To everything, there is a season. There’s a time for digging your way out of the soil after 17 years. There’s a time to let your light shine, in your own particular pattern. And, there’s a time to sing your heart out for a mate, before your time runs out.
In the expansive energy of summer, many insects are involved in active parts of their life cycles. An insect life cycle can be varied depending on the species of insect, but in general, there are two types. Some insects have an egg stage, a nymph stage that looks similar to the adult, and an adult stage. This is called incomplete metamorphosis. Crickets are part of this group. There is another group of insects that have one more step in their life cycle, the pupa or chrysalis, including moths and butterflies. This is called complete metamorphosis.
It seems almost a shame that the majority of an insect’s life is spent in the larval or nymph stage. The adult stage, the beautiful emergence and activity that we recognize most often, takes up a very small portion of an insect’s life cycle. In some species such as the mayfly, the nymph will live for about a year in a stream bottom, only to emerge gracefully flighted for a few minutes to a few days, depending on the species. They live just long enough to mate and deposit eggs in the water.
In reality, the nymph stage of an insect’s life cycle is incredibly important. Although we do not usually see this stage because it is submerged underwater or buried in the soil, the nymph stage is where an insect is able to collect the energy it needs to become an adult and carry on the species.
Because of the limited time allowed to insects to mate and lay eggs, insects have to mate with fervor. There’s no time to waste when you only have a little while. As a result, a whole slew of adaptations are in place to ensure that these animals are able to find a mate, and fast. These include loud noises, bright colors, and flashing lights. Here are three very common local species of insects that are adapted to fast mating.
1) Fireflies. A favorite of jar-wielding children everywhere, the firefly flashes of magic and excitement in the summer months. Fireflies have what, in nature, is called bioluminescence, which is the ability to produce light chemically and without heat. There are other forms of life out there that use this adaptation, such as some species of squid and a local fungus called foxfire. My favorite thing about these flying nocturnal beetles is that the males show off by flashing their own special pattern unique to their subspecies.
2) Cicadas. Once I hear a cicada call, I know it is officially summer. Cicadas spend their winters as nymphs under the ground for many years until they crawl out of the ground and climb up a tree or other vertical surface. The nymph’s exoskeleton breaks open in the middle, and an adult cicada emerges, white and soft at first. The adult eventually turns a darker color and its wings grow. The high-pitched, whining sound of the cicada is used by males to attract mates, and is loudest during the hottest part of the summer, giving rise to a common name, dog day cicadas. The males of each species have a special pattern to their call, some sounding like sirens and others sounding like quiet whispers. The coolest thing about cicadas is that there are some species, called periodical cicadas, who emerge from the ground only once every 13 or 17 years. How they all know to emerge at exactly that time is something that scientist still do not fully understand. And they are quite edible, if you are into that sort of thing!
3) Butterflies. Butterflies fly around for different reasons. Sometimes they are looking for food or shelter. But other times, they are patrolling the fields and bushes looking for a potential mate. Butterflies look for specific color patterns and body shapes when looking for a mate, to ensure that they mate with the same species. There are many species of butterfly that look very similar, such as the monarch and the viceroy. Butterflies are able to distinguish a mate who is in their species by looking at very specific color patterns. Pheromones, or chemicals emitted from the body, are also thought to play a part in mate selection.
The adaptation to be attracted to loud and bright things is a pivotal part of mating on this planet. It works, even with us humans. Head over to Times Square and make your way through the crowds past the flashing bright billboards. You’ll realize that we have more in common with insects than we care to admit.