While discussing the most recent ASPI newsletter, I was asked if I needed to change the reference to bees. I had called them animals - the editor wanted to change it to insect. "Either is fine," I said. There were looks around the table. "If you want to be specific, insects - more general, animals. It doesn't matter in the article."
"But insects aren't animals, are they?"
Take a moment here. If insects are not animals, what are they? With this question, folks were puzzled. Well, they are just insects. Not animals.
Insects are animals! There are many ways to classify living things, but the most common that is still taught, is by Kingdom - there are Plants, Animals, Fungi, Bacteria, and we can argue about Protists and Archaebacteria some other time. We'll just agree that insects are not Protists or Archaebacteria, however we classify them. Then, we'll also agree that insects are not Bacteria, I think I get most of you on board for eliminating Fungi and Plants, as well. We are left, then, with Animals.
Or, if you want to work the other way, are insects Living Things? Are they made of cells, do they have a metabolism (utilize energy), do they grow, adapt, evolve, do they reproduce, do they contain DNA and/or RNA, do they respond to stimuli? There are a few more requirements, but so far, we agree - insects are alive. Then, we can ask - are they animals? Do they use other organisms for food (heterotrophs)? Are they motile in some stage of life? How do they reproduce? (Not like a fungi.) Cell walls? Nope. Nuclei? Yup.
Why do we care? I mean, except for being factually correct when we publish a newsletter, of course - there is a certain amount of integrity in that. I think we should care a little bit, because, as animals, we put a great deal of regard into classification. Wait a second? Do animals, other than humans classify things? And, hold on - are humans animals?
We can go back to deciding if humans are living things - and that answer, of course, is yes. We have all the criteria. Then, if we look at the simple kingdoms, we, like insects, do not fit in anywhere else but as animals. Or we can take the criteria of animals and make sure we fit - we do.
Next, do animals classify? Remember, the Kingdom Animalia is diverse - the supposably simple sponge, sharks, jelly fish, the moss piglet (aka water bear or tardigrade, which is probably not what you are imagining at all). Some animals, as far as we know, are simply responding to stimuli when it looks like they may be classifying - food or not-food, good habitat or acceptable habitat or poor habitat. Many, however, have memories and organize information - best foraging grounds, plants to use to medicate, eat, avoid, social structures.
Ah, there it is, for humans. We have struggled with classification as part of our social structures. Us and Them, We and They. So when we do classify things, it gives them a meaning beyond just factual. It gives them a complex status in our mind. This is why it is important to know that insects are animals. We can understand their needs, requirements. We can appreciate their place in the ecosystem (necessary for our own lives.) We can identify with them as fellow Animals. (We eat fellow Animals, so please do not think I am romanticizing what that means.) They will occupy a niche, if ecologists will allow me the use of this word, in our beings that is more complex than "We and They." It is a more complicated place, all shades of gray and no black and white. Perhaps it allows us to more rightfully claim a superiority among the animals when we do this. When we do not - and it is "Us and Them" - we are responding to stimuli, like the sponge (often regarded, pitifully, as least of the Animals), and not using our complex neurology at all.
So what are insects? They are animals, invertebrates, arthropods - the joint-legged. They occupy such complex, diverse, and numerous niches in the world, we cannot begin to fathom their importance in the ecosystem - and the survival of humans - with our complex brains and all.