Picture a gigantic balancing scale. One side contains all of the mammals on the earth. Lions, tigers, moose, deer, rabbit, raccoon, capybara, coyote, and even humans. The other side contains all of the insects on the earth. Beetles, butterflies, bees, ants, mantids, and all of those little guys. Which side do you think would weigh more?
This imaginary scale would be tipped very obviously in one direction: the insects. On their own, insects don’t weigh much. They don’t take up very much space. But there are more than a million known species of insects on the earth, and scientists are discovering new species every day. Each of these species has potentially millions of individuals living upon the earth. It is mind-blowing to think of the number of insects alive on this planet at the moment.
Insects live everywhere on this planet. They can live in the most extreme conditions. For example, tiny springtails are found in Antarctica, and blister beetles in the Mojave Desert. Insects are amazingly adaptive, as well, and can survive most any type of threat. Some insects look exactly like leaves to provide camouflage. Some are brightly colored to look scary. Some secrete toxins, and of course, there are the biters and stingers. Some even pretend to be something else to protect themselves. The monarch butterfly, which is toxic because of its milkweed diet, has a mimic: the viceroy butterfly. Although the viceroy is non-toxic, predators still avoid it because of its similarity in appearance to the monarch.
The great thing about insects is that there are always new species to discover, especially in the summer. Here are a few intriguing insects I have encountered, and their stories.
1) Dobsonfly: I thought that I was having a hallucination the first time that I saw an adult dobsonfly. It was resting on the side of a wooden cabin. I kept blinking and expecting it to be a trick of my imagination. With their two-inch lacy wings and two large pinchers (or mandibles) on the front of their bodies, dobsonflies look like something out of a science fiction movie. As if the two pinchers on the front aren’t scary enough, the larvae of these flies are called hellgrammites.
They are often imitated by fly-fishermen who are making lures for their next big catch. Dobsonflies are born from eggs laid on leaves overhanging a stream. When the eggs hatch, the larvae fall into the stream and are carried downstream until they settle under a rock. Eventually, the larvae emerge, shed their outer skin, or exoskeleton, and metamorphose into winged adults. Larval dobsonflies are predators, eating other insects and worms that live in streams. The adults most likely do not eat, but are alive long enough to mate and deposit eggs, which is no more than ten days.
2) Luna Moth: Although just as awe-inspiring as the dobsonfly, the luna moth is not quite as scary-looking. The first time I saw one of these it was pure luck. I had placed a pile of luggage in the garage at night, to prepare for a trip. The next morning I found a perfectly preserved, dead luna moth on my suitcase. It was soft, green and absolutely beautiful. It must have been attracted to the light in the garage and never made its way back out.
It was also huge. Luna moths have a wingspan of over four inches, and brownish dots on their inner wings that look like eyes. Female luna moths lay eggs exclusively on the leaves of black walnut trees. The caterpillars are large, green and well camouflaged, and will emerge as adults after about three weeks in the cocoon. The adult moths only live about a week and like the dobsonfly their only job is to mate and lay eggs. Their name, luna, means the moon, and derives from their habit of flying only at night.
3) Eyed Click Beetles: Not only do these beetles look funny, but they act pretty strange as well. Eyed click beetles are elongated, black with white shading and eerie ‘eye-spots’ on the top of their thorax. A friend of mine who knew I loved insects brought me my first click beetle a few years ago. Being a bit mischievous, he told me that I should hold it upside-down on my hand. As I leaned my face towards the beetle to get a better look at its undercarriage, the beetle suddenly bent its head back and projected itself with force towards my face. This jump was accompanied by a loud click, much like the sound of an impatient woman with long fingernails at the deli counter. Needless to say, I was startled!
These beetles have the ability to project themselves inches upwards into the air to confuse would-be predators and also to right themselves if they have been turned upside-down. They can do this by ‘snapping’ two adjacent segments of exoskeleton together on their thorax, or mid-section. The adults eat nectar and sap from plants, and live in deciduous forests in North America.