Photo from You: Insect Identification

Last week we received a photo of a very bizarre looking insect from Melissa who lives in the Seattle area. I had an idea of what it was when I opened the file, but it was a bit of a head scratcher!

For the most part, all insects in a particular order share the same distinguishing characteristics and it’s easy (for me) to tell what group they belong to. Grasshoppers look like grasshoppers, butterflies like butterflies, wasps like wasps, etc. But there are some exceptions to the rule. Some moths mimic beetles, some flies mimic bees, and some insects just look like 3 different things at once! This was the case with the bug Melissa found.

Photo by Melissa Mashock

It is a very alien-like creature called a plume moth. Plume moths do not look like the typical moth or butterfly. But then again, since there are about 250,000 species (10 times the amount of butterflies) of highly variable insects known as moths, there really isn’t a typical moth.

At first glance, a plume moth resembles a crane fly. You know those large clumsy flies you see in the spring, whose legs fall off if you look at them wrong. They have very thin wings that are divided into lobes. The forewings typically consist of two lobes and the hindwings have 3.  At rest, many species hold their wings straight with the lobes folded together, making them look like a “T.” There are 154 species of these moths found in north America, making species identification very difficult and often requiring a microscope. The adults are quite inconsequential and can go relatively unnnoticed. They’re often mistaken for a bit of dead grass! This allows them to be easily overlooked by potential predators and most other things.

Luckily Melissa noticed this one enough to snap a picture so we could learn about this cool insect. The caterpillars are the most significant life stage and can be pests on some crops such as artichokes and ornamentals such as geraniums and snapdragons. On the other hand, they have been used as biological control to combat invasive plants such as West Indian lantana.

Photo by Melissa Mashock

Even though I’m an entomologist, there are a million described species of insects, most of which I’ve never seen. I always love the challenge of identifying different species that people find in their particular corners of the world. Then I can add another species to the list of ones I know about. And by reading, you can too!

I encourage everyone to spend some time outside observing the smaller things that are out there. If you find something that interests you, snap a picture, and send it in to blogadmin@hmns.org. We love to receive these kinds of queries! We’ll identify and feature your bug in our blog.

Until next time, happy bug watching!

Photo From You:Insect Identification

Photo submitted by Alex

Last week we got an interesting photo from a man named Alex in Guanajuato, Mexico. At first glance it looks like a stem with green thorns and some really weird, spiky, alien-looking bugs. The “green thorns” are actually insects that often get dismissed as, well, green thorns! These little guys are called treehoppers and they are everywhere, constantly being overlooked because of their excellent camouflage. They belong to the order Homoptera, which is notorious for containing almost all of the worst plant pests, including everyone’s favorite, the aphid! This order also includes interesting, non-pest insects like the cicada and the masters of disguise, treehoppers and leafhoppers. Most entomologists today lump the order Homoptera with Hemiptera, or true bugs such as stink bugs, leaf-footed bugs, and assassin bugs. I, however, think they’re different enough to have their own group.

So, as I said, most treehoppers are not considered pests except for a small handful, including this little guy, the Keeled Treehopper (Antiathe expansa). They are known to attack plants in the family Solanaceae – especially tomatoes, eggplants and chile peppers. Alex found these guys all over his chile plant! In large enough numbers, they can seriously injure and even kill these plants. The problem is that, unlike more efficient insects like butterflies, beetles and flies, the young nymphs and adults eat the exact same thing. They use a sharp beak to penetrate the tissues of plants and suck the sap. All homopterans feed this way and that’s why so many of them cause damage to plants. All of this sap eating causes these insects to excrete a sugary liquid called honeydew which ants go crazy for! The ants will “milk” the honeydew from the homopteran and in return for the yummy snack, protect them from other predators. For example, ants who farm aphids for honeydew will keep the hungry ladybugs at bay to protect their precious nectar. For this reason, ants are very often associated with homopterans.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Dvorak319
treehopper being farmed by ants

So, what are the little spiky, weird orange guys? You guessed it, the nymphs! Very often, treehopper nymphs will look very different from the adults, but as time goes by, with every molt, they will lose their spines and start to resemble the green thorn-like adults. Treehoppers come in a wide array of fascinating and even downright bizarre shapes and appearances. Those found in the tropics are a bit larger and sport vibrant colors and odd protuberances unlike any other insects. Next time you are out and about, look a little more closely, and you’re sure to spot them!

Remember, if you find an odd looking bug and would like to know what it is, snap a picture and send it to us at blogadmin@hmns.org. Happy bug watching!

Photo From You: Insect Identification

This comment and photo were emailed to us on the blog a few days ago.

Angies car critters

“My friend was out on the Katy prarie the other day and left her window down. Upon her return to the vehicle, she discovered nearly 100 of these little guys swarming inside her Tahoe. Can you please tell me what they are?”

The insect in question this time is one that is VERY common around here, and perhaps, like most insects, quite misunderstood! This picture was taken inside a woman’s car out near the Katy Prairie. Since the photo is blurry, it’s hard to get a really positive identification, but it looks to me like a member of the family Tipulidae, or crane flies. These flies are not usually called  by this name. Growing up, I knew them as mosquito hawks, or skeeter eaters! Some might even think that they are actually giant mosquitoes. It was not until I started studying Entomology in college that I learned their true identity and what they really do, which is…not much of anything at all!

The family Tipulidae contains 14,000 different species of crane flies, making it the largest family of flies. They are found literally all over the world.  They may resemble their close cousins the mosquitoes, but they want nothing to do with human blood or any blood for that matter. Often the adults don’t feed at all, but if they do, they stick to flower nectar. Mosquito hawk is definitely a misnomer. The larvae, which are active eaters, don’t eat mosquito larvae, they only feed on rotting organic matter and sometimes roots. The larvae of some European species can become pests in lawns.

D like Dragonfly :)
Dragonfly, also sometimes known as
mosquito hawks.
Creative Commons License photo credit: chris bartnik photography

The real mosquito hawk is actually a type of mosquito! These awesome mosquitoes belong to the genus Toxorhynchites, which is just as fun to pronounce as it is to spell! As adults, these are one of the very few types of mosquitoes that do not feed on blood. They prefer nectar as well. The larvae are active predators, especially on other mosquito larvae, so we really like these guys! Dragonflies are also sometimes known as mosquito hawks also since they chow down on them during all stages of their lives.

Crane flies are usually one of the first bugs I see emerging in the spring. You can identify them by their extremely long legs, which are very fragile, and their clumsy flight. The woman who took this picture said that she had nearly 100 of these in her car since her window was left open. I’m not sure exactly what they were doing, but my best guess was that they were late season adults swarming together in search of a mate to complete their lifecycle before it’s too late.  So next time you see something that looks like a giant mosquito, don’t swat at it, it means you no harm! Happy bug watching!

Photo from You: Insect Identification

fleasLast week we received an e-mail entitled “Huge Fleas” - as you can imagine, I was quite intrigued! This poor man, by the name of Mike, had these creatures (his picture of one of them, right), resembling giant fleas, falling out of a crack in his ceiling.  He must have been going crazy wondering what they were, where they came from, and what they were doing in his house.

Well, that’s where I come in. I love to help you identify strange creatures of the bug world and hopefully set your mind at ease!

So, this time around I knew exactly what Mike’s “giant fleas” were as soon as I saw the picture. I have come across these critters before, once while working for a local pest control company, and once while working here at the museum.  They are commonly known as “scuds,” a very flattering name indeed, but they are officially named amphipods. These are a type of shrimp-like crustacean.

They are mostly aquatic, but there are a few species that are terrestrial.  These species have to live in very moist areas and can usually be found in mulch and moist soil. Unlike insects and most other arthropods, they don’t have a waxy layer covering their bodies to retain or excrete moisture, so conditions have to be balanced – not too dry, not too wet – in order for them to survive. If things get too wet outside, like after a heavy rain, they will seek out more favorable conditions inside your home. That’s when you may run into them!

Mike sent us this e-mail shortly after the huge rainstorm we had, so that is a possible reason for them being in his house. Another possibility is that there was a lot of moisture in his attic, perhaps some sort of a leak. The scuds could have been searching for a moist and warm environment and found it. No matter how they got there, they are nothing to worry about. These bugs are harmless detritivores that feed on tiny bits of organic matter and will do no damage inside your home. In fact, once they’re in there, they will probably just die from dehydration and will have been no more than a slight nuisance. So if you ever find anything resembling a huge flea, or small shrimp you can rest easy!

Thanks for the e-mail, Mike!

If you ever need help identifying a weird bug you’ve found, please snap a quick, but clear photo of it and send it into blogadmin@hmns.org. We will do our best to identify it for you quickly and your photo can be featured on our blog.  Who knows, maybe it will help out someone else trying to identify the same thing. You are also welcome to bring it in! Until next time, happy bug watching!