Sunday, August 23, 2015

HumBug: The Most Unlovely Insects

Posted By on Sun, Aug 23, 2015 at 3:00 PM

click to enlarge A tachnid fly on a flower: still fugly. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A tachnid fly on a flower: still fugly.
Butterflies and dragonflies can entrance us with their beauty. Praying mantises carry themselves with a slender, lethal elegance. At the other end of the insect spectrum, you can find the order of flies.

Unlike all other winged insects, members of the order Diptera have only two wings not four. Di meaning two and ptera meaning wings. Among the diptereans, you can find the common house fly, horse fly, mosquitoes and an inventory of infamy too long to list, spreading diseases and suffering throughout the world. There are, however, a few heroes in the family. Bee flies are good pollinators. Looking like a nightmare punk version of a fly, members of the tachnid family eliminate many insect pests in a manner similar to some of the solitary wasps. The female lays her eggs on the larvae of other insects. When they hatch the larva is consumed.
click to enlarge The pollinating bee fly. Helpful, but not cute. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • The pollinating bee fly. Helpful, but not cute.
While none of these are particularly beautiful, I think the ugliest-critter-I-know award goes to members of the Asilidae, or robber flies. Adroit aerial predators, they take up a post and wait for likely prey to fly near, dashing out and immobilizing it by piercing its neck and injecting venom which immediately starts to liquefy the hapless insect's innards so “bug soup” can be drawn out through the fly's beak. Often returning to their original perch to finish their meal at leisure, they sometimes amass a small assortment of empty husks beneath them.
click to enlarge A robber fly makes bug soup out of a yellow jacket. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A robber fly makes bug soup out of a yellow jacket.
One final word of caution. While we are of no interest to them because of our size, many a budding entomologist has regretted mishandling one in a net. When they do bite the cocktail they inject causes some serious pain. Wearing thick leather gloves is suggested.
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