Which Bug Has World Domination?

Written by Nancy Miorelli

question

There are a lot of bugs on the planet. We currently know of about one million species.
Beetles alone make up ¹/₅ of all known species on earth! So if you were to name every species on your fingers, every time you got back to your thumb, it would be another beetle.

There are a lot of beetles... PC: Nancy Miorelli

There are a lot of beetles…
PC: Nancy Miorelli

And these are the ones we *know* of! For how many we have left to discover, it’s anyone’s guess – but current estimates are that there are between 5 and 10 million more insect species left to find.

So there are a lot of bugs. So hiring like a million scientists to run around and count every single bug of every single species is a bit out of the question. But we can make some pretty good guesses instead.

 

First, let’s get a short list of possibilities. There are lots of bugs, but not very many live in groups. And of these, only a few types of insects live in large groups.

Bees and ants immediately come to mind.

Which one is it?

Which one is it?
PC: Nancy Miorelli

But wait, there’s a surprise contestant!

Where are my eyes? Well, actually, I don't have any and am blind. PC: Nancy Miorelli

Where are my eyes? Well, actually, I don’t have any and am blind.
PC: Nancy Miorelli

Okay, we have to talk a little about numbers. Because the numbers coming up are big. Like really big. Like bigger than people can really imagine. So here’s the breakdown. We’ll be talking about the trillions-quadrillions. They’re big numbers.

Million: The number of dots on this page. Billion: In 2012 there were one billion users on Facebook.  Trillion: The Andromedea galaxy has about a trillion stars. Quadrillion: If you made a cube of a quadrillion pennies, it would be taller than the empire state building.

Million: The number of dots on this page.
Billion: In 2012 there were one billion users on Facebook.
Trillion: The Andromedea galaxy has about a trillion stars.
Quadrillion: If you made a cube of a quadrillion pennies, it would be taller than the empire state building.

Swarming honey bees! Up to 30,000 can leave a hive to go start a new one. PC: Fir0002 (CC by NC)

Swarming honey bees! Up to 30,000 can leave a hive to go start a new one.
PC: Fir0002 (CC by NC)

Let’s start with honey bees (Apis mellifera). We have the most data about them because we raise them like farm animals, but to pollinate our food. In one hive there can be up to 60 thousand bees! We think that there are 100 million hives that people own, but up to 900 million in the wild. Now if we have up to billion hives, with 60,000 bees in each, we would have 60 trillion bees as the most honey bees that could possibly exist. That’s a lot of honey bees!

There are thought to be 10 quadrillion ants! While 10 quadrillion is much bigger than 60 trillion, ants have 14,000 species and honey bees are just one species. We can estimate that there are about 714 billion ants of any given ant species. The video below shows a minute city carved into the ground by a powerhouse of ants.

Which leads us to our surprise contestant, termites. If you thought 10,000 trillion ants was a lot, scientists think that there are 27 times the amount of termites! That puts us at 27 quadrillion termites. Like ants, there are a lot of species of termites, so we have to account for that. There are about 2,3oo species of termites, so a single species should have about 117 trillion termites.

These are all termite mounds built in Australia
PC: Yewenyi (CC by SA 3.0)

So here’s how they stack up determined by our estimates!

These big winners all are eusocial. That means that there is queen or a king and queen responsible for making babies, while all the rest of the colonies forage for food, take care of the babies, or defend their homes. We’re not really sure how eusocial animals evolved but we do know that they’re some of the most successful animals on earth!

PC: Nancy Miorelli

PC: Nancy Miorelli

About SciBugs

Entomologist, Science Communicator, and Crafter Twitter: @SciBugs
This entry was posted in Ecology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Which Bug Has World Domination?

  1. Sangeeta verma says:

    Do bugs affect our environment badly or not ?

    Like

    • Nancy says:

      For the most part they don’t. And in fact, we need insects in the world. They’re kind of our powerhouse that keeps the world running. Even pests, things like ants and termites are important decomposers. They get rid of the trash and recycle the carbon back into the ecosystem. Maggots and flies get rid of dead carcasses. Most insects provide important links in the food chain. Insects are important controllers of populations of plants, insects, and other animals. Basically they’re the little gears that make our planet work.

      Like

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