I’m Thankful for Arthropods

Last year I posted some recipes for people to add to their Thanksgiving dinners, which I received mixed feedback about. Apparently not everyone likes the idea of putting a deep-fried tarantula in their mouth.

I know, right? I was surprised, too.

Anyway, this year I figured I’d post something really unique and original to celebrate the holiday: a list of things I’m thankful for. All right, I know that’s not the most creative idea in the world, but part of the reason why I started this blog in the first place was to give credit where credit is due for the tiny animals we often take for granted. So, without further ado, here are the top five arthropods I’m thankful for:

Katya on Flickr

5. Mulch Lobsters

Roly polies, pill bugs, woodlice… whatever you call ’em, there’s a reason the very first ArthroBlogger post was about mulch lobsters. I’ve loved these little crustaceans ever since I can remember, and what’s not to love? They don’t bite, sting or pinch, they recycle nutrients in your garden, and they curl up like teensy armadillos when they get scared (shoot – I should’ve called them lobsterdillos). You have to go all the way to the beach to see most crustaceans, but with this one God was like “let’s put them everywhere there’s dirt so kids can play with them.” And I am so thankful for that.

terry priest on Flickr

4. Fireflies

You may also know these insects as “lightbulb beetles” if you’ve been reading since the beginning. Another arthropod that seems to have been created specifically for the bliss of children, fireflies leave nothing to be desired. These little beetles are the torch-bearers (pun intended) of summertime: there’s absolutely nothing like the joy of chasing after fireflies at dusk, or falling asleep watching a jar of them flicker on your nightstand. Even now, whenever I cross paths with fireflies, I can’t help but smile at their blinking bulbs and reminisce about summer nights. I will always be thankful for fireflies and the memories that come with them.

Ryan McMinds on Flickr

3. Sand Fiddlers

Sometimes I can resist the urge to wander after fireflies, but spotting a sand fiddler chasing the tide out or wriggling into the sand never fails to unleash my inner child. Not only do sand fiddlers take me back to the days when my cousin and I would catch them together at the beach, but they’re just so funny to me now that I know what I always thought was their butt is actually their face.

No offense to the sand fiddlers, of course. I just always thought they dug into the sand headfirst like everyone else, but these little goofballs like to go in backwards so they can filter feed particles from the water as it washes over them. You have to admit, though, sand fiddlers peeking their little faces out from the sand is a much cuter thing to observe than thinking they just faceplanted into the ground and left their tushies exposed to the elements. They’re not moon fiddlers, after all. Although, fireflies are sometimes called moon bugs… can’t imagine why…

So yeah, I’m thankful for these backwards little crabs. They make me laugh, they remind me of my family and our time together at the beach, and they give me a little burst of excitement every time I see them as my inner seven year old takes the reins and sends me clamoring to catch them before they can disappear into the surf. Plus they feed other animals I like, like ghost crabs and sandpipers. These little buttheads are the best.

Larry Lamsa on Flickr

2. Horseshoe Crabs

This entry is less random than it may seem. On one hand, I love horseshoe crabs (or turtle spiders) for their unique design and for hilariously not being crabs, or even members of Crustacea. On the other, I also appreciate their contributions to the medical community. Thanks to amoebocytes in their bloodstream that identify the presence of harmful bacteria, turtle spiders’ peculiar blue blood has been used since the 1970s to ensure that medications are sanitary before being administered to patients. Horseshoe crabs have thus not only prevented countless infections and deaths over the decades, but their blood has even been used to prevent bacteria from contaminating COVID-19 vaccines! If that’s not something to be thankful for, I don’t know what is.

Thomas Shahan on Flickr

1. Jumping Spiders

I’m thankful for many spiders, but jumping spiders are definitely my faves for their adorable faces, fancy colors, and phenomenal dance moves. Again, God didn’t have to create dancing spiders and bedazzle them in beautiful acrylics, but He did, and that is so awesome!

Just watching the antics of a jumping spider alone is pure bliss, but these tiny performers are also important predators that keep your home and garden free of pesky insects. In fact, I’m not quite sure you understand the magnitude of what spiders in general do for us: according to this website, we’d all starve to death without spiders because the insects they normally dispose of for us would instead dispose of all our crops. So I’d say it’s particularly timely to be thankful for these little hunters on a day largely dedicated to eating. Plus the planet would literally be crawling with those less-adorable insects, at which point even I could say “ew.”

There are so many more arthropods I could have mentioned here but didn’t have the time to. Bees, of course – I’m super grateful for them and all the other pollinating insects, but I think they’re some of the few arthropods who actually do get a lot of credit for their work. I’m also grateful for ants, crayfish, shrimp, dragonflies, luna moths, hermit crabs… there are so many unique arthropods on the planet who all deserve a round of applause, whether for delighting us with their presence or for working in the background to keep our ecosystems healthy. And us healthy! Horseshoe crabs and spiders aside, we’d be in a rough spot without so many of the other arthropods who eat things that would harm us, help plants and animals that we need, or have provided other insights into a variety of scientific avenues.

Arthropods are definitely an integral part of the biosphere, but they’re also living works of art: jaws drop at the flap of a butterfly’s wings, the emergence of a colorful crab from its burrow, the unexpected presence of a mantis on the sidewalk. Arthropods aren’t just nasty bugs eating nasty things – they’re tiny yet intricately designed organisms crafted to fulfill breathtaking tasks in breathtaking ways, sometimes right in our own backyards.

Remember to thank God for these remarkable little animals today. And maybe tomorrow, too. And of course on Thanksgiving. Just give Him a little praise the next time one of His little creations does something that surprises you – if you’re looking, that may happen more often than you’d think.

Dashing Tiger Beetles

Have you ever thought about how often beetles get named after other animals? There’s the rhinoceros beetle, giraffe weevil, stag beetle… Then again, there are so many beetle species out there that I’d be surprised to find something that doesn’t have a beetle named after it. There’s a fun game to play when you’re bored: just type “______ beetle” into Google and see if it exists. I just typed in “watermelon beetle” – apparently they’re real and they look like this:

A watermelon beetle by johnvillella on Flickr

Rather than watermelon beetles, today we’re going to discuss tiger beetles, which stand out in the beetle world not so much for their animal-based name but rather for their incredible speed. Which means it is a crime that they aren’t called cheetah beetles (I checked, that name isn’t taken yet).

Meet Cicindela hudsoni, a shimmering green tiger beetle and arguably the fastest animal on the planet. Obviously a cheetah or even a squirrel would beat this tiny beetle in a race, but taking its small stature into account, no one beats this speedy arthropod in terms of its size to speed ratio. C. hudsoni charges its prey at over 5 miles per hour, which is basically the same as you booking it 480mph after the ice cream truck. Another smaller tiger cheetah beetle, Cicindela eburneola, can run at speeds of over 4 miles per hour, which is also impressive considering that it’s smaller than C. hudsoni. In fact, these beetles are so fast that their eyes don’t have enough time to take in the light around them when they sprint, so they have to charge at their meals blind. In all other instances, however, cheetah beetles do have impressive eyesight.

At over 2600 species, cheetah beetles are found all around the globe in a variety of habitats and climates, mostly ranging from deserts to woodland areas. They also prey on a wide variety of other arthropods: basically, if it moves and it’s small enough to be eaten, these guys will eat it. As if their overpowering speed weren’t enough to incapacitate prey on impact, cheetah beetles also possess a powerful set of mandibles that allow them to crush their quarry with ease. So “tiger” wasn’t really too far off the mark.

While it would have been cool if they were spotted or striped like their big cat namesakes, cheetah beetles still sport beautiful, shimmering exoskeletons that earned their subfamily the name Cicindelinae, a combination of Latin roots meaning “glow worm” and “shine.” So not only can cheetah beetles take down prey in a matter of seconds, but they look good doing it.

A dazzling cheetah beetle captured by Nick Goodrum on Flickr

Cheetah beetle larvae may not be as colorful as their parents, but they’re arguably more formidable. Unlike the more active adults, cheetah beetle larvae are ambush predators that hide near the surface of their underground burrows, waiting to clamp their mandibles around any arthropods that wander too close. After a period of up to four years, the cheetah beetle larva will block up its burrow entrance to pupate in peace. Then, after a few weeks, the adult cheetah beetle will emerge to spend the rest of its days (several weeks to several months) wreaking havoc on its fellow arthropods.

Although intimidating to smaller insects, cheetah beetles are nothing to fear for us humans and are actually pretty great to have around. They obviously get rid of a ton of garden pests on the daily, but they also feed other important members of their communities like dragonflies, toads and spiders. Due to their specific needs for burrowing as larvae and maintaining a healthy body temperature, cheetah beetles are also important bioindicator animals that can be studied to assess the health of their habitats.

As mentioned previously, cheetah beetles are pretty widespread, so they’re not uncommon to spot if you know what you’re looking for. The best places to find cheetah beetles are open, sandy areas, or sunny areas around bodies of water. Most cheetah beetles are diurnal, so you’re most likely to see them in the heat of the day from late spring to early fall depending on where you live. Keep an eye out for a shiny insect running around a lot, and try not to spook it with your shadow. It won’t attack you unless you attack it, but it’ll probably fly away if it gets startled.

Just be aware that the cheetah beetle you’re observing might run into you on accident because, you know, the whole running-blind thing. Poor cheetah beetles. They don’t tell you about the downsides to superspeed in the comics.

In Defense of Mosquitoes

An impressive shot of a mosquito by Tom on Flickr

Have you ever wondered what binds humanity together? I mean, besides the simple stuff like sharing a planet and whatnot. What’s the one cause or concept we can all rally behind?

The answer, of course, would be our undying hatred of mosquitoes.

I mean, duh.

Mosquitoes are just the worst, and they have been for a long, long time. For an animal with a measly lifespan of not quite two months, it’s crazy to think about how much mayhem they’ve caused en masse. These ugly insects are responsible for countless epidemics throughout history and today, spreading diseases like yellow fever, Zika virus, malaria, dengue, West Nile virus, and more. Mosquito-borne diseases have even influenced the outcomes of major wars, relentlessly crippling infected armies and in some instances being used in biological warfare. Mosquitoes are still responsible for more than 1 million deaths each year, leading this article to label them the “world’s deadliest animal.”

To make matters worse, mosquitoes breed wherever there’s water, so they’re basically unavoidable. At home we used to dump rainwater out of whatever objects would collect it in our yard, but I don’t know why we bothered – there’s a pond right around the block from my house, so every summer inevitably brings with it a wave of those ugly dipterans. And thus a ton of my summertime memories are tinged with the scent of bug-spray.

Mosquitoes definitely outrank ticks and clutter cats as my least favorite arthropods of all time. Why, then, did I decide to write a post about them? Because I honestly believe that every living thing is here for a reason, and I’ve been curious for a long time as to what could possibly be the reason for these nasty dudes. One can’t deny the significance of their historical and modern impact on humanity, but are there any benefits to having them around? I did know previously that they’re a popular prey item of dragonflies, but I figured there had to be more than just that. I mean, dragonflies are super cool, but are they really worth mosquitoes?

Well, for one, mosquitoes do feed more than just dragonflies. As both larvae and adults, mosquitoes are popular prey items of fish, bats, spiders, birds, and other animals. In fact, eating mosquitoes is one attribute that shines a positive light on bats, frequently misunderstood animals that are much more important than they’re often given credit for. Bats eat substantial amounts of mosquitoes and other pesky insects nightly, and in some areas they pollinate economically valuable crops. Bats are also crucial pollinators for flowering plants that bloom at night rather than during the day, not to mention that their famous superpower (echolocation) helped inspire the creation of ultrasound and sonar technology. By siding with humans against mosquitoes, the often unappreciated bat draws positive attention to itself and fills its belly at the same time.

Some mosquitoes contribute to their ecosystems as pollinators as well, and mosquito larvae eat “microscopic organic matter,” which keeps the various bodies of water they inhabit a little bit cleaner. Nevertheless, this insect’s most important role is definitely that of being food for other animals. Aside from comprising a sizable but replaceable portion of the diets of the organisms listed above, a few animals including mosquitofish rely heavily on mosquitoes as the bulk of their sustenance and would likely go extinct without them.

People have been trying to eradicate mosquitoes forever, but insecticides and other measures targeted at mosquitoes often impact innocent and more important plants and animals in the process. That said, it’s nice to know that mosquitoes aren’t entirely pointless, or it’d be a bit more disheartening that we haven’t figured out how to get rid of them by now. And who knows – maybe years from now someone will discover some super crucial thing that only mosquitoes do, and we’ll realize they were important after all. Either way, messing with the environment in such an extreme manner as eradicating the entire Culicidae family is bound to have unforeseen consequences.

In conclusion, I still don’t like mosquitoes, but I can admit that they aren’t worthless. They’re ugly, annoying disease vectors, but for better or worse, they’re strung into a vast array of food webs around the globe as pollinators, detritivores, and quarry.

So the next time a horde of mosquitoes plagues your neighborhood, take solace in the fact that even if you’re miserable, the local bats are thriving.

Top Ten Cutest Insects

October is definitely one of my favorite months of the year. Aside from fall leaves and cooler weather, I especially love Halloween and all the fun things that come with it: Halloween movies, the decorations, “Thriller” and “Monster Mash” on the radio, carving pumpkins… however, this is the worst time of year to be an arthropod. Spiders, flies, clutter cats and more are treated even worse than usual as seasonal movies and decorations prey on people’s fears and misconceptions.

Well, if you’re looking to get spooked you’ll have to check out a different blog, because today “The ArthroBlogger” is fighting back against insect stereotypes. We’re going to show the world that insects, far from being creepy monsters, are actually beautiful and sometimes even adorable animals who deserve a bit more love and respect. So, without further ado, these are (in my opinion) the top ten cutest insects:

Katja Schulz on Flickr

10. Velvet Ants

These flightless wasps (not actually ants) are so cute that it’s a crime we can’t cuddle them. Unfortunately, if you were to try and give these little wasps a gentle pat on the head, they’d probably turn around at repay you with a remarkably painful sting. Fortunately, male velvet ants wasps can’t sting, but they actually have wings and would probably fly away before you got the chance to pet them. Why, velvet wasps? Why won’t you let us love you?!

Frank Vassen on Flickr

9. Giraffe Weevils

This little guy looks like a cherry come to life! The only thing cuter than its vibrant carapace and comically long neck is the fact that this little beetle is not even an inch in length. It’s like a baby cherry come to life! And they’re sweet like cherries, too: father giraffe weevils roll leaves into swaddles for their mates to lay each of their eggs in. You can’t tell me that’s not cute.

Zleng on Flickr

8. Lantern Bugs

Look at this dude. I don’t know whether to admire his colors or laugh at his epic nose. It’s actually more accurate to call that a snout, because the lantern bug uses it to drink sap. Unfortunately, lantern bugs don’t actually glow like fireflies, but I still think that boopable snoot makes them pretty adorable.

Katja Schulz on Flickr

7. Saddleback Caterpillars

It kinda looks like the footstool from Beauty and the Beast. Need I say more?

Katja Schulz on Flickr

6. Whirligig Beetles

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about whirligig beetles on this blog, but to refresh your memory: they wear bubble scuba tanks, they smell like apples, and they like to spin around in circles really fast. In other words, they’re the highlight of any trip to the lake.

Andy Murray on Flickr

5. Leafhopper Nymphs

Look at this smol bean! It’s like if a sand fiddler and a cicada had a baby! Leafhopper adults are also quite cute, but this… this is hard to top.

Danny Chapman on Flickr

4. Bumblebees

The whole genus of bumblebees (Bombus) takes this spot. It’s too hard to pick just one species – they’re all so stinkin’ cute! For one, they’re obviously quite fluffy, which is never not cute. They’re also important pollinators that tote pollen around in little pollen baskets (pollen baskets!) on their legs. Plus, they’re super friendly: a bumblebee landed on my Peanuts t-shirt the day I wrote this post, and we had a nice little heart-to-heart moment as the bee tried to figure out if Woodstock was a flower and I resisted the urge to pet it.

Brian Tomlinson on Flickr

3. Damselflies

That face just exudes pure bliss. Dragonflies (suborder Anisoptera) may be some of the coolest insects out there, but the damselfly (suborder Zygoptera) is definitely one of the cutest. With their wide-set eyes and bright, beautiful colors, the damselfly stands out from the crowd and can’t help but make bystanders say “aww!” as it flits by.

Lee Bonnifield on Flickr

2. Luna Moths

I don’t call ’em pie fairies for nothing – these key lime cuties are one of my favorite lepidopterans for several reasons, including their gorgeous wings and the fact that we’re both North Carolina natives. And, as of about a month ago, I finally saw one in person! I was pretty beside myself to say the least.

Joseph Gage on Flickr

1. Woolly Worms

Where to begin with woolly worms? These caterpillars are so amazing they’ve got a whole festival named after them: the Wooly Worm Festival in Banner Elk, NC! It’s a super fun two-day event that happens every October (October 16 and 17 this year), where you can peruse handmade art, gorge yourself on fried Oreos, and race woolly worms up a string against fellow festival-goers for a cash prize! Whether you win or lose, you’re free to release your worms, pass them on to someone else, or bring them home with you as a pet – which is how I got my own woolly worms, Willy and Cocoa (don’t judge the names, I was ten)! I ended up releasing them in my backyard eventually, but they were perfectly content eating apple slices and hanging out in my room for a couple months following the festival. So, because I was able to see their adorable antics up close for an extended period of time, I can scientifically deduce that woolly worms are the cutest insects of all. They’re Halloween colored, they curl into little balls, they’re fuzzy… I could go on and on, these guys are the best.

So, rather than spending your time grossing yourself out with crude plastic insects this October (I’m not even going to address the anatomically inaccurate skeleton-spider abominations at Target), maybe take a weekend trip to Banner Elk and try your hand racing woolly worms! Arthropods aside, nothing beats the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the fall.

Please Don’t Mess with Bullet Ants

An unassuming but frightfully armed bullet ant from the EOL Learning and Education Group’s Flickr page

As both a Marvel and ant enthusiast, I’m a huge fan of Ant-Man. I love the movie’s humor and fantastic visual effects, but one of my favorite aspects has to be the way the protagonists utilize the strengths of different ant species: Scott Lang (Ant-Man) flies around on carpenter ant swarmers, rides a raft of fire ants, and of course incapacitates foes with the incredibly painful stings of bullet ants. I’d actually never heard of bullet ants before watching this movie, so I was curious to see whether or not those intimidating insects actually existed.

They do, hence this post. Although it would be interesting to do a post on fictional arthropods in the future, today is not that day.

As mentioned in the movie, bullet ants are ranked on the Schmidt Pain Index as having the most painful sting of any insect, sharing the high ranking of 4 with the infamous tarantula hawk wasp and warrior wasp. While each of these insects can cause downright agony, what sets them apart is the duration of the pain they inflict.

The warrior wasp’s sting dissipates after a couple hours, and you’d only have to endure that of the tarantula hawk wasp for about five minutes. However, the bullet ant packs a punch that torments its poor victims for up to 24 hours, hence it’s nickname “the 24-hour ant” in Venezuela. Better yet, a bullet ant will release chemicals when it stings that alert more ants to attack as well, exponentially increasing the victim’s suffering. Unsurprisingly, the bullet ant’s sting has been compared to the sensation of being shot, so we’ve stumbled across another surprisingly well-named arthropod. The stings are fortunately not fatal, but they do cause nausea, temporary paralysis, and involuntary shaking, among other symptoms. No, thank you.

If you live in the rainforest regions of Central America or South America, be sure to stay aware of your surroundings (heh, like you need me to tell you that – I don’t know for sure who has the scariest arthropods, but it’s definitely the American rainforests or Australia). Bullet ants build their colonies at the bases of trees but may climb high into the foliage in search of food, so leaning absentmindedly against the wrong tree trunk could be quite painful.

Fortunately, these terrifying ants don’t seek out people intentionally and won’t attack as long as they’re left alone. They’d actually prefer to spend their days sipping nectar, munching on smaller insects, and dealing with more pressing matters like fending off parasitic phorid flies and, well, each other. Like many ant species, bullet ants often go to war with other ant colonies.

Aside from inducing excruciating pain, bullet ants are also known for being some of the world’s biggest ants at about 1.2 inches in length. This is only a fraction smaller than the world’s largest ants, of the genus Dinoponera, which average about 1.5 inches. Interestingly, while the queen ant is typically much larger than the other ants in her colony, queen bullet ants are relatively similar in size to their workers. Thank goodness – with the size of normal bullet ants being what it is, their queen could have been hamster sized or something terrifying like that if they outgrew their subjects like normal.

…Okay, probably they probably wouldn’t be that big, but I’m sure their stature would still have been unsettling for such an already formidable insect. Yeesh.

You know what insect needs to enter the MCU in the next Ant-Man and the Wasp movie? Panda ants. Panda ants aren’t really true ants but rather an adorable species of wasp whose females are wingless (but not stingless) and bear markings that make them resemble panda bears. However, now that the Wasp has made her official movie debut, I think a case can be made for these cuddly insects (not actually cuddly, will sting you, do not touch) to join in on the action.

Imagine this: a tiny superhero riding into battle on the back of a mulch lobster, commanding an army of panda ants. Who wouldn’t want to watch that movie?

Crane Flies Are Not Mosquitoes

You may think the crane fly has a strange appearance, but you can’t deny that its wings look absolutely stunning in this shot I took outside a movie theater last summer

Crane flies go by many different names. Some call them giant mosquitoes, some call them mosquito hawks. Some even call them granddaddy longlegs, even though that nickname clearly belongs to harvestmen. Most of my encounters with these gangly insects have been specifically around bunkbeds at summer camps, where they are often referred to as “aaAAH! IS THAT A MOSQUITO?? KILL IT, KILL IT, KILL IT!”

In other words, crane flies get a lot of undeserved hate. For one, they are NOT mosquitoes and will NOT suck your blood. In fact, crane flies won’t bite you for any reason at all because they simply can’t: adult crane flies, like several other arthropods we’ve discussed previously, do not eat. Sometimes they’ll sip on nectar, but that’s about it. What all these adult insects have against food I do not know, but I suppose it keeps them focused on the task of mating and laying eggs. Crane flies in particular can lay up to 300 eggs in a matter of days. You can tell male and female crane flies apart because females have larger abdomens that end in a pointed ovipositor, which resembles a stinger but is actually for laying eggs.

Like their smaller lookalikes, crane flies belong to the fly order, Diptera. They’re not as common indoors as house flies, but you can find them on outer walls or near windows. Outside, crane flies frequent moist areas with plenty of plant life and can often be found near bodies of water. Before losing the ability to eat in adulthood, crane fly larvae are detritivores that feed on decaying plants, among other things.

Crane fly larvae can live in terrestrial or aquatic habitats depending on the species, and are collectively referred to as leatherjackets in reference to their tough exoskeletons. Which means I now feel compelled to buy them tiny motorcycles. Sigh… If only they had hands… and feet… and tiny roads to drive on…

Despite their gangly appearance as adulthoods, leatherjackets lack legs entirely and instead wriggle around like worms. They do have little tentacle-like protrusions on the ends of their abdomens though, which they can extend if they feel threatened, such as if someone tries to pick them up. It’s an odd reflex, sure, but if something started elongating itself when I picked it up I’d probably drop it really fast. In the world of arthropods, sometimes being weird is what keeps you alive.

Leatherjackets undergo four instars, or molts, before pupating. They typically live in moist areas near bodies of water in the pupa stage, which lasts only one to two weeks. Then it’s off to mating, laying eggs, and maybe sipping a little nectar if time allows, as the adult crane flies have mere days to live.

Adult crane flies are… doing their best. Even with little organs called halteres that help them balance, these gangly insects are notoriously the worst fliers in all Diptera, and their flight patterns are consistently referred to as “wobbly.” I guess those long legs aren’t particularly aerodynamic. Their limbs also break off relatively easily, which may actually be a defense mechanism allowing crane flies to escape from predators.

Although leatherjackets can be pests to some garden plants, crane flies play a vital role in their ecosystems. They serve as a food source for a variety of arthropods and chordates, including fish, dragonfly larvae, spiders, and birds. Additionally, leatherjackets can offer up food besides themselves to their community: also known as “shredders” for their messy eating habits, leatherjackets recklessly tear leaf matter into tiny pieces while they eat, inadvertently making salads for smaller animals to feed on.

Crane flies may be bumbling fliers, and their kids might wreck your flower garden. However, these funky flies definitely do much more good than harm to the environment, providing nourishment for other animals and perhaps pollenating a little along the way.

And remember: they are NOT mosquitoes. Because there’s no way I’m printing out tiny “Hi, My Name is Crane Fly” nametags for the thousands of these insects across the U.S., it’s up to us to correct this case of mistaken identity and spread the word ourselves. Say it loud and say it proud: crane flies are not mosquitoes, and they mean us no harm.

However, their larvae will fix you tiny salads with their mandibles. How sweet.

Beetles, Stars, and Spherical Scat

A dung beetle standing proudly atop his poop ball, courtesy of Andi Gentsch on Flickr

Before today, all you probably knew about dung beetles was that they roll balls of poop. You may not even have known why they roll balls of poop, let alone anything else about these little beetles’ lives.

Well, that all changes right now, starting with the fact that dung beetles only take the time to mold those spheres of scat when they need to move it somewhere. Otherwise, they’ll dig a burrow underneath or inside the poop. That’s actually the equivalent of living in a real gingerbread house for these guys, because dung beetles eat dung.

Well, seeing as there aren’t any toilets in the wild, I guess someone’s got to clean up after everybody. I’m not sure that eating the poop is the best way to go about it, but uh, you do you, dung beetles. As long as there aren’t piles of poop building up everywhere, I’m fine with it. I guess. Ew.

Minus their nasty eating habits, dung beetles are actually great family insects. Some species even mate for life, a rarity in the subphylum famous for beheaded husbands (looking at you, mantises). Most dung beetle moms, and sometimes both parents, take the time to dig nurseries for their young. When the nest is finished and stocked with poop, the mother beetle lays her eggs in little poop swaddles that the larvae will eat through when they hatch.

Dung beetles don’t just gobble down feces willy-nilly, either – they’re actually very picky about what poop they will eat. Different species only consume the poop of certain animals, and even then they only like the fresh stuff rather than hardened pellets. Pickiness comes at a price, however, as dung beetles have to rush in to grab whatever poop they can before other beetles carry it all away. Fights are not uncommon during the poop palooza, either: here’s a video of a couple beetles brawling over a ball of dung. A fresh pile of scat is basically the equivalent of dung beetle Black Friday.

Once the dung beetle has collected its dung and escaped from the crowd, that ball of poop actually serves a few more purposes than just food. For one, many dung beetles live in warm climates where the ground can get a bit too hot for their feet during the day. So, dung beetles will periodically climb up onto their dung ball to cool off. They’ll also stand on the poop at night to gaze at the stars.

No, really, I’m actually serious about that! Dung beetles are one of the only known animals that use the stars to navigate by. Unfortunately, dung beetles spend most of their poop-pushing time staring at the ground, as they have to roll the poop backwards with their hind legs. So, rather than pausing frequently to look up at the sky and thus greatly delaying their ETAs, dung beetles will climb up on the poop and take a mental “snapshot” of the sky. Then, they spin around to get a sense of their current location before hopping down to push their poop balls again, keeping that mental map in mind to make sure they stay on the right course.

…It just occurred to me that poop-eating beetles may be smarter than me. Dung beetles are out there charting their course by the stars like fifteenth-century seafaring explorers, and I have to use Apple Maps to find the Walmart six minutes from my apartment at school.

Dung beetles are so much more than odd little bugs that play with poop. We should recognize them for their more unique and astounding qualities, not their gross but necessary niche! Therefore, I shall henceforth be referring to dung beetles as “star beetles.” There are plenty of bugs that dine on poop, but only a special few take the time to stargaze. While I’ll admit that rolling balls of poop is unique to dung beetles, I think we can agree that their celestial navigation abilities are a bit more impressive.

The Crab and the Fiddle

Scott Akerman on Flickr’s photo of a bustling colony of fiddler crabs

When I was in the fourth grade, my amazing science teacher brought in not one, not two, but dozens of little frogs, fiddler crabs and meal worms to be our temporary class pets. Okay, they were actually there for us to study and do little experiments with, but we would be taking them home at the end of the unit and basically thought of them as pets from the get-go. Most of my friends wanted frogs, but I claimed a little fiddler crab and named her “Speedy.”

I used to think that everyone gave their pets and toys dumb names when they were little, but the number of times my parents have made fun of me for Cowie, Sealy, Giraffy, etc. makes me wonder if that was just a me thing. Hmm… maybe I should give the arthropod-naming people some slack this week, naming animals is harder than I often acknowledge on this blog.

Speaking of naming things, fiddler crabs get their name from the way male crabs seem to hold their larger pincer like a fiddle. I myself would’ve just called them Hey Crabs, because the ones I see in the marsh are always waving their claws up and down like they’re saying “hey” to each other. Interestingly enough, another name for fiddler crabs is “calling crabs,” which I am definitely going to use now.

In actuality, calling crabs are neither making music nor calling to each other when they wave. Instead, they wave to get rivals to back off their turf or beckon potential mates. Male crabs will also use their large claw to fight with one another over burrows or females. While having a long, lightweight claw is ideal for attracting mates, males with heavy claws have the advantage in claw-to-claw combat.

Despite the fact that most calling crabs are just over an inch in length, their burrows can be as deep as two feet! Calling crabs stay inside their burrows during high tide, blocking up the entrance with mud to keep out the water. They can also quickly slip into their burrows during low tide if they spot a predator approaching – or if you get just a little too close for comfort trying to take their picture, as I have learned from experience.

Aside from serving as an escape route, calling crab burrows are thought to aerate the mud in marsh habitats. These tiny crustaceans also contribute to their ecosystems by eating bacteria and algae out of the mud, and serving as food for a variety of larger animals like fish and shorebirds. You can find fiddler crabs in a variety of tidal areas along the coast, including mudflats and saltmarshes.

Calling crabs typically live in large colonies, so if you spot one, you’re sure to find plenty more nearby. Because the house we stay in is on the sound, my family and I run into calling crab colonies all the time during our annual beach trip: we might kayak around a corner and see a whole city of fiddler crabs waving at us from under someone’s dock. Of course, they all disappear into their burrows the second you get close enough for a good picture, but they’re still fun to admire from a distance.

Did you know calling crabs use their little claws like sporks to scoop food out of the mud and bring it to their mouths? Because males have one big, fancy claw and only one little claw, it takes them twice as long to eat as females. As Larry the Cucumber would say, “fashion has its price” (if y’all don’t know what VeggieTales is, click that hyperlink for a “sweet and sour half an hour” of high-quality children’s programming).

While Speedy was a fun pet, I don’t know that I would keep a fiddler crab again. She had sand and saltwater, and the terrarium I got her in was about the size of the one she had in the classroom, but looking back I think she was probably lonely without the rest of her colony. Calling crabs are social crustaceans that need others to, you know, call to.

In other words, if I ever decided to get fiddler crabs again, it will be fiddler crabs, plural. These guys would really fare best left in their natural habitat, but if the opportunity ever arises for me to adopt a colony of fifty calling crabs or whatever, you would find me converting the living room into a mini marsh in a heartbeat.

Termites or Beaver Ants?

Before today, I knew literally nothing about termites except that they eat wood and build giant castles (I’ll come back to that later). I didn’t even know what they look like; I’ve only ever seen them in cartoons in which they didn’t even have the right number of appendages.

Well, feast your eyes, everyone. This is what termites look like:

Courtesy of Aleksey Gnilenkov on Flickr

If I’m being honest, they kinda look like those helicopter seeds that fall off of maple trees slowly metamorphizing into ants. But, since “metamorphizing seed-ants” doesn’t have a great ring to it, I’m going to call them beaver ants instead. Because beavers also eat wood. I mean they at least chew on wood, they eat the bark off and stuff…

Okay, whatever, beavers don’t actually eat the wood, but you get the point.

Although ants belong to the order Hymenoptera and termites are members of Blattodea, these two insects do share some similarities. That said, I feel like I use ants and lobsters as comparison points for other arthropods a lot, but lobsters are basically The ArthroBlogger’s mascot at this point and, well, I like ants. If you’re reading a bug blog you probably like ants too, so we’re going to talk about ants again.

Termites and ants both have very similar colony breakdowns: each colony has a queen who is larger than all the other colony members and is responsible for laying eggs. In addition, both ants and termites might be either workers or soldiers. Workers in ant and termite colonies keep the colony clean and stocked with food, and also take care of the colony’s young. In fact, both ant and termite workers are adept agriculturalists: while ants are known to herd aphids and other insects for their honeydew, termites cultivate fungi that can convert their food into more nutritious forms (I knew wood couldn’t be all that special on its own). Soldier ants and termites are often bigger than the workers and are in charge of protecting the colony from predators and other threats. Both ant and termite colonies can also send out flying swarmers to start new colonies of their own.

Ants and termites not only share similar colony roles, but the physical structure of both insect kingdoms are a sight to behold (unless you have a termite infestation, then you’d probably rather not behold them). While most ants build impressive labyrinths underground, some termites construct massive, chimney-like mounds of dirt that can reach up to 30 feet in the air! Keep in mind your average termite is less than an inch long. While the termite colony itself is actually located underground, the mounds circulate air by cycling oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out of the colony as the mound warms and cools throughout the day.

A massive termite mound photographed by librarianidol on Flickr. Fortunately, these are not the kinds of termite colonies that develop in your house – that could be an issue.

Apparently the ants aren’t too happy with the termite’s massive mounds making their ant hills look like puny piles of dirt (which, to be fair, they are). In fact, ants and termites are sworn enemies known for their battle-to-the-death-on-sight relationship. Unfortunately, siding with the termites means rooting for the underdogs: while termites are bigger than ants, that’s really their only advantage during a colony invasion. Ant invaders typically outnumber their termite foes and are much more combative. If the termites can seal off all the entrances leading to their queen’s chamber before the ants get in, then the colony lives to fight another day. However, if the ants capture the queen and carry her off to be eaten, then the colony will soon die off no matter how many other termites survive.

Just because they’re divided into groups like “workers” and “soldiers” doesn’t mean that termites are mindless drones bent on doing their jobs and nothing more. In fact, termites are quite social individuals that groom each other frequently to keep the colony clean and healthy. Additionally, since soldiers and swarmers are unable to eat on their own, worker termites take the time to feed their friends mother bird style – it may be gross, but at least it keeps everyone’s bellies full.

Speaking of eating, why do termites eat wood? The answer is that they’re actually after cellulose, which all you biology students will recognize as an important polysaccharide found in the cell walls of plants. Unfortunately, termites that have invaded your home may also burrow through the nonorganic substances standing between them and their cellulose dinner, such as furniture coverings and insulation. While difficult to spot, one common sign of a termite infestation other than seeing the insects themselves is the presence of mud tubes in cracks or around pipes in your home. You can also tap on wooden baseboards and windowsill to make sure they haven’t been hollowed out.

I’ll bring jumping spiders into my home and tolerate the presence of stinkbugs, but I draw the line at arthropods that eat my stuff. The desk I type these posts on is made of wood, and I’ve been told it’s bad for my posture to type on the floor. Sorry, termites – you’re free to eat the stumps in the backyard, but nobody messes with my writing space. Or my spine. They’re both kind of important to me.

Top Ten Facts About Murder Hornets

The lovely face of a murder hornet, courtesy of the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Remember that brief period of time when we thought we’d have to deal with murder hornets on top of everything else going on in 2020? Don’t worry if you don’t, it was pretty easy to miss in the midst of all the chaos. Nevertheless, today I’d thought I’d shed a little light on these forgotten horsemen (hornetmen?) of last year’s apocalypse:

1. “Murder hornets” isn’t their official name

What we’ve come to call “murder hornets” for, well, murdering bees, are actually Asian giant hornets. They are native to parts of India and eastern Asia and were not spotted on the North American continent until 2019.

2. They truly are giants

Asian giant hornets are actually the largest hornet species on the planet, reaching up to two inches in length. That’s about as long as three to four honey bees lined up head to stinger.

3. Yes, they have been spotted in the United States and Canada

The first murder hornet sighting in the U.S. was in the state of Washington in December 2019. No one knows yet how they got here, but so far they have only been spotted in Whatcom County, WA and British Columbia.

4. Honey bees and murder hornets don’t mix

One of the big concerns that arose around the murder hornets was that they would wipe out North America’s honey bee population. These angry insects ransack honey bee hives to eat or feed their young with the developing larvae and pupae inside. They also kill the adult bees by beheading them.

5. Honey bees aren’t the only victims

Aside from honey bees, murder hornets also prey on other insects, such as beetles and other hornets. Additionally, hornet and yellow jackets hives have been known to receive the same horrific treatment from murder hornets as honeybees.

6. Asian bees know how to put up a fight

Fortunately, bees living in the hornets’ native range have developed a few strategies for fending them off, including covering their hive entrances with animal feces. In terms of a less disgusting but still odd tactic, bees have also been known to bake the hornets to death by surrounding them and vibrating their wings really hard, increasing the temperature around their foe to 117 degrees Fahrenheit.

7. Getting stung is no joke

Not only are they quite painful, but murder hornets stings are more toxic than most bee stings, which can spell trouble if you’re allergic or get stung many times. Additionally, murder hornet stingers are long enough to puncture bee suits. Looks like it’s time for suits of armor to come back in style.

8. They have several look-alikes

A murder hornet (USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab)
…and an imposter (European hornet by Björn S… on Flickr)

If you think you’ve spotted a murder hornet, don’t freak out, especially if you’re not anywhere near Washington or British Columbia. Both eastern and western cicada killers share an uncanny resemblance to murder hornets, although both have lighter markings and are noticeably smaller when compared side-by-side. European hornets also share similar features with murder hornets, but are also smaller and have a brighter yellow thorax.

9. Who you gonna call? The Department of Agriculture!

If you’re pretty sure that hornet you ran into this morning was of the murdering kind, and you live in Washington, you can report your finding here.

10. They’re really not a big deal at the moment

Fortunately, it doesn’t seem likely that the murder hornets will be terrorizing the U.S. or Canada anytime soon. Not only were the only two discovered nests mostly wiped out by officials, but traps are being set throughout Washington state and in nearby areas to decrease the likelihood of the hornets’ territory spreading. Besides, based on how last year went, I’m sure we’ll have volcanic eruptions or radioactive bears or something to deal with instead before the hornets can become a real issue anyway.

Then again, I thought COVID-19 was going to stay in Washington when it first hit the U.S., too. Maybe it’s time to trade in our face masks for chainmail bee suits.

Or anti-radioactive-bear darts. Let’s be honest: at this point, that wouldn’t surprise anyone.