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Small protectors of the forest

Insects represent 70% of animal species on the planet. Even small in size, they play a major role in plant pollination and decomposition of organic matter, in addition to serving as food for other animals and, in some cases, even generating income for communities.

Alice Martins

Translated by Silvia Benchimol and Ewerton Branco (UFPA/ET-Multi)


Mosquitoes, bees and insects, in general, are part of the reality of those who live in the Amazon, even in urban centers. For some people, they can be considered a burden and, for many others, they can simply go unnoticed. However, insects play a key role in preserving biodiversity in the region, as they are responsible for spreading nutrients and seeds in the forest, allowing more plants to grow, in addition to decomposing organic matter and serving as food for other animals.

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According to José Albertino Rafael – a researcher at the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia (INPA) [National Institute for Research in the Amazon], 70% of the species of animals that exist in nature all over the planet are insects. “Many people have no idea how important they are.  They are the base of the food chain. It is from insects that larger animals feed, such as fish for example, which then serve as food for humans. If there were no insects, there would be no life”, he emphasizes.

The Pacu fish, for example, eats, among other things, aquatic insects – those that have at least one stage of their life development in the water. “Life in water is more difficult to be perceived, that’s why many people do not know that there are aquatic insects even if they recognize some species, such as dragonflies”, explains biologist Cecília Gontijo Leal, a researcher at Lancaster University, in the United Kingdom, and a member of the Rede Amazônia Sustentável (RAS) [Sustainable Amazon Network]. “Aquatic insects are very important for the functioning of water courses, because in addition to being a source of food for other larger animals, they decompose the organic matter (flowers, leaves and fruits) that comes from the banks into the rivers, creeks, streams…”.

They also serve as “bioindicators”, that is, they indicate the quality of the water and how the aquatic environment is as a whole. “Many of these insects live in direct contact with the bottom of the water courses bed, so they are sensitive to pollution, silting in rivers, pesticides, deforestation of the forest, on the bank…”, she describes. Thus, in polluted places, species are very different from those found in preserved spaces. “That's because some species are more sensitive to these effects than others. For example, some dragonflies are extremely sensitive, so if they are present in an environment, it means there is a higher level of preservation there”, she concludes.

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“Borboletário” in Belém, PA - Photo: Thiago Gomes

At the top of the trees, a universe to be revealed

From the bottom of the water to the top of the trees, insects can be found throughout the Amazon rainforest. José Albertino Rafael (INPA) was one of the members of a working group which gathered several Brazilian and international institutions that studied the life of insects in the treetops. The study was innovative because, normally, these animals are surveyed on the ground. This time, traps were set along a 32-meter-high tower to capture the insects every 8m away. For 14 months, the researchers monitored and collected samples and the result was surprising: in just a 15-day sample, almost 38,000 specimens of insects were cataloged. “It was a surprise for us. We did not expect to find so much novelty and so many different species”, he declares.

According to the researcher, out of the total of nearly 17 thousand collected species in this sample, 60% were only found in the highest traps, placed in the canopy. “These results show us that there is a still pretty unknown world of insects, above us,” he ponders.

In the heights, these animals fulfill their role of maintaining the balance of nature, whether in pollination, like butterflies, or in nutrient cycling, when an insect chews a plant or breaks it into small pieces so that it can decompose more easily when it falls onto the ground.

The group continues the research and intends to raise financial and more professional resources, to analyze other samples and take a step forward – that is, carry out the DNA sequencing of these specimens, to be more assured about the categorization of species.

Butterflies are indicators of the quality of the environment

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Biologist Ananda Martins - Photo: Betzi Perez

In the canopy, as the treetop area is called, many butterflies were found. They are the object of study by biologist Ananda Martins, a doctoral student in the Biology program at McGill University (Canada) and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (Panama). “Butterflies are pollinating animals, which are usually responsible for the reproduction of various plants and are inserted in different food chains, serving as food for different predators such as spiders, frogs and birds. The imbalance in the number of butterflies can affect several species of fauna and flora”, she emphasizes.

Like aquatic insects, butterflies are important bioindicators. “Because they are sensitive animals, any change in their population, whether reduction or increment, can show whether the area is undergoing changes in the ecosystem”, she informs. Hamadryas februa, popularly known as the snapper butterfly, or Pardinha, for example, is a generalist species, that is, it does not have so many restrictions regarding the conditions of the inhabited environment. When an area registers an overpopulation of this species, it is a sign that the place is degraded. Conversely, specialist species (more “demanding”) would have not been able to maintain themselves in such environment.

Martins also highlights recent research shows how the color of butterfly wings can also be bioindicators. A study released last year by the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in partnership with the Federal University of Pelotas and the University of Exeter (England), for example, found that butterflies are less colorful in recently deforested areas compared to preserved environments.

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Researcher Camila Lemke - Photo: Acervo IPê

Northern communities are trained to monitor butterflies

By having a more captivating look, with different shapes of wings, colors and sizes, butterflies can be attractive for environmental education and community involvement. This is what Camila Lemke, a biologist and researcher for the “Participatory Monitoring of Biodiversity” project, at the Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas (IPÊ) notes.

The project stems from the “Monitora” program, carried out by Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade (ICMBio), [Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation], which regularly monitors species in conservation units (UCs) in the country. Besides, IPÊ Institute also assists 18 UCs in all the states of the North region, except Roraima. The initiative involves communities living in the surrounding areas for monitoring the existing species of fauna and flora. The frugivorous butterflies (which eat fruits) are among them.

More than 500 people from communities neighboring the UCs were trained for learning monitoring protocol. They also received a guide displaying photos and information about the butterfly species.

“This scientific knowledge is just an extra aid, since community monitors already have traditional knowledge, they are already familiar to those butterflies, but they know the ‘popular’ names. Thus, we gather the two types of knowledge to achieve better results”, emphasizes researcher Camila Lemke.

Monitoring results are crucial to guide ICMBio's strategies. According to Lemke, community participation enhances nature conservation. “During this entire nine-year process, we could figure out how intense the engagement of the communities was,” she says.

“Before becoming a monitor, I had no idea what monitoring was, neither did I know the importance of the national park for the maintenance of nature, not only for the preservation of the surrounding community, but also for biodiversity in general, for the entire planet”, states Jeckiel Cássio , who has worked as a monitor at Montanhas do Tumucumaque National Park, in Amapá, since 2014. Although the project was discontinued this year, collaborative monitoring remains via the “Monitora” program, by ICMBio's

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In Carajás, Vale rescues and keeps native bees in a meliponary (a collection of beehives) for later reintroduction to nature - Photo: Marcio Nagano

Two-thirds of food crops depend on bees

Likewise butterflies, bees are responsible for pollination in nature, taking pollen grains from the place where they are produced (anthers) to the reproductive system of the same flower or of another flower from the same species. According to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), about 90% of the world's wild flowering plant species depend totally or partially on animal pollination. In addition, according to the organization, the impacts are perceived in agricultural production: two thirds of food crops depend on bees, as pollination is essential for the production of food, such as soy and cotton.

Bees are also important partners in areas where there has been previous human intervention and are currently undergoing forest recovery. That is why mining company Vale, in Parauapebas, Southeastern of Pará, rescues native bees from a forest area before starting the mining activity and keeps them in a meliponary (a collection of beehives) for later reintroduction to nature. In the areas of recovered mining sites, where there was mining practices in the past, but which are now undergoing reforestation, the role of bees is considered essential. “We are currently keeping the bees in the hives so they don't stop their routine. Soon, we will take them to a reforestation area and they will help a lot to grow plants, and as a result, other animals that eat fruit will be attracted”, previews Sérgio Souza Jr., environmental coordinator at Vale.

Income generation combined with preservation

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Alice de Queiroz is a founding member and president of Filhas do Mel - Photo: Marcio Nagano

In Parauapebas (PA), families are changing their lives after realizing that taking care of bees can mean both the preservation of the environment, as well as an opportunity to generate income. Filhas do Mel da Amazônia Association, founded in 2012, now includes 29 families that work with beekeeping (breeding stinging bees) and Meliponiculture (breeding stingless bees).

Alice de Queiroz is a founding member and president of the Association and has become a reference in the community due to her performance. “In beekeeping, we observe a lot and we get close to the bees in an incredible way. They like environments full of plant diversity, and as we are used to this, we even know which flower they prefer”, she ponders.

Osvalinda Sacramento joined the Association less than a year ago. She has been a seamstress  all her life long and was planning to retire, when she found beekeeping to be a therapeutic activity. “I liked it a lot, I'm very happy with my bees. It combined usefulness and joy: my husband was unemployed, and I was looking for another type of activity”, she says.

Since 2017, the Association has received support from the Vale company, which provides equipment and technical support for beekeeping. At that time, the total volume of honey production per families was of 1.7 tons. In comparison, only in the first half of this year the group has already reached the production of 9 tons. Honey is sold in the city, in other municipalities, and is exported outside the state of Pará.

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Project Native Bees for Amazonian Cities performs various activities in public spaces - Photo: Thiago Gomes

Educational spaces stimulate the interest of the population

Actions and educational spaces in cities are ways to raise awareness of the urban public to the protection of insects. Targeting this proposal, the project “Abelhas Nativas para Cidades Amazônicas” [Native Bees for Amazonian Cities] was created. It is an initiative carried out by  13 people, including university students, biologists, beekeepers, agronomists and other professionals, carrying itinerant awareness activities in Belém (PA).

The project is sponsored by Banco da Amazônia and the Federal Government, through a public notice, and performs various activities in public spaces in order to draw the attention of the population, such as exposition of bee species, honey tasting from stingless bees and paintings for children. “The reception from the public has been awesome. Children, adults, elderly people, young people, all age groups, showed that they wanted to learn more”, points out Lucas Bernardes, a biology student and member of the project.

One of the spaces that hosted the itinerant activities was Mangal das Garças Zoobotanical Park, in Belém (PA), where José Márcio Ayres Reserve, known as the “borboletário” [butterfly center] is located, gathering more than 3,000 butterflies. The ticket to access the butterfly center costs R$ 7.00 Reais (R$ 3.50 for students).