Insect ecology is a field which focuses on the study of the interaction between insects and the environment. While laypeople may think of insects primarily in the form of irritating bugs like mosquitoes which ruin an evening barbecue, insects are actually very important to the natural environment, and they play a number of roles in the environment, from angel to villain. Several disciplines are brought together in insect ecology, including entomology, ecology, and microbiology.
Insects are a critical part of the circle of life in the environment. When animals and plants die, several important insect species start the process of breaking down the organic material so that it can be digested by even smaller bacteria and fungi. Insects also act as pollinators, ensuring the survival of plant species, and they can play a more menacing role as vectors for disease. Insects can even help in criminal investigations.
Researchers who work in the field of insect ecology study insect life and look at the normal balance of insects in a number of natural environments. Insect ecologists can identify disruptions in the environment by looking for unusual characteristics in insect populations, such as a very high number of mosquitoes, or suspiciously reduced numbers of bees. They also study the complex interconnected relationships between insects and the environment, and the ways in which insects actually build their environment, ranging from the massive termite mounds which can shape a landscape to evolutionary adaptations in plants which are designed to attract pollinators.
Insect ecology can include the study of insect behavior, the impact of human activities on insect populations and the ecosystem at large, the role of insects in human history, and what happens when insects are absent from an environment. Insect ecologists are also interested in issues like controlling dangerous insects, identifying and studying insects which carry disease, and the impact of introduced non-native insect species on the environment.
A lot of field work is involved in insect ecology, with researchers traveling to sites of interest to make observations and collect samples. Researchers also work in the lab, studying insects in controlled circumstances and conducting tests. Insect ecologists can work for government agencies, environmental organizations, and private companies, performing a variety of tasks from surveying insect populations in endangered ecosystems to helping pharmaceutical companies develop drugs which are designed to kill parasites in mosquitoes before they get a chance to enter the human body.