti-coagulant treatment, including for some COVID cases. Over-collecting of leeches caused many local extinctions, but it was protected across Europe in 1992 and now has a ‘Near Threatened’ status.

Bugs help with anti-coagulants
Heparin, another anti-coagulant used to treat patients with severe COVID symptoms and at risk of blood clots, can be extracted from a range of animals including freshwater mussels, mangrove crabs, clams, shrimps and the sand dollar (Mellita quinquisperforata), a close relative of sea urchins.

Despite global commitments to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2020, none of the targets were fully met, most importantly the declines of species continue and the Secretariat of the Biodiversity Convention recently concluded that biodiversity “financing would not appear to be sufficient in relation to needs”.

Invertebrate charities want a new framework for biodiversity conservation to be established at this year’s Conference of Parties in China. The new framework must ensure that investment in saving biodiversity is put on a ratchet system, as has already been established for tackling climate change.

Each invertebrate species plays a unique and important role in the web of life, but once lost, they cannot be replaced. Many invertebrates have incredible life stories yet to be told, and we literally don’t know what we are on the brink of losing.

Buglife’s aim is to halt the extinction of invertebrate species and to achieve sustainable populations of invertebrates.

Some of the work Buglife is doing:
– Promoting the environmental importance of invertebrates and raising awareness about the challenges to their survival.
– Assisting in the development of legislation and policy that will ensure the conservation of invertebrates.
– Developing and disseminating knowledge about how to conserve invertebrates.
– Encouraging and supporting invertebrate conservation initiatives by other organisations in the UK, Europe and worldwide.
– Undertaking practical conservation projects that will contribute to achieving our aim.

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