Dragonflies vs. Butterflies

Shoutout to my aunt for these awesome photos! Since I’ve already mentioned them in a post or two, I figured it’s about time I talk about dragonflies.

More specifically, how they’re infinitely superior to butterflies and no one can tell me otherwise.

You’re probably wondering why I’m comparing butterflies to dragonflies in the first place rather than pairing butterflies with moths. I probably will make a post like that at some point explaining the differences between butterflies and moths, but today I wanted to compare what I think of as two of the most popular insects. The relative popularity of these insects is entirely my own opinion; I know there are lots of ladybug, bee and firefly fans out there, but butterflies and dragonflies appear most frequently in the media I’ve seen and seem to be similarly beloved for their colors, design, and for not biting or stinging anyone. While I do plan on doing a moth/butterfly comparison blog at some point, today it’s butterflies vs. dragonflies.

Let us begin by examining the butterfly: it has pretty wings and is an important pollinator, although arguably less important than our friends the bees. Still very important, still would be disastrous if removed from the ecosystem, but bees are… busier (pardon the pun). Butterflies, like most insects, are also usually edible and therefore valuable links in the food web.

Now, let’s take a look at dragonflies. Butterflies are pretty and all, but dragonflies are cool. Like, really cool. Both insects can fly, but dragonflies fly like tiny jet planes. I don’t just mean that they’re faster than butterflies: dragonflies clock in at about 60 miles per hour, faster than any other insect in the world. Plus, they can fly at the same speed backwards. I’d like to see a butterfly do that!

Dragonflies can fly in any direction, or just hover in place like the aircraft they are. They can see 360 degrees around themselves, which combined with their speed and maneuverability makes them obnoxious prey and lethal predators. While butterflies are flitting around sipping on nectar, dragonflies are out there taking down mosquitoes and other more annoying arthropods left and right! In fact, the whole getting-rid-of-mosquitoes thing was what made me love dragonflies so much in the first place: let’s give fire ants a buddy and add mosquitoes to the list of arthropods I’d rather not hang out with.

Last but not least, dragonflies eat butterflies. Case closed: dragonflies for the win!

Now that we’ve addressed what makes dragonflies the best, it’s only fair that we take a look at some of their weaknesses. For one, dragonfly nymphs live underwater for the first year or so of their lives before trading their gills for two pairs of sick wings, but they only live for a few weeks in their adult form. The epic transformation comes with a heavy price as well: the process of an adult dragonfly shedding its nymph exoskeleton upon exiting the water for the first time is very time consuming, and the dragonfly is hardly able to move at all during its transition. This vulnerable position, combined with hungry predators like spiders, ants and birds in the vicinity, results in a very high mortality rate for budding dragonflies.

This brings me to the one area besides wing aesthetics in which butterflies score above dragonflies: metamorphosis. Butterflies undergo “complete” metamorphosis, transitioning from eggs to larvae to pupae to adults. Dragonflies, on the other hand, undergo “incomplete” metamorphosis, which means they transform directly from larvae to adults and skip over the pupa stage altogether. Perhaps if these speedy insects slowed down for a minute to transform safely into their adult forms inside the protection of a chrysalis, they would have greater odds of living long enough to use their magnificent wings.

The more I learn about dragonflies, the more I love to watch their cool abilities in action whenever I come across one. Although I haven’t seen as many in recent years, there used to be a ton of big blue and green dragonflies in my front yard. Obviously I never snagged any out of the air like fireflies, but I counted myself lucky whenever one landed close enough for me to admire or at least get a picture.

Do you prefer dragonflies, or butterflies? This post may give the impression that I hate butterflies, but I really don’t. I think they’re beautiful, and I will do some butterfly posts in the future to highlight their contributions to the environment and human pleasure. However, I feel like dragonflies get overshadowed by butterflies a lot, so I wanted to shed a little light on how awesome these swift mosquito-hunters are.

In the end, both insects were masterfully crafted by an awesome God who loves arthropods even more than I do, and neither one should be taken for granted.

Cicadas, Symphonists of Summer

Cicada shell on a mailbox in my neighborhood

Tent caterpillars are great and all, but it wouldn’t be summer without the cicada music lulling you to sleep at night. They’re freaky-loud up close, but at a distance these big bugs provide the perfect white noise for a good night’s rest.

Plus, what’s summer without the annual Easter egg hunt for cicada shells?

I don’t know that there’s any exoskeleton more popular than a cicada’s. I’ve been collecting those things since the day I learned they weren’t alive. Finding them is like God’s after-Easter epilogue egg hunt: you can find cicada shells on light posts, trees, deck railings, mailboxes, and even on the side of your house, except they’re empty like Jesus’ tomb instead of filled with coins and candy! Who wants to sign my petition to replace Easter eggs with historically accurate cicada shells?

I’m just kidding, Easter candy is the best and the eggs have their own symbolism, but I think God knew what He was doing when He made cicadas: they even encompass 2 Corinthians 5:17 – “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here!” The cicadas leave their old lives as nymphs behind, literally shedding their past and living as new, flying, musical creatures, very similarly to how someone who comes to know Christ and follows Him sheds their old life of sin and death and becomes a new person, forgiven and full of life!

As beloved as their songs and shells are, cicadas are kind of intimidating in person. I’ve mentioned that they’re incredibly loud, but they’re also pretty large. If its mandibles could open wide enough, I bet a cicada could swallow a cockroach whole… I mean a clutter cat whole. We’re calling them clutter cats now (#respectthecluttercats). In case you’ve never seen a cicada before, they’re typically various shades of green and about as wide around as my thumb, although their big heads are often wider. They have large, golden wings and big, red or gray eyes – in other words I think dragonflies and cicadas ought to swap names.

Although I’ve known for a while that cicada shells are simply empty exoskeletons, there have been a few moments in my life when I’ve wondered otherwise. One time, my brother and I were walking through the neighborhood and came across what appeared to be a big beetle crawling across the sidewalk. As we approached it, we were shocked to see that it was actually a dark cicada shell crawling slowly across our path like some sort of zombie-bug.

We knew it couldn’t actually be living shell, so we bent down beside it to examine it more closely. As it turned out, there was a reason why this shell was more coffee-colored than the traditional caramel hue of other cicada shells – it was still inhabited. The nymph inside had probably emerged from underground recently and was looking for a place to shed its outer casing.

While cicadas in their familiar flying form only live for about a month, some species will last well into their teens as nymphs before entering adulthood. These cicadas are known as periodical cicadas, and they emerge from their underground dwellings every thirteen or seventeen years. Yes, thirteen or seventeen years – and sometimes cicada broods will switch from a thirteen-year cycle to a seventeen-year cycle, or vice versa. They won’t change it to fifteen years, or twenty-two years, or eight years – always thirteen or seventeen years. Talk about having favorite numbers.

Sometimes, 13-year and 17-year cicadas will emerge at the same time in an epic surge of cicada music across the country, but they’ll rarely (if ever) meet since 17-year cicadas live farther north than 13-year cicadas. Even so, this event only happens every 221 years. The next double-cicada summer should be in the year 2115, so unless I live to be 115 I’ll just have to hope my future kids or grandkids read this blog and experience the cicadas for me.

Other cicadas, called annual cicadas, will emerge… annually. Surprise, surprise.

Although there are annual cicadas singing in your backyard every summer, these cicadas take a few years themselves to grow as nymphs underground before gaining their wings. You still hear their songs every summer thanks to multiple species of annual cicadas having different life cycles.

I bet you think cicadas make their music by screeching at the top of their tracheas or rubbing their wings together, right? Actually, both of those techniques are wrong – and only the males can sing. They make their music by flexing a membrane called a tymbal, which creates clicks that its hollow abdomen amplifies to emit mating calls or warning cries. Females can call back to the males by making music with their wings, so that was a close guess, but they don’t reach nearly the same volume as the males. Altogether, these tymbal and wing duets create the classic hum of a cicada symphony.

…Although some may argue over the quality of cicada music given that females sometimes mistake the sounds of power tools and lawnmowers for mating calls. They’ve even been known to land on people using such equipment in their confusion. As if yardwork wasn’t bad enough – in the heat of the day when we’re already dodging wasps and swatting mosquitoes, now we’ve got to watch out for swarms of cicadas in love with the lawnmower? Great.

While a group of cicadas is generally called a cloud or plague of cicadas (I prefer cloud, of course), it’s called a chorus of cicadas when the cicadas are humming together. I would like to call a group of underground cicada nymphs a taproom of cicadas, since not much is known about cicadas’ early lives except that they drink from tree roots. Get it? Drink? Taproom? I’m hilarious.

And now, I’m going to pull a plot twist on y’all – I’m not going to give cicadas a new name. “Cicada” already sounds beautiful, and it literally means “tree cricket” in Latin, which is so perfect for these arboreal insect musicians. Sometimes they’re called jarflies too, but I think we can all agree that that one belongs to the fireflies. Or are we calling fireflies “lightning beetles” now? It’s getting a little hard keeping track of all these new names. Maybe I’ll just call every arthropod a lobster and be done with it.

The next time you hear a chorus of cicadas, pause to listen to the music and enjoy the sounds of summer. And remember, you’re breaking innocent cicada hearts every time you start up your lawnmower.

Cockroach Appreciation Post

This is okay, this is an okay angle; I can pretty much handle looking at roaches as long as I don’t see their faces.

What’s your first reaction to the word “cockroach”? Is it fear? Disgust? Repulsion?

If you said “yes” to any of the above, then we’re in the same boat. I’ve tried time and again to like cockroaches, but let me tell you – you have not experienced true fear until you lose track of the roach you were chasing around your house and wonder if it’s going to emerge again or if it will stay hidden and come out to crawl on you while you sleep. I can remember at least two separate instances when I’ve accidentally chased a roach under my bed minutes before I planned on getting into bed, and then refused to go to sleep until the roach had been flushed out and disposed of. I have a friend in Pennsylvania who has never seen a cockroach in person, which implies that they’re a southern bug and it’s time for me to move.

Perhaps my disgust with roaches comes from repeatedly seeing them get smashed with flip-flops and flushed down the toilet whenever they showed face in my house growing up. Maybe I’ve just been Pavlov-ed into associating the presence of roaches with the smashing of roaches, and thus my disgust with the insects themselves should actually be directed towards hearing the crunch of their exoskeletons under a variety of footwear.

Besides, not all of my experiences with cockroaches have been negative. I can remember one time in particular when an encounter with a roach ending up being hilarious:

 A friend and I were rooming together at an FCA camp at Black Mountain, NC and came across a cockroach in our bathroom. While it was flying. Neither of us knew cockroaches could fly until that night, but we were horrified to learn the truth. We slammed the door shut and promised each other than the first person to spot the roach again would kill it for the other person.

My friend ended up finding the roach in the bathroom again the next day while we were getting ready for our sport clinics. Knowing what had to be done, she grabbed a shoe and began to narrate the situation to herself to calm down. I remember her saying something along the lines of “It has legs!… it’s ok I have legs too.” She even sang one of our camp songs with the lyrics changed to motivate herself to kill the cockroach, and I’m so sad that I can’t remember which song it was or the adlibbed lyrics because it was fantastic.

Eventually she did emerge triumphantly from the bathroom with the roach dead and flushed down our toilet, only to find me cracking up on my bed. There had been a fan on in the bathroom, so she couldn’t hear me but I could hear everything she’d been saying. I tried calling to her several times when she first found the roach, but when it became obvious she couldn’t hear me and the motivational speaking kept getting funnier, I sat back and enjoyed the show. Not my best moment as a friend, but we still laugh about it and she gave me permission to put this story in the blog, so I guess I’m forgiven.

I’ve been trying to like cockroaches for a long time now, and maybe this post will help you and me do just that. It’s time to learn why we should adore roaches rather than smush them:

For one, cockroaches are crazy resilient, and that deserves some respect. You’ve probably heard about how hard it is to kill a roach, how they can live for days with their heads cut off, blah, blah, blah, but you don’t know that half of it. In addition to their headless shenanigans, roaches can survive for about seven days without water (that’s three days longer than most humans can), a month without food, and over half an hour without oxygen! They have been known to withstand intense levels of radiation and they have survived and thrived since the Carboniferous Era, meaning they outlasted the dinosaurs. They’re basically indestructible (their one weakness being shoes, of course).

Secondly, cockroaches are kind of important to our existence. Not only are they a critical staple in many food webs as prey for small birds and mammals, but they play a vital role in the nitrogen cycle and the health of many plants as detritivores, much like our friendly neighborhood mulch lobsters.

Last but not least, cockroaches are much cleaner than we give them credit for. We usually find them in dirty spaces simply because they can hide better amongst clutter than in well-kempt areas. In fact, roaches self-groom more frequently than your cat does, carefully cleaning each of its appendages with its mandibles throughout the day.

I’m not saying that distaste for cockroaches is entirely unfounded: cockroach allergies are common, and the big insects will eat almost anything, even if that means damage to your personal belongings or stealing your food. Despite their regular bathing, roaches can still bring bacteria into your home, and they can cause problems for people with asthma. However, cockroaches as a whole aren’t as obnoxious as you’d think – only a handful out of the thousands of roach species on our planet are actually considered pests, the familiar American cockroach unfortunately being one of them. The rest of the roaches, however, tend to leave us alone.

As it turns out, some of the common, pesky cockroaches may be the only roaches that really bother me. I pet hissing cockroaches when volunteers from the science museum brought the animals to my school and never thought anything of it. They weren’t slimy or gooey, but rather hard and smooth. They didn’t try to jump out of the volunteers’ hands or bite anyone (not that I’ve ever heard of roaches attacking people anyway), but calmly waved their antennae as the volunteers secured them between palm and thumb and carried them from student to student to be admired.

Cockroaches have gotten a lot of hate, so much so that the word “cockroach” puts a bad taste in our mouths. I think these poor insects deserve a name change more than any other arthropod we’ve discussed so far – so, for the sake of our big insect friends, I now dub these creatures “clutter cats!” Because they live in cluttered places and they groom themselves like cats!

I know, I’m a genius. No need to thank me for ridding your katsaridaphobia; it’s all in a day’s work for the ArthroBlogger.

You’ll Never Love Camping as Much as a Tent Caterpillar

Shoutout to @worldsbetween lines on Unsplash.com for these cute tent caterpillars!

Do you know when summer truly begins? It’s not when the pool opens, it’s not when school lets out, it’s not when you first set foot on the beach again, and it’s certainly not the summer solstice. It’s not even the first time you spot a firefly.

It’s when the tent caterpillars arrive.

Tent caterpillars typically hatch in early spring, but I always saw them the most at the beginning of summer when they ventured out in search of cocoon-building sites. These larvae are gray-blue with gold and white stripes, a unique eye-dot pattern, and fantastic, blond clown hair that outshines the blue of their bodies. They’re also quite soft, like little ferret-worms. Many a tent caterpillar has found itself a jar-neighbor to some fireflies on my desk over the years, but I’ve never kept any to the cocoon stage. I would always release them after a few hours or so; it’s not as much fun to keep a bug overnight if it doesn’t glow to remind you of its presence. I did keep a couple wooly worms as pets for about a month, but that’s a story for another blog.

Known as tent moths when fully grown, tent caterpillars get their name from the intricate nests in which they are born and mature. The nest somewhat resembles a very thickly woven spider web in the shape of, surprise-surprise, a tent. I’ve often spotted these “tents” pitched in tree branches while driving down the road or meandering around campsites.

These fuzzy larvae are typically thought of as pests due to their affection for fruit trees. They eat the trees’ leaves rather than their fruit, but it’s still a pain for apple and cherry orchardists. However, the trees typically make a full recovery, so I think the term “pest” is a bit extreme. I rather tend to think of tent caterpillars as the harbingers of freedom, with them appearing at the end of the schoolyear and all. Sadly, not everyone shares my love for these juvenile insects, and I’m not just talking about the gardeners and orchardists.

When I was in early elementary school, a neighborhood friend and I stumbled across her older sister and the sister’s friend crouched over a tent caterpillar while we were playing in her yard. As it turned out, the sister and her friend were entertaining themselves by slowly squishing the still-living larva. They thought it was funny to watch green goop burst out of its sides when they pressed down on it, but I found the ordeal a bit sickening and later heartbreaking. At the time I was repulsed simply by the sight of bug innards, but now I wonder what pain the little guy must have endured during his torment. I still think about that day whenever I find an unwanted bug in my house. For the most part I try to carry creatures outside in a cup rather than squish them, in case my squishing isn’t thorough enough and I wind up ending an animal painfully rather than quickly. I still struggle to put this into practice with cockroaches, but I’m getting there.

One of the best parts about tent caterpillars is that if you find one, you’re sure to find another. Rarely have I ever picked up one of these little dudes without immediately spotting two or three more nearby. In elementary school, my classmates and I would sometimes find a tree or two crawling with hordes of tent caterpillars during recess or after school. The reason these caterpillars are so often found in groups is because they all live together in their communal tent until it’s time to leave home and form cocoons. The caterpillars store their food in the tent as well and will sleep together in it, even cuddling to keep warm when the temperature drops. Fluffy little ferret-worms snuggling together on a chilly night and dreaming ferret-worm dreams – I dare you to name something cuter than that. I dare you.

These caterpillars tend to venture out from their tents altogether in a big group, which explains why my friends and I would always find oodles of caterpillars shimmying up and down those trees at once. They only leave the safety of their nest three times a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Did you catch that? They eat their meals together! They have meals! I don’t think we give insects enough credit for their adorably intricate lifestyles.

While I would find tent caterpillars everywhere during my childhood, I haven’t spotted as many of the little larvae in recent years. Some summers I don’t see them at all, which I think is more an issue of me not paying attention than the caterpillars disappearing. I guess life got so busy in high school that I started forgetting to pause and pet the arthropods.

Heed my warning, adults: pay attention to your kids. When they spot the cool bugs before you do, it’s a sign that your childhood is slipping away. Don’t forget to set aside some time for accumulating grass stains, jumping through sprinklers, and counting stars – and most importantly, don’t forget to play with the caterpillars.

Crawdads, Crayfish, and Crawfish, Oh My!

Thanks to @autumnrae02 on Unsplash.com for the great photo!

Why is it that people give the same animal so many different names? Take cougars for example: we call them cougars, mountain lions, pumas, panthers… I thought these were all different animals for the longest time. “Panther” just adds to the confusion, since it also pertains to melanistic jaguars and leopards.

And then there’s crayfish. Why do we need three different super-similar names for crayfish? At least cougar names are diverse. Crawdads, crayfish, and crawfish? Really? Why not just combine them all into crawcraydadfish?

Never mind, that didn’t compress as nicely as I thought it would. I’m just gonna stick with crayfish.

The first time I saw a crayfish, I was confused as to how a lobster had somehow swum its way up to the mountains. While I’m a bit more taxonomically aware nowadays, these little freshwater crustaceans continue to fascinate me; who knew such a neat animal could live in such a common ecosystem? I always thought the rivers were just full of snails, fish and algae. I mean, I still love snails and fish, but river lobsters? That’s cool.

Unfortunately, these unique crustaceans always seem to elude me. In elementary school, I had a friend whose house was on the edge of some woods with a good-sized stream. Like most bodies of water in the area, this stream was full of water striders, minnows and the occasional crayfish. For my friend’s birthday one year, all us kids were given buckets and nets and sent to the stream to see what we could catch. After a few minutes of romping around scooping up minnows, I suddenly found myself staring into the eyes of a big, muddy crayfish.

The crayfish was chilling in a little pool of still water that had collected on the side of the stream. I was standing on the sand at the pool’s edge, so I figured that if I swung my net down fast enough I would be able to catch the watchful crustacean before he got the chance to swim away. I poised my net, and –

KERPLASH! Some other girl at the party charged obliviously across the pool, stirring up mud and leaving the water churning with silt. After a moment the debris settled down and I could see through the water again, but the crayfish had disappeared.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the last time I saw a crayfish, although I still haven’t caught one. My brother did, but he kind of cheated – he bought it at a pet store. Plankton the crayfish lived in a tank with a few catfish and some little zebrafish for a few months on my brother’s shelf. Unfortunately Plankton liked to take a swipe at fish that came too close to him, and one of the zebrafish happened to go missing during his stay (we didn’t catch him in the act, but I think we know what happened). Despite his grumpiness, though, the crayfish was a pretty cool pet – he loved his little plastic barrels, and it was fun to watch him scuttle around on the rocks. Rest in peace, Plankton. You are missed.

Remember when I said I got to learn about mulch lobsters in my biology class? I learned about river lobsters in that class, too, but the means of doing so were considerably less enjoyable. When the class switched to online learning halfway through the semester, I thought that meant I would be spared the various dissections scheduled for our lab.

It did not.

While I did not have to poke and prod the dead organisms myself, I was forced to watch our lab assistants do so on video or risk missing out on valuable information I would need to complete the practical. So, I peered through my fingers and gagged as animal after animal was sliced open for my education: a sea urchin, a worm, a rat, and yes, a crayfish. After enduring said torture, I can now confidently say that I do not want to be a taxidermist. Also, the little legs under the crayfish’s abdomen are called “swimmerets,” which I think is a cute name.

Crayfish, like many arthropods, have plenty of specialized limbs besides just swimmerets. While the swimmerets propel the crustacean through the water and assist in reproduction, the tail pushes the crustacean backwards for a hasty retreat. In fact, whenever you see a crayfish swimming at all, it’s probably moving backwards – these crustaceans typically walk forward on their aptly-named “walking legs,” but rely on swimming for a quick retreat. A crayfish’s pincers, or chelipeds, are used both for defense and capturing prey. Males will also use their chelipeds to spar with one another during mating season, and will regenerate any limbs they lose in battle. Crayfish possess antennae for perceiving the world through taste and touch, and have many more appendages than I’ve mentioned here. Who needs a utility belt if you’ve got a crayfish in your pocket?

…Please don’t actually put a crayfish in your pocket. They have gills. They want to stay in the water.

I think the reason I haven’t seen many crayfish is that they really don’t like to be seen. Not that I blame them – I know plenty of people who enjoy the taste of cooked shellfish as much as I like to observe the living ones. Crayfish avoid most of us by hunting at night, and an off-duty crayfish is pretty hard to spot as well. Some crayfish prefer to hide under river rocks or logs, but others are known to dig burrows in the sand or dirt. These crayfish leave obvious piles of dirt built up around the mouths of their holes, so at least you can find where a crayfish lives even if you don’t see the actual crustacean.

If you haven’t seen a crayfish before, but you live in the southern U.S., you’re in luck – you live in one of the most crayfish-populated areas on the planet! Time to start rummaging through the river rocks; I wish you luck and clear waters.

Fire Ants: Scourge of the South

I really hope these are fire ants… either way, thanks to @thesollers on Unsplash.com for the photo!

What do Mexico, Australia, the southern United States and basically all other countries close to the equator have in common? Fire ants. Well, probably lots of other things too, but this is a blog about arthropods, so – fire ants.

Being from the southern U.S. myself, fire ants and I know each other quite well: I threw many a pinecone into a fire ant hill in my childhood to watch the little insects pour out like red, angry water. In turn, I’ve been stung plenty of times wading through tall grass, running around at summer camp, and standing outside of a Target at midnight waiting to get inside for some random college event. My uncle once carried me through his garden to protect me from fire ants – which we both happened to stumble across barefoot. He’s a brave man, and apparently has a high pain tolerance.

My first encounter with a “fire” ant was probably the most memorable, even though this particular insect wasn’t a true member of the species. I saw this ant on a playground near my neighborhood when I was in preschool. At the time, ants were one of my favorite things on the planet – I loved to watch them at work or let them crawl on my hands, and I would frequently play with the ants I found in or around my house.

On that fateful morning I was playing alone near the edge of the playground, probably looking for bugs, when I spotted this large, orange ant about the size of the carpenter ants I loved so much. In fact, this was a type of carpenter ant, but I wouldn’t know this until years after the damage had been done. I was fascinated – a colorful ant! I placed my hand in front of it so the ant could crawl on, blissfully unaware of what was about to happen. I began to wonder if there were green ants too, or blue ants, or pink ants, or…

Suddenly, it felt as if my finger had caught fire. Even if this guy wasn’t a true fire ant, he got the job done. The next thing I knew, I was screaming and retreating back to my mom in a full-on toddler sprint. Good times.

Although my initial hatred of fire ants came from a case of mistaken identity, I’ve been stung plenty of times since to secure my distaste for them. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s made themselves an enemy of fire ants, either: lots of my fellow North Americans aren’t very fond of the angry insects either, as they’re an invasive species in both the U.S. and Mexico. Their stings are painful and itchy, and hard to avoid if you accidentally blunder into their territory. Or, as an unfortunate classmate of mine once demonstrated on a field trip, if you intentionally kick their mound into the air with your foot and the crumbled kingdom rains down on top of you.

Ah, well. I guess this post should be more informative than “why I hate fire ants,” so here’s some facts for y’all.

You may have noticed that I’ve been saying “sting” rather than “bite.” While fire ants may bite as well as sting, they don’t actually have poison glands in their mandibles – much like bees, they have stingers on the end of their abdomens for injecting toxins into prey and foes, which causes much more pain than a simple bite. Bees and ants are also similar in the ways their colonies operate: there are worker ants and worker bees who fulfill various duties for their colonies, such as tending to the colony’s young and hunting or gathering food. Both colonies are also ruled by a queen bee or queen ant, who lays the colony’s eggs.

While I’m not too fond of their company, I do have to admit that fire ants are pretty smart. For example, they’re great with livestock. Well, not pigs and cows, but the choice livestock of ants – aphids. Aphids secrete honeydew, which ants enjoy drinking just as much as many people enjoy milk. Fire ants will hypnotize “herds” of aphids and lead them to feed on the best quality plants they can find to ensure that the honeydew the little insects produce will be top notch. The ants also protect their herds by fighting off hungry ladybugs, which prey on aphids. These practices are pretty annoying for anyone trying to rid their garden of aphids, as the ants are hardly reducing the pesky crop-eaters’ population numbers, but kinda cool for insect enthusiasts like myself.

Fire ants are also incredible architects. They build massive mounds of intricate tunnel systems that can extend deep into the ground, and appear quite formidable at the grass level as well. But what happens if these dirt-based kingdoms are destroyed, as could often happen in world full of dangers significantly larger than a bunch of little insects? Apparently, however, fire ants are incredibly resilient. For example, if a colony of ants gets swept up in rainstorm and they find themselves caught up in the floodwaters, they will (I promise you I’m not making this up) band together into a RAFT OF FIRE ANTS and float away to safety. They can even float for weeks at a time without drowning.

Seriously. Can you imagine wading through floodwaters and colliding with a pile of fire ants, of all things? People are going to think I’m crazy when I scan the water for fire ants before jumping into the lake this summer.

Entomologists are learning more about fire ants and other ant species every day, from their complex social structures to their individual intelligence. I may not permit fire ants to crawl on my hands anymore, but they’re still fascinating animals to observe from afar – or just close enough to throw pinecones at.

Actually no, don’t throw pinecones at fire ants. That’s not nice. The ArthroBlogger does not condone that kind of behavior, even if fire ants are jerks. Let’s be nice to arthropods – especially when they attack you in angry swarms if you mess with them.

Fireflies or Lightning Bugs?

It’s the age-old question, isn’t it? Personally I’ve always said “firefly,” but the more I think about it the more “lightning bug” makes sense. I mean, it doesn’t look like the beetles are on fire, it looks like they have an electrical current running through their bodies that makes their abdomens glow like a lightbulb. Maybe they should be called “lightbulb beetles.”

Don’t worry, I’m not going to rename arthropods in every blog. Probably.

Fireflies are another one of my favorite childhood insects. My first memory of playing with fireflies is from back in my preschool days, when I was running around with some friends in their neighborhood at dusk. For some reason, I wanted to see how many fireflies I could catch at once, using one hand to hold my captives and the other to grab more. When I had so many beetles that I couldn’t open my hands without risking their escape, my dad made the unfortunate mistake of asking what I was holding.

As I mentioned in the roly poly blog, young me was not always gentle with tiny animals. I can only remember a handful of times when I have harmed bugs intentionally, but I probably killed at least half the arthropods I came across as a kid simply out of oblivious recklessness. Case in point, I’m surprised that Dad didn’t throw up immediately when I opened my hands. Half the fireflies were still crawling around and began to fly away, but the other half weren’t so lucky – my hands were white and gooey with beetle guts. Ugh.

Needless to say, Dad immediately whisked me away to the bathroom, where we spent the next five minutes washing and rinsing my gory hands. Since then, my experiences with lightning bugs have been much more pleasant.

I can remember many a summer night when a jar of fireflies glowed beside my bed as I fell asleep. In fact, making firefly jars was one of my favorite summer activities: I would dig a mason jar out of the pantry, poke some holes in the lid (much to my mom’s dismay), and drop in some grass and a few twigs. Then I would spend the rest of the evening chasing fireflies around the yard, often accompanied by my brother and our neighborhood friends.

My favorite firefly experience was in middle school, when a friend and I were backpacking with our families in the Blue Ridge Mountains. One night, while we were all sitting around the campfire, the dads called to us to follow them into the woods. We grabbed our flashlights and walked with them until the fire was a small glow in the distance. Then, they told us to turn the lights off.

At first it was so dark that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, so all of us kids huddled together and giggled nervously. Then, slowly, I began to make out soft, blue lights glowing in the distance. Soon the lights were floating all around us, like glowing feathers drifting on a silent breeze. I would later learn that these lights belonged to Blue Ghost Fireflies, a rare but fascinating summer inhabitant of the North Carolina mountains. To this day, that night remains one of the most beautiful moments of my life. 

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably wondered how fireflies are able to glow in the first place, and why they do it – aren’t they just flashing their location to every predator in the area? Some fireflies must have thought about this too, because there are species that don’t glow at all. While glowing is often part of the fireflies’ mating rituals, the lightless beetles prefer to be a bit more discreet and rely on their sense of smell rather than sight to find their true love.

There are actually over a thousand different species of firefly, and each of the glowing species has a different sequence it follows for how often it ignites its light organ, or the “lightbulb” at the end of its abdomen. Fireflies can distinguish their own species from other fireflies by watching these sequences as if it were insect Morse code. In fact, females of a particularly deadly genus of lightning bug known as Photuris will mimic the codes of other fireflies to lure in unsuspecting males, which they promptly cannibalize. Gosh, and I always thought fireflies were so pure and innocent.

As for how fireflies glow, these beetles possess of one my favorite animal superpowers: bioluminescence. This fancy, beautiful word basically means that, like the glowing plankton you can find at some beaches or that scary angler fish in a certain clownfish movie, fireflies can emit light via chemical reactions in their bodies. Fireflies turn their light on and off by controlling how much oxygen enters their light organ. They regulate their oxygen intake via tracheoles, or little holes in their abdomen that allow air in and out of their bodies much like a trachea would in a human.

I’ll admit, even as an adult I sometimes chase fireflies around in the summer. I don’t usually put them in jars anymore, but if I’m walking my dog at night and I notice a yellow flash of light close by, I’m probably going to make a grab for it. Honestly, I’ll probably be catching fireflies, saving worms* from hot sidewalks and picking up granddaddy longlegs for the rest of my life. That’s just how ArthroBloggers roll.

*Yes, I know worms aren’t arthropods – I’m allowed to like annelids** too.

**But I don’t like leeches. Leeches creep me out.

For the Love of Roly Polies

I found a roly poly party on a log in my backyard

I love roly polies. So tranquil, so cute… and such devious little liars.

Okay, so it’s not their fault, but I always thought roly polies were bugs. They’ve got the antennae, the jointed legs, and they’re smaller than a lot of common insects. However, they’re actually crustaceans. I know – what other lies have we so naively believed without a second thought?

Roly polies are also known as pill bugs and woodlice, but I don’t like those names very much and I know some people who don’t like calling them roly polies. So, I have a solution: we shall henceforth refer to our little garden crustaceans only as “mulch lobsters.” You’re welcome, world.

Mulch lobsters (yes I’m seriously sticking with this) have been a favorite bug animal of mine for a long time. When I was little, I would spend hours in my backyard searching for and playing with these little guys: I would let them climb on my hands, I would poke them to make them to roll into balls, and I would tote them around in bug catchers filled with sticks and leaves that my seven-year-old self was certain they were enthralled with. Apparently I was a bit too rough with the mulch lobsters sometimes, because I can remember a few unfortunate arthropods whose balls got bent funny or somehow split in half. If I noticed that one of my little buddies was injured, I would put them in a big seashell that I dubbed the “roly poly hospital.” If I had been enlightened to the crustaceans’ true nature, I most definitely would have called it the “mulch lobster hospital.” Probably. Young me was kind of unpredictable.

Anyway, my roly poly hospital shell turned out to be magical, because every time I brought new mulch lobsters to it, the previous patients had disappeared. I assumed they had gotten better and crawled away, so I continued to put more mutilated mulch lobsters into the shell to heal them. What I didn’t realize, however, was that my parents were simply dumping the poor animals out whenever my back was turned. I guess they didn’t want me to know that I had actually killed a bunch of the little crustaceans I loved so much.

You see, my mom’s first experience with me and mulch lobsters was when I was playing with one on our front porch in my preschool days. The little guy ended up falling between the slats in the wood, and I was devastated. I wailed as if I had cut off my finger or something, and that’s when Mom “knew I was an animal lover” (her words). Sweet moment, if it weren’t for my ear-piercing toddler screams and the fact that a mulch lobster had just plummeted into the unknown.

I have only ever studied mulch lobsters twice in my life. The first time was in second grade, when my wonderful teacher took our class outside to catch as many mulch lobsters as we could so they could be our temporary class pets. A few days after the crustaceans had been captured, we realized that one of our mulch lobsters was pregnant, as she had a white egg sac glued to her underbelly. The promise of baby mulch lobsters instantly made her a class favorite. I don’t really remember what all we did with the mulch lobsters except stare at them in awe and play with them on our desks, so while the lessons we were supposed to learn from them may not have been long-lasting, the crustaceans themselves were certainly memorable.

The second time I studied mulch lobsters was last semester in my college biology class, during our unit on arthropods. Apparently, mulch lobsters are isopods in the class Malacostraca alongside crabs, shrimp and other crustaceans… and that’s it. That’s all I learned about mulch lobsters. To be fair, the class had to get through everything from paramecia to mammals in a single semester, so really I was lucky to learn anything about mulch lobsters at all.

Fortunately for y’all, I did a bit of my own research to compensate for my lack of mulch lobster knowledge, and I found some pretty interesting stuff. For example, these guys have even more nicknames than I thought: doodle bugs, armadillo bugs and potato bugs are just a few, all of which I must admit are superior to “mulch lobsters” (I think we can all agree that mulch lobster is better than woodlouse, though). They need to live in moist habitats, which would explain why my second-grade classroom lost a few brave arthropods during those fateful few weeks. Don’t try to keep mulch lobsters as pets, kids, your bedroom isn’t dark or damp enough to keep them happy. Unless you have an oddly saturated room and never turn on the lights.

Apparently, mulch lobsters are easily confused with their close relative the sowbugs, who look to me like flatter, lighter-colored mulch lobsters with two little tails. Sowbugs, however, don’t possess the amazing mulch lobster super-power of rolling into a ball. I guess that would be a better test to see if you’ve found a mulch lobster or a sowbug than checking for tails – if you poke it and it rolls up, it’s a mulch lobster. If you poke it and it runs, it’s a sowbug. You’re welcome again, world.

Mulch lobsters are detritivores, meaning they eat decaying organic material like our other garden friends, the earthworms. So, if you see mulch lobsters amongst your tomatoes, don’t chase them away – let them crawl around on your hand and thank them for improving your soil quality. Mulch lobsters are also known for eating fungus that grows underground, which lowers the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. What heroes the mulch lobsters are – first they were saving your tomatoes, now they’re saving the planet.

Next time you’re in your backyard, pick up a steppingstone or scoot a rotting log over with your foot – you might spot some of my favorite crustaceans. Just be gentle; the roly poly hospital won’t actually work if you pull a Lennie on them.