The importance of insects
By: Genevieve Fontana, Features Contributor
Dr. Katie Constanzo is a changemaker all around. As an associate professor of biology and director of the environmental science program at Canisius, she is dedicated to providing hands-on opportunities for her students to make a positive impact in their community. Outside of the classroom, she sees her lectures come alive as an ecologist and board member of the Western New York Land Conservancy: her research focuses on how environmental change impacts insect populations. She serves on several committees, including Laudato Si’, which aims to promote climate and ecological justice. Costanzo is one of the pioneers of the East West Community Garden and is an advocate for building connections and communication with the Hamlin Park Community.
As a professor, Dr. Costanzo believes that sustainability should not only be part of learning programs but also be integrated within our culture. She mentions that, as humans, we have historically treated nature as something to conquer or control, but because of this behavior we are experiencing the greatest biodiversity loss on record.
She has gone down an unexpected path from her original undergraduate plans of working with mammals to studying insects and, more specifically, mosquitos. Mosquitos are a model organism, as they are very important ecologically in the food web, they occupy different ecosystems throughout their lifecycle, there are many invasive species and they are of a medical importance. One of her favorite classes to teach at Canisius is on entomology. Through this class she hopes more people will gain an appreciation for insects, as most people's knowledge on insects is limited. On campus, her research team focuses on how the environment impacts their life history, timing of mosquito life events, the effect of temperature on disease transmission and both native and invasive species interactions.
Costanzo observes that “overall insect populations are hurting, experiencing a 70 to 80 percent decline in the last 50 years.” Insects play an integral role in the functioning of an ecosystem, and with the collapse of insect populations, all other species will follow. Some most common local species that are affected by these environmental changes include the firefly. Dr. Costanzo talks about growing up in Buffalo and how as a child, during the summer, all she would do is catch fireflies. Each year she asks her students in entomology, “By a show of hands, how many of you collected fireflies as a kid?” Each year the numbers dwindle, and only a handful of students raise their hands.
One other species that we discussed was the invasive Emerald Ash Borer on ash tree populations. Costanzo also brought up that climate change is altering the timing of life events in a lot of species, including migration, time of emergence and reproduction. With these changes, species that interact are responding differently, leading to issues when these organisms rely on each other for survival.
Some things you can do to help these vulnerable insect species are accepting that the insects are part of this community and that we need to value and appreciate them. Try to avoid using pesticides as much as possible. Do things around your home that promote healthy habitats for insects. For example, you could participate in “No Mow May,” but if this is not feasible for your home, choose a spot on your land where you can go a little while before mowing to promote pollinator habitats — even waiting two weeks is better than nothing. Plant native plants on their property. Not all ornamental plants are native, and local wildlife can't consume them. Costanzo also advises people, “Try not to make your yard seem so sterile: … the leaves are good, [and] dead flowers with the dried stems provide habitat for overwintering insects.”
Costanzo was part of the inception of the East West Community Garden, which serves as a location for the folks in the surrounding area to grow their own food in a food desert as well as a space for wildlife in an urban environment. Though the garden has been a challenge, it has provided a successful environment for many pollinators that her students have tallied. She has watched as the group that started the garden has grown and learned that a successful community garden is built off of trusting relationships. She is excited for these connections to be fostered, and through her passion for diversity, equity and inclusion, she cannot wait to see this become a flourishing place for the community, building a bridge between the neighborhood and Canisius.