Arxiu de la categoria: ARTHROPODS

Insects feel through their antennae

Insects perceive their surroundings through different organs, among which antennae are some of the most important. Antennae appear in a lot of incredibly diverse shapes and sizes, and every group of insects develops one or more models. We encourage you to know more about their origin, functions and diversity through this post.

The origin of antennae

Antennae are paired sensorial appendages located in the anterior parts of insects’ body. Except for chelicerates (spiders, scorpions…) and proturans (non-insect hexapods), all arthropods, either crustaceans, hexapods (diplurans, springtails -Collembola- and insects), myriapods (centipedes and millipedes) and the extinct trilobites, have antennae when being adults.

In crustaceans, antennae appear in the two first head segments: a first pair known as primary antennae or antennules, and a longer second pair known as secondary antennae or just antennae. Usually, secondary antennae are biramous (that is, they have two main branches), even though some crustaceans have undergone ulterior modifications so antennae appear as uniramous appendages (with a single branch) or even get reduced.

Types of antennae in crustaceans. Picture obtained from Wikipedia (link).

However, the rest of arthropods only have a single pair of uniramous antennae. Hexapods (like insects), which seem to be closely related to crustaceans according to the pancrustacean model, seem to have just preserved the secondary pair of antennae typical of crustaceans.

According to some authors, antennae appear to be true appendages; that is, they would start to develop during the embryological development from a head segment the same way legs do. However, this segment would have evolved into a reduced and inconspicuous piece, now being unappreciable. Moreover, antennae can also regenerate like legs.

How do insects feel through antennae?

So, what does this title exactly mean?

Antennae are microscopically covered with tiny hairs known as sensilla, which are not related with hairs found in vertebrates since they are made of chitin (as the rest of insect’s cuticle) instead of keratin.

Picture above: antennae under electronic microscope. Picture below: detail of the sensilla. Both images taken from

Despite being almost identical at the first sight, there are different types of sensilla: chemoreceptorial sensilla have an inner channel through which suspended molecules enter (e.g. pheromones), while mechanoreceptorial sensilla are retractable and move at the slightest pressure or when the insect changes its position with respect to the ground (in this case, these are called proprioceptor sensilla).

So, insects taste, smell, touch and communicate in part through antennae, thus allowing them to gather information about food sources, potential mates (pheromones), enemies, dangerous substances (e. g. a poisonous plant), nesting places and migratory routes (as in the case of the monarch butterfly). Other organs, such as legs, palpi and even the ovipositor (organ for laying eggs) sometimes have sensorial cells.

Inside and in the base of sensilla there are sensorial neurons connected to the insect’s brain; specifically, a brain region known as deutocerebrum. In chemoreceptorial sensilla, molecules bind with specific receptors that send nervous signals to the antennal lobe through the sensorial neurons. This lobe is somewhat like the olfactory bulb found in vertebrates.

Types of antennae in hexapods

Except for the proturans, which are wingless hexapods, diplurans, springtails (collembola) and insects develop different types of antennae. These are divided in two main groups:

  • Segmented antennae: springtails and diplurans. Each segment has an own set of muscles that moves it independently from the rest of the antenna.
  • Flagellate antennae: insects. Just the first segment located at the base of antennae in contact with the insect’s head (the scapus) has an own set of muscles, so the antennal movement depends entirely on this segment.

Parts of insects’ antennae

The three basic segments of insects’ antennae are the following:

Antenna of an inquiline wasp belonging to the genus Synergus (Hymenoptera). Picture by Irene Lobato.

1) Scape: basal segment that articulates with the insect’s head and the only one that has an own set of muscles. The scape is mounted in a socket called torulus.

2) Pedicel: the second antennal segment or the one that comes just after the scape. This segment has a relevant role since it contains the Johnston’s organ, which is a collection of sensory cells. This organ is absent in non-insect hexapods (springtails, diplurans).

3) Flagellum: the rest of antennal segments that form the antennae, which are individually known as flagellomeres. These flagellomeres are connected by thin membranes that allow them to move as a whole despite not having muscles.

Thousands of antennae!

From this basic pattern (scape + pedicel + flagellum), each group has developed numerous antennal models based on their lifestyle:

  • Aristate

These are very reduced antennae with a pouch-like shape and a small bristle that emerges from its third modified segment.

Example: a very extended model among flies (Diptera).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: picture of a fly of the family Sarcophagidae by JJ Harrison, CC 1.0.
  • Capitate

Capitate antennae have a club or knob at their ends.

Example: usually found in butterflies (Lepidoptera) and in some beetles (Coleoptera).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; middle: picture of a beetle of the species Platysoma moluccanum by Udo Schmidt, CC 2.0; left: a butterfly, public domain.
  • Clavate

Unlike the capitate ones, clavate antennae get progressively thicker in their ends.

Example: moths (Lepidoptera), carrion beetles (Silphidae, Coleoptera).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: beetle of the species Thanatophilus sinuatus (Silphidae) by Wim Rubers, CC 3.0.
  • Filiform

This is the simplest model of antennae: long, thin and made of equally sized and shaped segments.

Example: cockroaches (Blattodea), crickets and grasshoppers (Orthoptera), longhorn beetles (Cerambycidae, Coleoptera), bugs (Heteroptera).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: cockroach of the species Periplaneta americana by Gary Alpert, CC 3.0.
  • Flabellate

These are quite similar to pectinate and lamellate antennae (see below), but with thinner and flattener segments that make them to look like a folding paper fan; also, these thin projections occupy all the antenna, and not only the terminal segments as in lamellate antennae. This model is found in males of some insects, thus having a large surface for detecting pheromones.

Example: beetles (Coleoptera), wasps (Hymenoptera) and moths (Lepidoptera).

Beetle male of the genus Rhipicera. Picture by Jean and Fred, CC 2.0.
  • Geniculate

These are bent, almost like a knee joint. The first antennal segment (scape) is usually located before the joint. The rest of segments together are known as funicle.

Example: some bees and wasps, especially in chalcid wasps (Hymenoptera), weevils (Curculionidae, Coleoptera).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: picture of a parasitoid wasps of the species Trissolcus mitsukurii, public domain.
  • Lamellate

The terminal segments enlarge to one side in form of flat and nested projections, thus looking like a folding fan.

Example: beetles of the family Scarabaeidae (Coleoptera).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: picture of a beetle of the family Scarabeidae, public domain.
  • Moniliform

Unlike filiform antennae, the segments of moniliform antennae are more or less spherical and equally sized, thus giving these antennae a string of bead appearance.

Example: termites (Isoptera), some beetles (Coleoptera).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: picture of a termite by Sanjay Acharya, CC 4.0.
  • Pectinate

Segments have a lateral projection, so they look like combs.

Example: sawflies (Symphyta, Hymenoptera), parasitoid wasps (Hymenoptera), some beetles (Coleoptera).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: picture of a beetle of the family Lycidae by John Flannery, CC 2.0.
  • Plumose

Plumose antennae look like feathers as their segments have numerous thin branches. Having a bigger antennal surface allows them to detect more suspended molecules, like pheromones.

Example: mosquito (Diptera) and moth (Lepidoptera) males.

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: moth male of the genus Polyphemus by Megan McCarty, CC 3.0.
  • Serrate

Each segment is angled or notched on one side, thus making these antennae to look like saws.

Example: some beetles (Coleoptera).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: picture of a beetle of the family Chrysomelidae by John Flannery, CC 2.0.
  • Setaceous

These antennae are bristle-shaped, being thinner and longer in their ends. They are quite similar to filiform antennae, but thinner.

Example: mayflies (Ephemeroptera), dragonflies and damselflies (Odonata).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: picture of a dragonfly, public domain.
  • Stylate

Similar to filiform antennae, but the terminal segments are pointed and slender, looking like a style. The style can either have bristles or not.

Example: brachycerous flies (Diptera).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: picture of a brachycerous fly of the family Asilidae by Opoterser, CC 3.0.

You can read more about the different antennal models here and here, or take a look to the antennal gallery by John Flannery.

Main picture by Jean and Fred, CC 2.0.

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If you know more antennal models or curious facts about insects’ antennae, feel free to share it with us by leaving a comment below!


How would it be a world without bees?

In recent years, the idea of a world without bees has transcended numerous social and political spheres. The scientific community has been warning about the disappearance of bees during years without any consequence. But now, it has become an issue of major concern, acquiring a media relevance like never before. At the end of 2017, the EU decided to take matters into its own hands to prevent this tragic ending for bees.

Why would it be a problem that bees disappear from Earth? And which measures has the UE take in order to address this problem?

The DDT and Rachel Carson

The use of pesticides has been a common agricultural practice from the very beginning of agriculture. At the beginning, the use of organic chemicals derived from naturals sources, as well as inorganic substances such as sulphur, mercury and arsenical compounds, was very common. However, they eventually stopped being used due to their toxicity (especially, phytotoxicity). The growth in synthetic pesticides accelerated in the mid-twentieth century, especially with the discovery of the effects of DDT, which became one of the most widely used pesticides of all time. DDT became famous due to its generalist insecticidal effects and low toxicity to mammals and plants, being used to eradicate household pests, fumigate gardens and control agricultural pests.

Picture above: cover of a March 1947 brochure on DDT from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (source). Picture below: kids being showered with DDT during a campaing against poliomyelitis, which was believed to be transmitted by a mosquito (source).

DDT resulted to be very effective against insect vectors of deadly diseases such as malaria, yellow fever and typhus, thus becoming even more popular.

However, the overuse of this and other pesticides eventually began to cause severe human and environmental health problems, because some of these products started to contaminate soils, plants and their seeds, and to bioaccumulate within the trophic nets, finally affecting mammals, birds and fishes, among others. The indiscriminate use of pesticides and their effects were denounced by Rachel Carson through her most famous publication, “Silent Spring”, which was distributed in 1962.

Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson (source).

From Carson to the neonicotinoids

Since Carson denounced the abusive use of pesticides, the world has witnessed the birth of many new substances to fight crop pests. Since then, researches have focused on finding less toxic and more selective products in order to minimize their impact on both human and environmental health. Could we say it has been a success?

Yes… and no. Although their use stopped being so indiscriminate and famers started betting on the use of more selective products, there were still some open fronts. Fronts that would remain open until today.

Between 1980 and 1990, Shell and Bayer companies started working on the synthesis of a new assortment of pesticides to face the resistances that some insects have acquired to some of the most widely used substances those days: the neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are a class of neuro-active insecticides chemically similar to nicotine; they effect the insect nervous system with a high specificity, while having a very low toxicity to mammals and birds compared to their most famous predecessors (organochlorides, such as the DDT, and carbamates). The most widely used neonicotinoid nowadays (and also one of the most widely used pesticides worldwide) is the imidacloprid.

However, far from getting famous for their effectiveness, the use of neonicotinoids began to get controversial for their supposed relationship with the disappearance of bees.

How do these pesticides affect bees?

For some years now (2006 onwards) the neonicotinoids are in scientists’ spotlight as one of the main suspects of the disappearance of bees. However, it has not been until now that something that scientists had been denouncing for years has finally been assumed: that neonicotinoids cause a greater impact than it was thought.

Dead bees in front of a hive. Public domain.

Unlike other pesticides that remain on plant surfaces, some studies state that neonicotinoids are taken up throughout their tissues, thus being accumulated in their roots, leaves, flowers, pollen and nectar. Also, that nearby fields are polluted with the dust created when treated seeds are planted and that plants derived from these seeds will accumulate a major amount of pesticide than sprayed plants (as it is explained in this publication of Nature). This causes bees (as well as other pollinating insects) to be exposed to high levels of pesticides, both in the crops themselves and in the surrounding foraging areas. These same studies have revealed with less support that these products may persist and accumulate in soils, which may affect future generations of crops.

Some of the negative effects on bees that have been related to neonicotinoids are:

In addition to the effects of neonicotinoids, other important causes must be taken into account: climate change, less food sources and changes in soil uses.

What would happen if bees disappear?

Colonial bees (like honeybees) are the most famous among bees. However, they only represent a mere portion within the great diversity of known bees, most of which have solitary life habits and build their nests inside small cavities. The ecological importance of solitary bees is equal to or greater than that of honey bees, but effects that neonicotinoids have on them are still poorly studied. Together, bees are among the most efficient pollinating organisms.

Solitary bee entering in its nest. Public domain.

According to this study carried out in German territory and published in POLS One at the end of 2017, a large part of flying insect diversity (including numerous pollinators) and up to 75% of their biomass have decreased in the last three decades due to the interaction of several factors. And if that was not enough, the authors say that these numbers can probably be extrapolated to other parts of the world.

What would happen if both colonial and solitary bees disappear?

  • Disappearance of crops. The production of many crops, such as fruit trees, nuts, spices and some oils, depends entirely on pollinators, especially on bees.
  • Decrease in the diversity and biomass of wild plants. Up to 80% of wild plants depend on insect pollination to reproduce, as it happens with many aromatic plants. A decrease in the vegetal surface would lead to serious problems of erosion and desertification.
  • Less recycling of soil nutrients. With the disappearance of the plants, the washing and deposition of soil nutrients would go down.
  • Less biological pest control. Some solitary bees are parasitoids of other solitary bees and other groups of insects (natural enemies); their absence could trigger the recurrence of certain pests.
  • Negative effects on higher trophic levels. The disappearance of bees could cause a decrease in the diversity and biomass of some birds that feed on pollinators.
  • Disappearance of bee-derived products, such as honey or wax.

The UE bans the use of neonicotinoids

Facing this reality, several governments have tried to limit the use of pesticides as a part of the measures to stop the decline of bee populations and the resulting economic losses. To give some examples, since 2006 the biomass of honey bees has decreased by 40% in the US, 25% in Europe since 1985 and 45% in the United Kingdom since 2010, according to data published by Greenpeace.

To date, the more restrictive measures limited the use of neonicotinoids in certain situations or seasons. But at the beginning of 2018, the EU, after preparing a detailed report based on more than 1,500 scientific studies carried out by the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), decided to definitively ban the use of the three most used neonicotinoids in a maximum period of 6 months in all its member states after demonstrating that they are harmful for bees: imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam.

Will the objectives of this report be accomplished? We will have to wait …

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Although slowly, the fight against the abusive use of pesticides is paying off. However, we will have to see if the gap left by some products is filled with other substances or if governments commit to adopt more environment friendly agricultural models.

Main picture obtained from [link].

Some insects and other arthropods you should not confuse

Untrustworthy and sensational news about insects and arthropods are constantly shared through social networks, spreading tergiversated data and confusing amateur users. As a result, this usually leads to misidentifications and unnecessary alarmism toward harmless organisms.

Here we bring you a brief list of some insects and other arthropods that are usually confused and how to tell them apart. Don’t get tricked!

Spiders VS ‘Anything resembling them’

Spiders (Order Araneae) probably are some of the most feared arthropods among users for two main reasons: they are venomous and there are a lot of other arachnids that resemble them. So, it is quite understandable some people have serious doubts when finding an organism with eight long legs and a grim face.

However, most of these spider-like organisms are harmless and  unable to weave webs:

Harvestmen: unlike other arachnids, harvestmen or daddy longlegs (Order Opiliones) don’t have their body divided into two parts (prosoma and opisthosoma) by a thin waist, so they remind off a ‘ball with legs’. Also, they only have a pair of central eyes very close to each other. They neither have venom glands nor silk glands, so they can’t bite nor weave webs. They live in moist places, caves and near to streams and harvests. They are usually confused with spiders of the Pholcidae family because of their long legs.

Pholcus phalangioides (Pholcidae) (Picture by Olaf Leillinger, CC 2.5)
Harvestman (Picture by Dalavich, CC 3.0)

Solifugae: also known as camel spiders, Solifugae is an order of tropical arachnids characterized for having a segmented body and a pair of conspicuously large chelicerae forwardly projected. However, and despite their menacing appearance, they aren’t venomous (even though they bite can be very painful) nor weave webs. They inhabit desert and arid places, some of them are nocturnal and the diurnal ones move quickly looking for shadows to escape from sunlight.

Camel spider (Picture by Swen Langel, CC 2.0).

Amblypygi: also known as whip spiders or tailless whip scorpions, Amblypygi is an order of tropical arachnids that are neither spiders nor scorpions. Despite their menacing appearance, as it happens with camel spiders, whip scorpions don’t have venom glands. They have a pair of big thorny pedipalps ended in a pincer for grabbing preys, while the first pair of legs, which are filiform and segmented, act as sensory organs (not for walk). They don’t weave webs and have nocturnal habits.

Amblypygi (Picture by José Eugenio Gómez Rodríguez on Flickr, CC 2.0)

Pill bugs VS Pill millipedes

When playing in a park or in some natural place as a kid, you some time probably found a small animal, full of legs that rolled up when being touched.

These organisms are commonly known as woodlice. Woodlice belong to the suborder Oniscidea, a group of terrestrial crustaceans within the order Isopoda. They have a tough, calcarean and segmented exoskeleton, and inhabit moist places.

Armadillidium vulgare, Oniscidea (Picture by Franco Folini, CC 2.5)

Woodlice of the family Armadillidae, also known as pill bugs, are usually confused with pill millipedes (Subphylum Myriapoda, Class Diplopoda, Superorder Oniscomorpha), both groups with a similar external appearance and able to roll up into an almost perfect sphere as a defensive mechanism (convergent evolution).

Glomeris marginata, Oniscomorpha (Picture by Stemonitis, CC 2.5).

To tell them apart, you have to count the total number of legs per segment: if it has only a pair of legs per segment (one at each side of the segment), it is a pill bug; if it has two pairs, it is a pill millipede.

Bees and wasps VS Hoverflies

We talked widely about the main differences between bees and wasps (Order Hymenoptera) in this postThis time, we introduce you the hoverflies or syrphid flies (Order Diptera, Suborder Brachycera, Family Syrphidae), which resemble a lot to bees and wasps.

Resemblance of hoverflies to bees, wasps and bumblebees is a clear example of Batesian mimicry, which we explained widely in this post about animal mimicry. Moreover, hoverflies mimicry goes even further, since some of them also imitate the flight and the hum of these hymenopterans.

Hoverfly (Public domain picture, CC0).
Honey bee (Picture by Andy Murray on Flickr, CC 2.0)

To tell them apart, you have to pay attention to their eyes, antennae and wings: since they are flies, hoverflies have a pair of big compound eyes that occupy almost all their head, very short antennae with eight or less segments and a single pair of wings (the second pair has evolved into small equilibrium organs, the halteres), while wasps, bees and bumblebees have smaller compound eyes that occupy only the sides of the head, longer antennae with ten or more segments and two pairs of functional wings. Moreover, female hoverflies don’t have the abdomen ended in a stinger, so they are completely harmless.

Ladybugs VS Pyrrhocoris apterus

If you look for ladybugs pictures on Internet, you’d probably find a picture of this insect:

Public domain picture (CC0)

This is Pyrrhocoris apterus, a very common insect in the Palearctic area (from Europe to China) and recorded to the USA, Central America and India. You can find it on common mallows (Malva sylvestris), from which they eat seeds and sap, and they usually congregate in big groups because of their gregarious behavior.

Ladybugs are coleopterans (Order Coleoptera) with a more or less globular shape; they are carnivorous (with a diet based mainly on the intake of aphids) and can fly. Their first pair of wings are hard (elytra) and form a kind of shield that encloses the second pair of membranous wings.

Ladybug Coccinella septempunctata (Public domain picture, CC0)

On the other hand, Pyrrhocoris apterus is a bug (Order Heteroptera) with a depressed body, phytophagous habits and, unlike ladybugs and other bugs, it is unable to fly. Moreover, it doesn’t have a hardened shield.

Mantises VS Mantidflies

Mantises (Order Dyctioptera), which were widely addressed in this post, are very alike to this insect:

Mantispa styriaca (Picture by Gilles San Martin on Flickr, CC 2.0)

This insect belongs to the family Mantispidae (Order Neuroptera), also known as mantidflies or mantispids. This group is very well represented in tropical and subtropical countries, and just a few species are known from Europe. They have a pair of raptorial legs like those of Mantodea which they use for grabbing their preys.

Neuropterans, like mantidflies, green lacewings and antlions, have two pairs of similar sized wings with a very complex and branched venation. In Mantodea, the first pair of wings are smaller and harder than the second one, which are membranous and functional for flying; also, this second pair doesn’t have such a complex venation like that of neuropterans.

Mantodea (Picture by Shiva shankar, CC 2.0)

Mantidflies of the genera Climaciella and Entanoneura have a body coloration like that of some wasps, but they are totally harmless.

Climaciella brunnea (Picture by Judy Gallagher on Flickr, CC 2.0)

Mosquitoes VS Crane flies

Have you ever seen a giant mosquito and dreaded its bite? Well, you can stop being afraid of it.

These giant ‘mosquitoes’ (Order Diptera), which are commonly known as crane flies or daddy longlegs (Family Tipulidae), are totally inoffensive (and somewhat clumsy). They are distributed all over the world and inhabit moist places, like meadows and streams. Adults feed on nectar or don’t feed; in any case, they don’t suck blood!

Females have the abdomen ended in a kind of stinger; however, it is only their sharp ovipositor (not a stinger like those of bees or wasps).

Female crane fly (Picture by Irene Lobato Vila)

Dragonflies VS Damselflies

Both groups belong to the Order Odonata and have very similar appearance and behavior, being very common near sitting waters and lakes.

Two thirds of the Odonata are dragonflies (suborder Anisoptera), while the other third are damselflies (suborder Zygoptera). An easy way to tell them apart is by paying attention to their wings at rest: in dragonflies, wings are held flat and away from the body, while in damselflies they are held folded, along or above the abdomen.

On the other hand, eyes of dragonflies are large and touch in the vertex of the head, of which they occupy most of its surface, while those of dragonflies are smaller and are usually located on the sides of the head.

Dragonfly (Public domain image, CC0)
Damselfly (Picture by Xosema, CC 4.0)

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If you know about any other insect or arthropod that can be confused, let us know it by leaving a comment!


Venomous and poisonous arthropods: what makes them different?

After talking about venomous mammals, fishes and lizards, ‘All you need is Biology’ brings you this post about venomous and poisonous arthropods. We will try to explain you what makes them different and which arthropods produce some kind of toxic substance (and how they do it). It will probably surprise you!

Venomous vs poisonous animals

Although some people normally use these words interchangeably, they really mean the same? The answer is NO.

A venomous animal develops specialized organs or elements (such as fangs, teeth or stings) to actively inoculate venom inside the body of their victim as an offensive or defensive mechanism. On the other hand, a poisonous animal does not develop these type of organs, but specialized tissues or glands that produce toxins that are released passively as a defensive system; others acquire these substances from their diet. Sometimes, the toxin is not produced in any specific organ, but integrated within body tissues as a defense against predation.

Despite these differences, once in the body venoms and toxins can cause similar damage, which depends on their mode of action, the assimilated amount and the victim’s features. In humans, effects caused by these substances range from irritation, inflammation or redness to severe systemic damage in cases of powerful poisons.

Venomous and poisonous arthropods


Arachnids (subphylum Cheliceromorpha) include two of the better known venomous arthropods: spiders and scorpions. Both groups develop specialized organs to inoculate venomous substances which use either to hunt and defend themselves against predators or potential enemies.

  • Spiders

The specialized organs for venom inoculation in spiders are the chelicerae, a pair of preoral appendices typical of Cheliceromorpha which they use to grab the food. Spiders’ chelicerae, which are fang-shaped, are related to basal venom glands. These fangs have an internal duct that finish in a terminal opening through which venom is released and injected inside victims’ bodies like a hypodermic needle.

Spiders have the most evolved form of chelicerae: jackknife chelicerae. The two parts of the chelicerae come together like a folding knife, and when threatening to attack, the spiders rise the chelicerae and open the angle of the fangs.

Spider’s chelicerae. Public domain image (CC0) obtained from pixabay.

Some of the most dangerous spiders for humans are the Australian funnel-web spiders (genera Atrax, Hadronyche and Illawarra). Their venom is toxic to sodium channels, which results in the massive release of neurotransmitters.

“Funnel web spider” of the species Hadronyche cerberea. Have you noticed the drop of venom in its chelicer?. Picture by Alan Couch on Flickr (CC 2.0).
  • Scorpions

The most distal part of the scorpion tail, the telson (an additional segment found in several arthropods), has become a venomous organ that ends in a stinger. Like chelicerae in spiders, telson in scorpions is related to venom glands that contain toxic substances.

Scorpion of the species Centruroides vittatus, common in the middle of EUA and in the north of Mexico. In red, telson ended in a sting. Public domain image (CC0).

Scorpion venom is usually rich in neurotoxins that alter both the central and the peripheral nervous system of the victim by dissociating the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. In humans, the effects of their sting vary from intense local pain (with minor inflammation) to cardiac arrhythmias and acute pulmonary edema, like in the Indian species Hottentotta tamulus, which is considered one of the most venomous scorpions in the world.

BE CAREFUL! Neither all arachnids nor related groups are venomous; e. g. harvestmen, camel spiders and whip spiders (Amblypygi) ARE NOT venomous.

From left to right: harvestman (Daniel Jolivet on Flickr, CC 2 .0), camel spider (CC 3.0) and whip spider (Geoff Gallice on Flickr).


The subphylum Myriapoda is divided in two classes: Diplopoda (millipedes) and Chilopoda (centipedes), and both produce toxic substances.

  • Millipedes

Millipedes, which have an elongated body composed of a lot of segments with two pairs of legs (rarely just one pair), are detritivores and inoffensive. However, they release toxins (alkaloids, benzoquinones, phenols) as a defensive mechanism to prevent predation. Some of these released substances are caustic and can burn the exoskeleton of other arthropods or cause skin and mucous inflammation in bigger animals.

Millipede toxins are produced inside repugnatorial or odoriferous glands and then excreted through small micropores located at both sides of the body when being crushed or feeling threatened.

At the first sight, micropores are difficult to see. Picture by Thomas Shahan on Flickr (CC 2.0).

TRIVIA: black lemurs from Madagascar (Eulemur macaco) grab and bite millipedes to stimulate their secretions, and then rub them all over their body. It is thought that lemurs cover themselves on millipede’s toxins since these work as insect repellent.

If you want to learn some more about this behaviour, don’t miss the following video. We recommend you to stay until the end…the final result will probably surprise you!

  • Centipedes

Centipedes also have a segmented body like millipedes; however, each segment has just a pair of legs. While millipedes are detritivores, centipedes are carnivorous arthropods that hunt their preys actively. To do so, they have developed two large forcipules originated from the first pair of legs which can inject venom contained in glands in the trunk of the animal. They also bite when feeling threatened.

Forcipules of Scolopendra cingulata, by Eran Finkle (CC 3.0).

The Scolopendra genus causes the most severe injuries. However, despite causing an intense pain when stinging, almost all envenomations caused by centipedes spontaneously resolve without complications.


Despite their diversity, there exist just a few cases of venomous/poisonous insects (class Insecta).

  • Beetles

Some beetle families (Coleoptera order), such as Meloidae, Oedemeridae and Staphylinidae (Paederus and Paederidus genera) contain toxins within their hemolymph which are released by compression as a defensive strategy against predators. These substances cause skin burns, redness and inflammation in humans.

Sptaphylinidae of the species Paederus littoralis, from Spain, France and Italy. Picture by Alvesgaspar (CC 4.0).

Meloidae and Oedemeridae hemolymph contain cantharidine, while the one of Paederus and Paederidus contains pederine, a substance that is exclusive of females of these beetles and of certain marine sponges, and which is thought to be produced by symbiont bacteria.

  • Bugs

Although some bugs (suborder Heteroptera) are better known for being disease vectors, they also cause different types of skin injuries in humans due to the release of caustic and inflammatory substances as a defense when being compressed (e. g. Pentatomidae family) or by the injection of salivary enzymes that are normally used to kill and dissolve preys (e. g. Belostomatidae family).

Belostomatidae. Public domain image (CC0).
  • Hymenopterans

Most of wasps, bees and ants (Hymenoptera order) produce toxins as a defensive mechanism. In most of those cases, females develop a stinger at the end of the abdomen resulting from the evolution of the ovipositor (Aculeata infraorder); however, there are also some groups that defend themselves by biting.

Ants (Formicidae family) usually attack by biting, but some species, such as those in the group of the fire ants (Solenopsis spp.) and the bullet ants (Paraponera spp., Dinoponera spp.), also have stingers like bees and wasps. Formic acid probably is the best-known toxin produced by ants, but is unique to the Formicinae subfamily; fire ants, for example, inject piperidine alkaloids. The sting of the bullet ants, which are distributed throughout center and south America, is considered the most painful sting for humans caused by an insect according to the Schmidt Index (which considers it to be as painful as a gunshot!).

Red ant of the species Solenopsis invicta (left, public domain image (CC0)) and bullet ant of the species Paraponera clavata (right, April Nobile / © / CC BY-SA 3.0).

Females of most of bees and wasps within the Aculeata group develop an abdominal stinger. Their venom is usually rich in phospholipases, producing effects ranging from local inflammation to severe anaphylactic reactions (when suffering of hypersensibility or after being attacked by thousands of insects, as it has happened several times with the killer bee in America). The sting of the tarantula hawk (Pepsis formosa) from Mexico and southern USA, is considered the second most painful after the one of the bullet ant.

Pepsis formosa, a tarantula hawk. Public domain image (CC0).
  • Butterflies and moths

A lot of butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera order) produce toxins either during their larval stages, adulthood or both as a defensive mechanism against predation.

Sometimes, caterpillars are covered by urticant bristles or hairs that cause skin lesions (erucism), as in the case of the pine processionary (Thaumetopoea pityocampa), a harmful plague for pines which is very spread in southern Europe and America.

Pine processionary caterpillar nest, by John H. Ghent (CC 3.0).

On the other hand, adults of some species, like those of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and Zygaena spp., both showing flashy colors (aposematism, a type of animal mimicry), develop toxins within their corporal tissues to prevent predation. The monarch butterfly obtains these substances by feeding on toxic plants of the Asclepias genus.

Zygaena transalpina, by gailhampshire (CC 2.0).

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Have you found this information interesting? Do you know any other venomous or poisonous arthropod? Feel free to leave your comments below!


The main image is of public domain (CC0) and was downloaded from Pixabay.

Insects and microorganisms symbiosis: the endosymbionts

Symbiotic relationships are an important motor for organisms’ diversification and evolution. The relationships insects have established with some endosymbiotic microorganisms (that is, those inhabiting the inner of their bodies) have provided them of a lot of surprising physiological and ecological adaptations. 

The value of the relationship between insects and their endosymbionts

The major cause for insects’ evolutive and adaptive success is their potential to stablish beneficial relationships with other life beings and, especially, with those microorganisms inhabiting their insides: the endosymbionts.

Some years ago, it was considered that the greatest contribution of endosymbiotic microorganisms to the physiology of insects was their role in feeding habits, which would explain, at least in part, the diversity of diets among insects. However, it has been shown that endosymbionts affect many other physiological traits.

Types of endosymbiosis in insects

Endosymbiotic microorganisms can be found inside the gut, in the spaces between cells and inside cells.

Generally, the more internal the endosymbiotic microorganisms are within the host’s body, the closer their relationship with the insect is. The four most common types of endosymbiosis in insects are explained below, from the most external and least close relationship to the most internal and closest one.

Gut microbes

Gut microbiota of insects is composed both of prokaryotes (unicellular, without nucleus, like bacteria and archaea) and eukaryotes (unicellular or pluricellular, with nucleus, like protozoans) that live outside the gut cells. They usually inhabit the hind part of insect’s gut (hindgut), either moving freely in its lumen or remaining attached to its walls. In some phytophagous insects, likes termites and cockroaches, the hindgut is a chamber without oxygen (anaerobic) where fermentation of cellulose and other complex sugars takes place.


Worker termite gut; the green part corresponds to the hindgut without oxygen. Figure belonging to the following paper: Brune, A. (2014). Symbiotic digestion of lignocellulose in termite guts. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 12(3), 168-180.

In termites, this anaerobic chamber contains facultative anaerobic prokaryotes (they can develop either with or without oxygen) and obligate anaerobic prokaryotes (they can only develop without oxygen), such as spirochetes and methanogens, which aid in digestion. In addition, in some worker termites, this chamber also contains protozoans that play a major role in the digestion of wood cellulose (Have you ever seen a piece of furniture pierced by termites?).

Unlike other endosymbionts, gut microbes are horizontally transmitted between insects; that is, insects don’t inherit gut microbes from their parents, but they should acquire them throughout their lives. In termites, acquisition of gut microbes takes place through a process called trophallaxis: the workers, which are the only able to feed by themselves, digest the food and transmit the resulting product mixed with gut microorganisms to the rest of the colony members through their mouthparts.

Trophollaxis. Picture by Shutterstock.

Moreover, microorganisms are removed during molting processes, so termites (and other insects performing trophollaxis) can acquire them again through trophollaxis.


Parasites that live and/or develop inside an organism are known as endoparasites. They are also horizontally transmitted between insects.

Insects stablish fairly more relationships with pluricellular endoparasites than with microorganisms, being the pluricellular endoparasites the most harmful for insects in general terms; these are the cases of insect parasitoids (of which we talked in this post) and nematodes (able to transmit deathful bacteria to insects).

The most relevant endoparasitic relationship between insects and microorganisms, and the only one we are going to explain here, are vectors: the insect (or vector) serve as a container to the parasite until it reaches the definitive host. Parasites transported by vector usually are pathogenic protozoans harmful to vertebrates, like Trypanosoma (Chagas disease), Leishmania (leishmaniosis) or Plasmodium (Malaria).

Mosquito of the genus Anopheles, the major vector of the protozoan causing malaria worldwide: Plasmodium. Public domain image.

Extracellular and intracellular symbiosis

Unlike gut microbes and endoparasites, extracellular and intracellular endosymbionts are vertically transmitted generation after generation; that is, the insect inherits them from its parents

  • Extracellular endosymbionts

Extracellular endosymbionts, which can be both prokaryotes and eukaryotes, can be found in different organs of the body (even in the intestine along with the gut microbes). In any case, they never penetrate inside the cells. However, some species can be found outside and inside cells.

Since many extracellular microorganisms can also be intracellular, the possibility that they are found, in an evolutionary sense, in a transition stage between gut microbes and intracellular endosymbionts has been discussed.

An interesting case of extracellular endosymbiosis takes place in some species of aphids of the tribe Cerataphidini. Generally, aphids stablish a close relationship with an intracellular endosymbiont bacteria (Buchnera), but in some species of the aforementioned tribe these bacteria are substituted by extracellular unicellular yeast-like fungi (YLS or ‘yeast-like symbiont’) which inhabit the cavities between organs and inside different adipose bodies. Like Buchnera in the rest of aphids, YLS would play a key role on aphid feeding habits, participating in the production of essential nutrients.

Ceratovacuna nekoashi (Cerataphidini). Link (CC 2.5)

It is suggested that YLS would have evolved from an entomopathogenic fungus (that is, harmful to insects) whose lineage would later have derived into beneficial endosymbiotic organisms.

  • Intracellular endosymbionts

It is considered that at least 70% of insects has endosymbiotic microorganisms inside its cells. There exist two types of intracellular endosymbionts:

Mycetocyte symbionts or Blochmann bodies

Bacteriocytes or mycetocytes are specialized adipose cells containing endosymbionts which can be found in some groups of insects. These cells are vertically transmitted to the offspring and gathered together forming organs known as mycetomes o bacteriomes.

Blochmann bodies, or simply the endosymbionts inside mycetomes, are related to three groups of insects: Blattaria (cockroaches), some groups of heteropterans within Homoptera (cicadas, rust flies, aphids, etc.) and Curculionidae (curculionid beetles).

Buchnera aphidicola inside a mycetome of the aphid Acyrthosiphon pisum. The central element is the mycetome’s nucleus. Buchnera cells, which are round, are located packed in the citoplasm of the mycetome. Picture by J. White y N. Moran, University of Arizona (CC 2.5).

The most well studied case is the relationship between Buchnera and aphids. This intracellular bacterium recycles the uric acid and some other nitrogenous wastes produced by the aphid in order to produce the amino acid glutamine, which is then used by this same endosymbiont to produce other essential amino acids necessary for the aphid to develop. It is also considered that Buchnera produces vitamin B2 (riboflavin). This can explain why aphids have such a high reproductive rate and a big evolutive success despite having a diet rich in carbohydrates (which they obtain from plant’s sap) and poor in nitrogenous compounds.

It has been confirmed that Buchnera cells decrease in number when nutrients are scarce. This suggests that aphids use Buchnera cells as an alternative food source in difficult situations. So, aphids take more advantages from this relationship than Buchnera.

Guest endosymbionts

In this case, the guest (endosymbiont) alters some physiological traits of the insect to obtain some advantage.

Guest endosymbionts usually affect the sex ratio of insects (proportion of males and females in a population) as well as other reproductive traits. Guest endosymbionts that alter the sex ratio are known as sex-ratio distorters. Some guest microbes inhabiting the cytoplasm of insect’s cells are vertically transmitted to the offspring through ovules, so they need a higher proportion of female insects to guarantee their own perpetuity. To alter this proportion, they use different methods: male killing, induction of parthenogenesis, feminization or cytoplasm incompatibility, for which they usually induce changes at the genetic level.

One of the most well-studied cases is Wolbachia, an intracellular bacterium capable to induce a sex-ratio bias through almost every of the aforementioned methods.

Phenotypes resulting from insects infected with Wolbachia. Figure belonging to the following paper: Werren, J. H., Baldo, L. & Clark, M. E. 2008. Wolbachia: master manipulators of invertebrate biology. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 6(10), 741-751.

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Do you know any other relationship between microbes and insects? Leave your comments below!


  • Bourtzis K. Miller T. A. (2003). Insect Symbiosis. CRC Press.
  • Douglas, A.E. (1998). Nutritional interactions in insect-microbial symbioses: Aphids and their symbiotic bacteria Buchnera. Annual Review of Entomology, 43: 17–38.
  • Vega F.E., Blackwell M. (2005). Insect-Fungal Associations: Ecology and Evolution. Oxford University Press, USA.

The cover image is a montage made by the author from two images: 1) bacterium vector (by Flaticon from and 2) termite vector (obtained from

The (a)sexual life of insects

Most of insects are dioecious, reproduce sexually by mating and lay eggs. However, as a group they have developed many other reproductive strategies.

Discover them through this article!

Types of reproduction

Sexual reproduction

Sexual reproduction involves the participation of specialized sexual cells or gametes originated in the sexual organs by meiosis. It is the most common type of reproduction among arthropods and insects.

1. Amphygony

In amphygony, two types of gametes are generated, which lead to the formation of the embryo once they fuse. Most of amphygonic insects are unisexual or dioecious, so each organism generates only one type of gamete. In fact, only a few cases in which a single organism generates more than one type of gamete (hermaphroditism) are currently known; i. e. Icerya purchasi (Hemiptera), Perla marginata (Plecoptera) and several species of the family Termitoxenidae (Diptera).

Icerya purchasi (left; picture property of Vijay Cavale, CC 3.0) and Perla marginata (right; picture property of gailhampshire en Flickr, CC 2.0).

Finding mate and courtship

In dioecious organisms, the fusion of the gametes takes place once they find a mate. Insects develop diverse and complex strategies to find a proper mate: emission of pheromones, light, sounds and vibrations, development of an attractive coloration pattern, amongst others (of which we talked widely in this post about insects’ communication).

Once they get a mate, courtship usually takes place; however, only successful courtships end in copulation. Courtship behavior and strategies include the performance of nuptial dances, gifts (i. e. food, as occurs in some scorpionflies (Mecoptera)) or the formation of swarms (nuptial flights, as in Hymenoptera), amongst others. In some cases, females will not mate with the male if he does not possess a wide territory or a suitable food source.

In the following video, we can enjoy the honeybee nuptial flight:


The fertilization or syngamy is the process through which the gametes fuse to form the embryo. This process takes place both in dioecious and hermaphrodite organisms.

  • Internal fertilization

Following with the dioecious organisms, the most frequent mechanism among “modern” insects to guarantee gametes meeting is mating (internal fertilization). When mating, males usually transmit his gametes (spermatozoa) directly to the female body, inside which male gametes meet with the female ones (ovules).

Grasshoppers of the species Romalea microptera from the United States, mating. Picture property of, CC 3.0.
  • External fertilization

In some insects and related groups, fertilization does not need a direct contact of male and female sexual organs (external fertilization). In this case, males produce a spermatophore, a packet or capsule containing sperm, manufactured by the accessory glands of the male reproductive system; it is usually covered by a lipoprotein film that prevents it from dehydration. Usually, the spermatophore is considered an intermediate step between aquatic and terrestrial reproduction.

Spermatophore is produced by hexapod related groups, such as Myriapoda (millipedes, centipedes); also, by basal hexapods, like Collembola, Diplura and Protura; basal insects, such as Archaeognatha and Zygentoma (bristletails and silverfishes); and some groups of “modern” insects, like Orthoptera, Psocoptera, Coleoptera, Neuroptera, Mecoptera and some Hymenoptera. Sometimes, the male produces a spermatophore and leaves it over a surface, waiting the female to take it (as in Collembola); in other groups, the male offers it directly to the female as a nuptial gift, or leads the female where it has been deposited (Zygentoma and Archaeognatha).

Sminthurus viridis (Collembola); behind, the spermatophore. Modified picture; original picture property of Gilles San Martin on Flickr, CC 2.0.
Orthoptera (female) grabbing the spermatophore laid by a male. Modified picture; original picture property of Sandrine Rouja on Flickr, CC 2.0.

Internal fertilization is considered an evolutive adaptation to terrestrial life. However, there are still some insects that carry on internal reproduction that conserve the genetical information to produce a spermatophore; in these cases, the male introduces the spermatophore inside the female’s body, which serves to her as an additional nutritional source for her eggs.

2. Parthenogenesis

Parthenogenesis is the generation of offspring through unfertilized eggs. Usually, parthenogenesis is classified among asexual reproductive strategies; however, it is more like a special type of sexual reproduction since female gametes generated by meiosis are involved in the process.

Parthenogenesis can be:

  • Accidental: occasionally, an unfertilized egg gives birth to a larva; i. e. Bombyx mori (silkworm butterfly).
  • Facultative: while some eggs are fertilized, others not.
  • Obligated: eggs only develop if they are unfertilized. It occurs in many species with alternant parthenogenetic and amphygonic generations.
Silkworm butterfly (Bombyx mori). Occasionally, some of its unfertilized eggs give birth to a larva. Picture property of Nikita on Flickr, CC 2.0.

Moreover, depending on the chromosomic number of the ovule, parthenogenesis can be:

  • Haploid (n) or arrhenotoky: unfertilized eggs (n) generate males and fertilized eggs (2n), females. It takes place in bees and other Hymenoptera, in some Coleoptera and Zygentoma, and it is always facultative. Sex determination at birth is a key process in the evolutive history of colonial structures in social insects.
In honeybees, fertilized eggs give birth to females (workers or queen depending on the diet they are given during the larval stages) and unfertilized eggs, to males. Pictures by Alex Wild and figure by Ashley Mortensen (web of the University of Florida).


  • Diploid (2n) or thelytoky: unfertilized eggs (2n) always give birth to females with the same genetic number as the progenitor female (clones). It takes place in aphids (Aphididae, Hemiptera), cockroaches, scale insects (Coccoidea, Hemiptera) and in some curculionid beetles; it tends to be an obligated parthenogensis. This type of parthenogenesis has the potentiality to generate hundreds of descendants in a short lapse as a detriment to the genetical variability. In aphids, parthenogenetic generations alternated with amphigonic generations allow them to undergo demographical explosions at specific times.
Aphis nerii (aphids). Picture property of Andrew C, CC 2.0.

Sometimes, parthenogenesis occurs in immature stages (larval or pupal). In the pedogensis or paedogensis, immature forms can generate offspring by parthenogenesis; it takes place in gall midges (Diptera) and in a species of beetle, Macromalthus debilis, amongst others. It must not be confused with neoteny, in which a larva develops traits and reproductive structures typical of an adult (as occurs in some scale bugs).

Asexual reproduction

In the asexual reproduction, the generation of offspring occurs without the participation of any type of gamete.

It is very uncommon in insects, being represented only by a single and odd strategy called polyembryony. Polyembryony is the phenomenon of two or more embryos developing from a single fertilized egg by scission. Even though it takes place an initial fertilization, offspring is generated asexually. It occurs just in a few species of gall midges and in a few chalcidid hymenopterans (parasitoids), through which they undergo population explosions.

Offspring generation

There exist different strategies through which insects generate their offspring:


Oviparous insects lay eggs. It is the most common reproductive strategy.

Praying mantis lay or ootheca (left; picture property of Scot Nelson on Flickr, CC 2.0) and lay of the butterfly Pieris brassicae (right; picture property of Walter Baxter, CC 2.0).


Fertilized eggs are incubated inside the reproductive ducts of the female. It happens in some cockroaches, aphids, scale bugs and flies (Muscidae, Calliphoridae and Tachinidae), in some beetles and trips (Thysanoptera). The eggs hatch immediately before or after being laid.


Females give birth to larvae. There exist different types of viviparity in insects:

  • Pseudoplacental viviparity: female develops eggs containing little or no yolk, so she must nourish them through a placental-like tissue. It occurs in many aphids and Dermaptera, in some Psocoptera and in Polyctenidae (Hemiptera).

In this video of Neil Bromhall, we can see a group of aphids giving birth:

  • Hemocelous viviparity: embryos develop freely inside the female’s hemolymph (the internal liquid of insects, similar to blood), from which they obtain nutrients by osmosis. It occurs only in Strepsiptera and in gall midges. In some gall midges, larvae feed on their progenitor, which is also a larva (extreme case of larval pedogenesis).
  • Adenotrophic viviparity: larvae are underdeveloped, so they must keep feeding on liquids excreted by accessory glands located on females’ reproductive ducts (‘mammary glands’). Once they reach the optimal size, larvae pupate immediately after being laid. This type of viviparity takes place in flies of the families Glossinidae (tsetse fly), Hippoboscidae (horse or dove flies), Nycteribidae and Streblidae (bat flies).

In this video of Geoffrey M. Attardo (AAAS/Science), we can see a tsetse fly giving birth to its larva:

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Who said that the (a)sexual life of insects was simple? Do you know any curious data? Leave your comments below!


Main picture property of Irene Lobato Vila (the owner of this post).

Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite!

Have you ever felt uncomfortable when hearing this expression or feared to find your bed infested with bed bugs? Yes, bed bugs exist. However, good news is that not all insects known as ‘bugs’ sting nor live inside our bed sheets.

What bugs really are? Are all of them harmful? Where can we find them? Find out their diversity through this post, and give up thinking that bugs are dangerous!

Which insects are called ‘bugs’?

When talking about ‘bugs’, people are unconscious about the true diversity of these organisms. Bugs, and more exactly true bugs, belong to the Heteroptera suborder, which includes more than 40,000 species worldwide; in fact, they are the largest group of insects with simple metamorphosis. Their most ancient fossil, Paraknightia magnífica, which was found in Australia, has been dated from the late Permian (260-251 MA).

The Heteroptera belong to the Hemiptera order, inside which we can find other suborders which were formerly classified as a single suborder (‘Homoptera’). Some of the suborders once classified as ‘Homoptera’ include some well-known organisms, such as cicadas (Cicadidae) and aphids (Aphididae).

How can we recognize them?

Heteropterans appear in different forms and sizes. The tiniest specimens belong to the Anthocoridae, Microphysidae, Ceratocombidae, Dipsocoridae, Aepophilidae and Leptopodidae families, which are barely visible to the naked eye. Among the largest members there are some species of the Belostomatidae family, such as Lethocerus indicus (6.5-8 cm length). Despite this, they appear as a monophyletic group according to molecular data.

They show at least three synapomorphies:

  1. Piercing-sucking mouthparts, long, forming a stylet.

    Mouthparts of the predator Arilus cristatus (Reduviidae). Picture property of John Flannery on Flicker (CC 2.0).
  2. Paired odoriferous glands.
  3. Four-segmented antennae.

Furthermore, they have forewings (formally known as hemelytra) with both membranous and hardened portions, which gives its name to the group (Heteroptera, from the Ancient Greek ‘hetero’, different; ‘-pteron’, wings).

Pentatomidae. The proximal part of forewings is hardened, while the distal one is membranous. Picture property of Mick Talbot on Flickr (CC 2.0).


Life cycle

Heteropterans undergo a simple metamorphosis, so youths or nymphs and adults almost show no differences and cohabit in the same habitat. After hatching, nymphs molt several times until reaching the last nymphal molt, known as imaginal molt, through which they reach adulthood.

Life cycle of heteropterans. Picture property of Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. (link).

Adults differ from nymphs on having wings, a new disposition of odoriferous glands openings, a different number of tarsal (legs) and antennal segments, ocelli, ornaments (spines and glandular hairs), sexual traits on the terminal abdominal segments and sometimes a different coloration, besides a bigger size and a way harder tegument.

Nezara viridula nymph (Pentatomidae), still wingless. Picture property of S. Rae on Flickr (CC 2.0)

Communication and defense

Specimens of the same species emit volatile pheromones produced by their odoriferous glands as a way of communication. So, they can expel aggregation pheromones and sexual pheromones to gather in a point or to find a mate, respectively. In some species, it has also been documented the emission of sounds produced by stridulation, that is, producing sounds by rubbing together certain body parts.

Heteropterans develop passive and active defense mechanisms:

  • Among passive mechanisms, we can highlight the own body shapes (e. g., smooth and rounded structures which difficult their capture by predators), the inactivity as a way to go unnoticed by other organisms, and the crypsis or mimicry. Some examples of crypsis or mimicry are 1) color mimesis (homocromy) 2) shape mimesis (homotopy), through which they imitate structures of their environment, either plants or animals (e. g. ant-mimicry or myrmecomorphy) and 3) disruptive mimesis, that is, their outlines get blurred with the environment, so it gets difficult for predators to find them.
Leptoglossus occidentalis (Coreidae), with their wide tibiae that look like leaves. Picture property of Giancarlodessi (CC 3.0).
Myrmecoris gracilis (Miridae), a clear example of ant-mimicry or myrmecomorphy. Picture property of Michael F. Schönitzer (CC 4.0).
  • Some active mechanisms are 1) escaping, 2) biting, 3) the detachment of some appendices to confuse predators and 4) the emission of stink or irritating substances by their odoriferous glands, which in most of cases they acquire from plants they feed on. Others emit stridulating sounds.

Life forms and diversity

Even though most people know something about heteropterans due to the famous bed bugs, feeding on blood is far from being the only life form among true bugs.

  • Terrestrial

Most heteropterans inhabit terrestrial environments, either on plants or on the ground as phytophagous (they feed on vegetal fluids) or predators of other insects. There are also some terrestrial heteropterans that feed on roots or on fungi that develop under tree bark. Some examples of terrestrial phytophagous families are Pentatomidae and Coreidae. Among predators, which use their stylet to inoculate proteolytic agents inside their preys to dissolve their content and then suck it, there are a lot of members from Reduviidae family.

  • Aquatic and semiaquatic

Aquatic and semiaquatic forms have special adaptations to live in water, like hydrofuge hairpiles which repel the water. Most of them live in lakes and rivers, either on their surface (semiaquatic) or submerged.

Semiaquatic species usually have long legs and long antennae, which together with the hydrofuge hairpiles let them to stand on water. Water striders (Gerridae), which are very abundant in Europe, are a clear example of this life form.

Water striders (Gerris sp.). Picture property of Webrunner (CC 3.0)

Aquatic species usually have a pair of legs adapted to swim. A good example of this are the members of the family Notonectidae or backswimmers, which have the hind legs fringed for swimming.

Notonecta sp. (Notonectidae). Picture property of Jane Burton/Bruce Coleman Ltd. (link).

Despite living in water, aquatic heteropterans need surface air to breath, so they go out of water periodically. They present different strategies to absorb oxygen, such as swallowing air that goes directly to the respiratory or tracheal system through a siphon (Nepidae) or capturing air bubbles with their hydrofuge hairpiles (Nepidae). Other simply get covered of a tiny air layer using their hydrofuge hairpiles.

  • Hematophagous

Finally, there are heteropterans that feed on blood and live as bird and mammal parasites. This is the case of the Cimicidae family (e. g. Cimex lectularius, the bed bug) and some groups of Reduviidae, such as the members of the subfamily Triatominae, which are also known for being vectors of the Chagas disease in the center and south of America (being Triatoma infestans its main vector).

Cimex lectularius or bed bug nymph. Public domain.
Triatoma sp. (Triatominae). Picture property of Bramadi Arya (CC 4.0).

Scientific interest

  • They help to regulate some wood and crop pests, having an important role in integratative pest management. This is the case of some predator heteropterans from the Reduviidae, Anthocoridae, Miridae, Nabidae and Geocoridae families. However, some phytophagous heteropterans can act as pests too.
  • They have been an interesting scientific model for the study of insect physiology.
  • They are an important element on human diet in some countries, being Pentatomidae one of the most consumed families. Some aquatic heteropterans, such as Lethocerus sp. (Belostomatidae) are very appreciated as food in some Asiatic countries, like Vietnam and Thailand.
Lethocerus sp. Picture property of Judy Gallagher on Flickr (CC 2.0).
  • Some of them are disease vectors or a cause of discomfort. The most classic example is the bed bug (Cimex lectularius), which has become a frequent pest in temperate regions; some Cimidae are also a threat for free range chickens and other farm birds. In America, Triatominae are vectors of different diseases, being the most famous the Chagas disease (transmitted by a protozoan, Trypanosoma cruzi).

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All organisms on Earth are necessary for some reason: you only need to investigate about them. Even the true bugs!


Main picture property of Pavel Kirillov on Flickr, with license  Creative Commons 2.0. (link).