Without Insects Plants Lose to Natural Selection

Without Insects Plants Lose to Natural Selection

A five-year study looks at how an absence of insects affects the genetic traits of evening primrose.

For many of us, when we think of insects, negative words such as “pests” or “bugs” (as in “quit bugging me!”) come to mind. Wasps, fire ants, roaches—they’re all problems that need to be dealt with. But what researchers are learning is that the absence of certain bugs may contribute to the devolution in plants—and quicker than expected.

Evening primrose

Researchers funded by the National Science Foundation have identified that treating evening primrose with insecticide may lead to ecological consequences—specifically in the desired traits in plants. During the course of five years, about three to four generations of evening primrose, researchers examined the characteristics of the plants treated with insecticide compared to those not treated.

The researchers found plants free of insects lost certain defensive traits. The plants stopped producing certain insect-deterring chemicals, and they also bloomed earlier—making them more susceptible to peak populations of plant-eating larvae. The researchers attribute the loss of these traits to natural selection.

According to the study’s press release, insects have played a vital role in the evolution of plant species. Without the interaction between insects and plants, many of the desired characteristics may disappear. What surprised researchers, however, was how quickly this devolution occurred.

Ridding insects

Insects pose a significant issue when it comes to food production and can lead to huge losses for producers. As such, most genetic modification (GM) aims to make plants resistant to insects. For example, Bt corn has been genetically modified with spliced genes of Bacillus thuringiensis. When insects bite into Bt corn, they die.

In fact, most forms of GM crops are designed to be insect-resistant. The other form of GM modification makes them more resistant to herbicides.

In other words, aside from the contentious health concerns for humans, consumers might also question the effects genetic modification might have on the quality of our plant foods.


Nature offers an intricate web of relationships, where people, plants, and animals are all connected. Not only is biodiversity necessary in terms of genetic diversity among species, but a diversity within ecosystems is also important.

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