Bugs are Amazing!

Well, it’s officially summer here in Texas and Houston is literally buzzing with insect activity! I don’t know about you, but I have about 18 mosquito bites and I’m sure there will be many more to come. Bugs are everywhere now and this is the best time of year for them.

People always ask me why I’m so interested in bugs and why would I want to work with them for a living. Most people are so concerned with how gross or weird they are to see how amazing they can be. The more I get to know them, the more I want to know – they just blow me away! Hopefully you will feel the same. I wanted to share some amazing insect facts with ya’ll so maybe while you’re out and about this summer, you’ll think a little differently about our little friends!

First thing’s first, Arthropods are the phylum that insects belong to and includes all of their close relatives like arachnids, crustaceans, and myriapods. There are an estimated 1,170,000 known species on earth. Those are only the ones we know about; there are probably millions more waiting to be discovered!

Of these, about 1,000,000 species are insects, which account for more than half of all known living species on earth…that’s amazing! Scientists believe that there are up to 9,000,000 more species that have yet to be discovered, OMG.

So lets compare that with some other animals shall we? There are 5400 species of mammals, 10,000 species of birds, 8200 species of reptiles, and somewhere around 6000 species of amphibians.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: robstephaustralia

The largest order of insects are the beetles with 350,000 species making them the most abundant animal on earth. In fact, 1 in every 4 animals is a beetle! Coming in second are butterflies and moths, with 170,000 species. The largest insect (heaviest) is a beetle called the Goliath Beetle. They can weigh 4 ounces, which is as much as a quarter pound burger (meat only.) The longest is a walking stick from Southeast Asia measuring 22 inches.

Think insects all have short lifespans? Think again. Cicadas can live 17 years underground before becoming adults, ant and bee queens can live for decades and one type of wood boring beetle emerged as an adult after being in a bookcase for 40 years, yikes!

The loudest insect is an African cicada. We are used to hearing cicadas during the hot summer days. I heard cicadas in Costa Rica that were so loud I thought they were birds at first! The African cicada can produce sounds that have been recorded at 106.7 decibels. In comparison, a jackhammer produces about 100 decibels.

grasshopper chomping on my leg hair
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Most people know that Monarch butterflies migrate pretty far, but did you know that locusts travel much further? They have them beat by a couple thousand miles. They have been known to travel nearly 3000 miles one way! One species even flew from Africa, across the Atlantic ocean to South America; now that’s amazing! They also win in terms of the largest swarms. The largest swarm was recorded in Africa in 1954. It was so huge it covered an area of 77 square miles. That’s kind of scary.

Insects are pretty amazing fliers. They were the first animals to take to the air, about 200 million years before the first birds. Dragonflies are up there, having been clocked at 36 miles per hour, but the horsefly can reach speeds of more than 90 miles per hour! A hummingbird can beat its wings about 60-80 times per second,  pretty impressive. A tiny fly called a midge can beat its wings up to 1000 times per SECOND, that’s unbelievable.

When it comes to foot racing, we do have a super star, right here in Houston. The American cockroach(big one with wings) can reach speeds of 3.4 miles per hour. Now that doesn’t sound fast, but in human terms, it would be like one of us running 400 miles per hour. The Australian tiger beetle is the fastest clocking in at 5.6 mph, which is the equivalent of 720 mph for a human.

European rhino beetle taking a walk on a concrete mixer
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All insects are of course very strong, being able to carry or move things many many times their own body weight. A well known beetle, the rhino beetle can carry up to 850 times its own weight. That would be like an average guy, maybe 175 pounds, being able to lift 150,000 pounds. Good luck with that!

So see, insects are pretty darn incredible. It may even make you feel better to know that out of the million species of insects that exist on earth, less than 1 percent are considered to be pests or harmful to humans. The vast majority live in tropical regions like Asia, Africa, and South America, with the highest concentration in rainforests. I could go on and on about the feats of insects, but I’ll save some  for another time. Until then, I hope you all can learn to appreciate the most incredible, beautiful, and diverse life forms on our planet. Happy bug watching!

Insect (relative) Insight: Centipedes and Millipedes

This month, I’d like to shed some light on two of our favorite insect relatives – both of which are often misidentified, misunderstood, and all together mixed up. The time has come to clear up some misconceptions about these very long, many-legged creatures. Laurie and I are often suprised at how many people don’t know the difference between a centipede and a millipede, and we feel it is very important.

Centipedes and Millipedes are Arthropods which which belong to a group called myriapods, meaning “many legs.” They can be found in all different types of environments on nearly every continent on the globe. Both have bodies consisting of a head, which bears chewing mouthparts, and a long trunk made up of several segments. That is where the similarities end.

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Sonoran Centipede (Scolopendra heros)

The word Centipede litterally means “one hundred feet”. In reality, they can have anywhere between 30 and 346 legs with one pair of legs per body segment.

A Centipede’s legs originate from the side of their flattened body, which helps them move quite swiftly. They are nocturnal predators that spend their days hiding under rocks or logs. During the night they emerge to hunt for their prey, which consists of mostly small insects and other bugs, however, some larger centipedes may be able to take down frogs, lizards, or even mice!

Centipedes have a pair of poison fangs directly beneath the head which they use to inject venom and paralyze their prey. They rarely bite humans, but will do so to protect themselves if handled. Most centipedes are of little concern because they are very small with mild venom.

In Texas, however, we do have the giant sonoran centipede, Scolopendra herosThis centipede can reach 6 inches in length and has sizeable jaws that pack quite a punch. The venom can cause  enough pain and swelling to land you in the hospital and can be very dangerous to small children or individuals that are sensitive to insect toxins. The best idea is never to handle a centipede of any size. Here at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, we have 3 giant centipedes: Sonny, Steve, and Sam, who are all on display. They’re fun to watch and take care of and I’ve been working with them for a very long time so I know how to handle them and have never been bitten (knock on wood.)

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Giant African Millipede

Millipedes on the other hand, are at the opposite end of the spectrum. These gentle creatures have a rounded body much like a worm. The word “millipede” means “one thousand legs.” They don’t really have that many, but for each segment on a millipede’s body, there are two pairs of legs. These guys can have anywhere from 80 to 400 legs! Millipedes are harmless detritivores which move very slowly. They live in the soil and feed on decaying organic matter and sometimes the roots and stems of small seedlings.

Their main defense is to roll themselves into a tight ball covering their more vulnerable parts. Some species can also emit a foul-smelling defensive liquid which is not usually harmful to humans.

Our native millipedes are very small, but some, such as the Giant African Millipede, can reach 12 inches in length and live up to 7 years. We have about 7 Giant African Millipedes, 4 of our largest are on diplay. Millie, goes to schools with us for our Bugs on Wheels program. The children have called her everything from a snake, to a worm, to a snail, to a caterpillar, and of course, a centipede.

Well, I hope you’ll find this helpful next time you see one our funny long-bodied friends, and come and see our giants on display in the Brown Hall of Entomology.