The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: What’s This?

Hey Geek, what’s this? An ant that’s not…

This mystery was passed on to me from a friend in Texas, who fields the “what’s this bug?”-type inquiries that are sent to his place of employment.  The email subject line was: “Challenging ID“, and this message and lovely photograph from Kimberley were attached:

I was hoping you could help me identify what type of ant this is. I have seen a few on the black eyed peas in my garden, they are always alone. I would estimate they are about 1/2 inch long, maybe a little bigger

Photo by Kimberly Hill

Now, my friend already knew the answer. “Here is a tough one,” he said. I considered this to be a fun little test from my respected colleague, so I was all,

The first thing I found myself doing was counting “stuff” at the head end of this critter. I was reminded of the time we took our three-legged dog to a friend’s bbq, and caught another guest staring at our pooch from across the yard with a perplexed look on her face, saying aloud, “Oooone….twooooo…three.  One…two…three?”

Similarly, I count three dangly bits hanging off this insect’s face – two antennae and … a proboscis. Last time I checked, ants did not have sucking mouthparts,

Impostor!

This is not an ant at all; the mouthparts are a dead giveaway for something in the Hemiptera. Since it doesn’t have fully developed wings, it must be a juvenile, or nymph.

Putting all the pieces together:

  • ant mimic
  • pretty distinctive colouration and shape
  • true bug
  • nymph
  • found on a legume plant
  • a Texas locality

I’ve been able to come up with what I think is a pretty good guess of this critter’s identity:

the Texas Bow-legged Bug (Hyalymenus tarsatus).

This insect looks remarkably different as a juvenile than as an adult (see some images here) and the juveniles show a wonderful range of coloration. The only species in the genus found in Texas, these insects are known to feed on legumes and other plants with seed pods, like milkweeds.

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Hey Geek, what’s this? Mystery critter from northern Ontario

This latest installment of “What’s This?” comes via email from my own aunt Elizabeth, who discovered a new-to-her insect while at her cottage, which is on a small bay north of Manitoulin Island in Ontario. She has been cottaging on the same body of water since she was a child, and knows the wildlife pretty well, but:

Never saw this before. Any ideas?

Photo by Elizabeth, used with permission.

I’ll bet that many of you recognize this charismatic beastie…

It’s the unmistakable American Burying Beetle, Necrophila americana (Silphidae). The only species of the genus in North America, it is incredibly widespread in the eastern and central areas of the continent. As the genus name implies, it is a lover of dead things: a carrion-feeder, that also feeds on maggots and other carrion beetles.

Although their diet may seem distasteful, they perform a critical service as part of nature’s clean-up crew. A few years ago, in my garden, I watched a pair of carrion beetles (a different species than this one) drag a mouse carcass into a patch of loose soil, then, over the course of an hour or so, they buried the entire thing until no trace remained. This seemed to be an amazing feat for two insects a fraction of the size of the rodent! The young of that pair of beetles would have fed on the carcass after they hatched: burying beetles are excellent providers in addition to being marvelous cleaner-uppers…

Hey Geek, what’s this? Creepy long-tailed water thingie…

My Twitter feed alerted me to a new interaction – I’d been flagged in a tweet by @MarconiRebus containing a most intriguing photo:

An earlier tweet provided a little more info:

Whoa. That is one weird bug!

Aquatic insects do have a tendency to look weird and wriggly, but this long-tailed beastie was nothing I was familiar with; also, the photo was coming from overseas, making this ID challenge potentially tricky.

Luckily, that snorkel-butt was an incredibly useful character for narrowing the ID down to one insect Family. There are a number of aquatic insects that use a similar apparatus for breathing, but none that I’m aware of that look quite so wormy. A search turned up a most awesomely-named fly larva:

“Rat-tailed Maggot”

You gotta love that name; it conjures up so much “EW”! 😛

The Rat-tailed Maggot is the larva of a drone fly (Eristalis sp., Syrphidae).  Syrphids are generally known as “hover flies” for their ability to fly in place. The adults tend to hang out near or on flowers, and many mimic bees.

I actually encountered some large bee-mimicking hover flies (possibly drone flies, but difficult to tell from my photos) while camping last week; this isn’t the most awesome photo ever, but it gives you the general idea of the nature of the beast:

See Miles’ comment about this photo, below – I made a boo-boo! Thanks, Miles!

There were ample ponds and quiet pools in the area, which would have made perfect breeding grounds for these fascinating flies!

Hey Geek, what’s this? It bites!

I received an email last week, originally written by Jim:

Can either of you identify the bug in the attached picture?  This is
more a matter of curiosity than concern.  Our daughter learned in her
computer search that there might be some spiders with six legs…?    The
8-leg requirement for spiders was given as a good rule of thumb.
Trent got bit by this bug/spider today.  Any idea????

Jim’s message had first been sent to his friends, Rich and Dianne. Dianne passed the message on to me, having clearly already done some of the leg work by recognizing that the critter in question was not a spider (more on this in a moment) and figuring out the correct insect suborder:

Dear Bug Geek,
Do you know what kind of “True Bug” this is ?  Found in Pittsburgh area.  Many thanks.
Here’s the photo of the little nipper that accompanied Jim’s message:

Photo by Jim (used with permission).

It does sort of have the gestalt of a spider – a chunky body and spindly legs. The coloration is a bit alarming, too; with spiders on the brain, it would be easy to start thinking about things like this:

Photo by Wikipedia user Chepyle, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

You’ll note, though, that there are only six legs on the Trent-biter, not eight. The only time a spider will have less than eight legs is if it’s had some sort of unfortunate mishap, like a run-in with a predator or a developmental (molting) problem.  It is an insect, and Dianne’s assessment of it being a True Bug was correct.

Do you recognize it?

Hint: it’s a baby 🙂

It might be hard to imagine, but that cute little red and black bug nymph will eventually become an adult of the largest assassin bug species in our area:

Wheel bug! The only time I’ve ever encountered these was at BugShot in Missouri last year. I was amazed by the “wheel” structure on the thorax, and went to pick one up, but was quickly stopped by more savy folks who warned me about the painful bites (stabs, really – their mouthparts are tube-like proboscises) these insects are known to inflict.

Poor Trent!

Here’s a *ahem* busy pair of adults I found last year (thanks for the great excuse to pull out an old unused photo, Dianne and Jim!)

Hey, Geek, what’s this? A two-bug mystery…

Every now and then I get emails or tweets from people asking me to help them identify an insect they’ve found. I love messages like this! Sometimes I recognize the critter right away, other times I have to do a little sleuthing to narrow down its identity. I don’t promise to get a species-level ID, nor do I promise to be right all the time, but I’m sure willing to give it a good shot! Feel free to submit your questions any time.

Anyways, today I got one of these emails, and it was so much fun I had to share it with you (details removed out of respect for the author’s privacy):

Can you tell me what these bugs are?  I live in Texas.  I walked out of my home this morning and saw these 2 bugs sitting side by side on my fence.

One appears to be a green moth, the other some sort of beetle or roach.  They are both about the same size, approx, 1.5 inches.

They are probably harmless, but you never know and they creep me out.

Thanks,

J

My first thought was, “How interesting to find two such apparently different insects side-by-side on a fence!” My curiosity was piqued immediately. I finally downloaded the image files, and although the photo was a bit blurry, the mystery cleared up right away:

Mystery bugs: green “moth” on the left and brown “roach” on the right. (Photo by J, cropped by me).

J had snapped a photo of an unmistakable scene – and one I’ve never observed personally: a freshly eclosed cicada (the green “moth”, left) resting next to its old nymphal skin (or “exuvia“, right). Very cool!

A closer image of the adult sealed the deal:

It must feel like a strange and very bright new world for this adult cicada which, up to now, had been living in the soil! (Photo by J, cropped by me)

Definitely a cicada. Possibly a dog-day cicada (Tibicen sp.), but it’s hard to say for sure from these photos. Also, the colour of the insect is likely to darken considerably as it sclerotizes (hardens) – the true color would make the ID a bit easier.

As soon as those brand new adult wings have hardened, the cicada will find a nice perch in a tall tree and begin singing for a mate. I haven’t yet heard the cicadas sing here in Ontario, but their high-pitched drone always signals true summer for me 🙂

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