Dear Mr. Fancypantsscienceguy,
You seem to know a lot about bugs. that’s cool. I’d like to know more about red bugs. Red bugs look the best!
Have you ever been bitten by anything really really badly? Do any bugs scare you at all?
Your head is very large, and that’s a-ok.
– Ron Perlman
Dear Mr. Perlman –
Well, I can’t tell you how excited I am to hear from one of my cinematic heroes so soon after debuting my blog; I would have done this long ago had I known!
After getting your mail, I went out in search of some nice red bugs for you, but sadly I haven’t come across any really, really red ones yet. I’ll keep an eye out, though. In the mean time, here are some non-red bugs I found:
Now, Mr. Perlman is no doubt already familiar with the subject material to follow, but there may be some of you out there thinking to yourselves ‘Hey genius, those leaf-cutter ants you posted about were redder than either of these two guys’, but if you’re one of those people thinking that there’s a long and involved and also boring entomological technicality at play here that I intend to waste your valuable time with presently.
There are lots and lots of insects. Like, lots. Estimates vary, but there are about a million described species and anywhere from two to thirty million species that have not yet been described. If this sounds like a big number, it’s because it is. By way of comparison, there are about 5400 known species of mammals.
It is certainly popular to refer to just about anything small and crunchy as a ‘bug’. In polite conversation I’m generally just about as happy as anyone to do the same, and I even enjoy calling what I do ‘bug-chucking’. However, this being The Mighty Intertubes and given that the eyes of the Hemipteran Crusaders may be watching, I am duty-bound to inform you at this juncture that this is technically incorrect.
There are many kinds of insects, and only some of them are actually bugs. The ‘true bugs’ belong to the order Hemiptera, and include things like cicadas, aphids, water striders, and the assassin bugs pictured at the beginning of this post. All told, the order Hemiptera contains about 80,000 described species, and all bugs (at least to my knowledge) eat using piercing and sucking mouthparts. That is, they have a sharp beak that they stick into stuff so that they can suck out all the good things inside. This is often not a good thing for the food item in question, which is why gardeners are generally less than fond of aphids.
So, to recap:
– Not all small, crunchy things are bugs
– Not all insects are bugs
– Only a certain kind of insect is a bug
Now, you may be thinking that this is all really kind of pedantic and annoying, to which the short answer is: welcome to entomology (and taxonomy in general, for that matter). And as I mentioned, I personally don’t really have a big deal with the whole colloquial use of the word ‘bug’ to refer to all insects (I draw the line at calling spiders ‘bugs’, however).
But if you’re having a hard time understanding why anyone would care, let me attempt to make a sporting analogy. Say, for example, you were a fan of some sport. For the sake of argument, let’s pick, oh, ice hockey.
And say that you happened to be particularly fond of one of the teams that plays ice hockey. Just for the sake of argument, let’s go ahead and say that your team is the Detroit Red Wings.
But then let’s say that people generally didn’t know a lot about ice hockey or the teams that play professional ice hockey, and that colloquially everyone called all hockey players by the name that is technically used to describe a different team. Like, say, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
And so you’d be hanging out and watching your beloved Red Wings play ice hockey, and then some people who weren’t perhaps as well informed about ice hockey would be all, ‘Hey, check out those Toronto Maple Leafs playing ice soccer!’ or some other entirely plausible phrase. You get my point. Anyway, I can imagine that there may be some readers out there for whom such a situation might be considered infuriating if it happened all the time. And so it is, I guess, for some entomologists.
So, that concludes our lengthy side note on Bugs vs Insects. Now that we’re all on the same page, you’ll no doubt be pleased to know that the two images presented at the beginning of this post are, in fact, True Bugs in the order Hemiptera. They are members of the Hemipteran family Reduviidae, and unlike many of the other true bugs which feed on plants, the assassin bugs are predators.
Warning: paragraph includes stuff of nightmares. The assassin bugs hunt by sneaking up on other insects and stabbing them with their long, sharp beaks. They then pump digestive saliva into the unfortunate insect prey, dissolving its insides. Then, the assassin bug sucks out the newly dissolved guts.
This incidentally brings me to the second part of Mr. Perlman’s letter, regarding insects I’m afraid of. Assassin bugs are not a bad choice. While something the size of a human is not in danger of having their entire insides liquefied by an assassin bug, their bites are often really nasty and painful, and as a little icing on the cake a number of species will give you Chagas disease in the process, which is well worth avoiding if possible.
I haven’t ever been bitten by an assassin bug, and I’m hoping to keep things that way.
As for painful bites I have gotten, nothing really springs to mind. I did once get stung by a whole bunch of caterpillars while I was climbing a tree, which made my knee swell up like a cantaloupe and hurt a lot, but that’s not really being bitten. But rest assured, Mr. Perlman, when I do get bitten really badly by something, you’ll be the first in line to know.