Ecology Terrestrial Insect Ecology
Simon Leather
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0184


The study of insects is not confined solely to entomologists. Insects provide a relatively easy way to study fundamental ecological questions. Many influential early ecologists, theoretical and empirical, were entomologists. Insect ecology is a well-established discipline, developed by applied entomologists working in the pre-pesticide era who needed to better understand the ecology of insect pests to protect crops. Ecologists studying terrestrial insects have made numerous significant contributions to both applied and theoretical studies in ecology, as well as to other biological sciences. Terrestrial insects have a huge impact on human society, both as crop, veterinary, and human pests and as disease vectors. In addition, they are an essential part of the ecosystem as detritivores, scavengers, pollinators, and biological control agents. They also play a major role in human medicine, in recreational hobbies, and in the arts as well as providing direct aesthetic benefits. Terrestrial insects, like their freshwater counterparts, are also used by conservation biologists as indicators of ecosystem health or biodiversity. Terrestrial insect populations and communities make excellent models for basic ecological studies because they are present in virtually every habitat on the planet, including the Antarctic, and they fill every feeding guild in a community. The importance of their ecological roles—how they influence ecosystem processes and functions such as decomposition, primary production, and nutrient cycling—has been overshadowed since the 1990s as the focus shifted onto large charismatic megafauna. There are, however, welcome signs that this trend is being reversed.

General Overviews

The twenty years prior to Peter Price’s highly acclaimed and influential book in 1975, featured a lack of authoritative overviews. Price has not been updated since its 3rd edition (Price 1997), but Schowalter 2016 is a worthy successor, now in its 4th edition. The volume follows an ecosystem approach. A number of other texts have addressed specific areas of insect ecology. They include overwintering (Leather, et al. 1993), dispersal (Zera and Denno 1997 [cited under Migration and Dispersal]), predator-prey dynamics (Dixon 2000), and the effects of alien species on insect conservation (New 2016). An excellent, although now somewhat dated, review of the nutritional ecology of immature insects is Scriber and Slansky 1981, while Schoonhoven, et al. 2006 adopts a more ecological approach, considering both immature and adult stages.

  • Dixon, A. F. G. 2000. Insect predator-prey dynamics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    This book adopts an original approach of examining predator-prey dynamics using one taxonomic group, the ladybird beetles, with the emphasis firmly on their efficacy (or lack of) as biological control agents.

  • Leather, Simon R., Keith F. A. Walters, and Jeffrey S. Bale. 1993. The ecology of insect overwintering. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511525834Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This remains the only book that looks at the ecological implications of the physiological responses of insects to winter. Up until the publication of this text, the study of insect overwintering by physiologists was firmly entrenched in laboratory studies and short-term responses and lacked a basis in reality. Studies now take into account both aspects of overwintering.

  • New, Tim R. 2016. Alien species and insect conservation. Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-38774-1Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In this volume the significance of alien species to insect conservation, and the diversity and impacts of alien species, is covered. The book has chapters on ecological and evolutionary consequences of invasive species, namely the impact of alien insects on insect conservation and also of alien plants on native insects. The book covers all forms of biological control, from classical through neoclassical to conservation, in meticulous detail.

  • Price, Peter W. 1997. Insect ecology. 3d ed. Wiley.

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    When it was first published in 1975, this landmark book was the first comprehensive overview of insect ecology to have been published in twenty years. Originally written as a text for advanced undergraduates and graduate students, it is still an incredibly useful source of explanation and inspiration.

  • Schoonhoven, Louis M., Joop J. A. van Loon, and Marcel Dicke. 2006. Insect-plant biology. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    A comprehensive overview of insect interactions with host plants, this book, mirroring the expertise of its authors, adopts a physiological approach to the subject. Although some areas are treated fairly superficially, it is still a very useful book and has an excellent appendix on methodology.

  • Schowalter, Timothy. 2016. Insect ecology: An ecosystem approach. 4th ed. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

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    This book covers insect ecology, integrating two approaches traditionally used to study insect ecology: evolutionary and ecosystem. According to the publisher the intended audience is “Primarily professional entomologists, ecologists and others with an interest in how insects engineer our global ecosystem, as well as how they respond to environmental changes.” Available online for purchase.

  • Scriber, J. M., and F. Slansky. 1981. The nutritional ecology of immature insects. Annual Review of Entomology 26:183–211.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.en.26.010181.001151Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This excellent review focuses on the physiology of larval insect nutrition with a definition of food quality, a summary of the indexes used to measure nutritional efficiency, and a discussion of the interactions among leaf water, nitrogen content, and secondary chemistry. There is also a useful review of the disadvantages and advantages of adopting a specialist or generalist diet. Available online for purchase.

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