They may not be cute or fluffy, but insects are definitely some of the most fascinating animals on the planet. These tiny creatures make up nearly half of all known species and are vital to the world’s ecosystems.
All insects have a hard, chitinous ‘exoskeleton’, six pairs of legs and a body divided into three sections. However, they are extremely diverse and show an incredible range of adaptations.
Join us as we delve into a miniature world and explore ten of ARKive’s most fascinating insects and their adaptations!
A giant of the insect world, the male elephant beetle has a long, rhinoceros-like horn on its head which it uses to fight other males. The larvae of this species grow to an even more impressive size than the adults, measuring up to 22 centimetres in length! Beetles are characterised by their tough pair of modified forewings, or ‘elytra’, and are the most successful group of animals on the planet, making up around 40% of insect species and 1 in 5 of all animals.
The monarch butterfly is best known for its spectacular long-distance migrations, with some populations travelling as far as 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometres) south to their wintering grounds in Mexico. Millions of individuals congregate in small areas of forest over winter, blanketing the trees on which they roost. Insects are the only invertebrates to have evolved the ability to fly, and this has played a key role in their success.
The dragonhunter is an aptly named species, as it specialises in hunting other dragonflies as well as other large insects. It is a large and distinctive species with long, powerful legs and wings, and like other dragonflies it is a voracious predator. Adult dragonflies have acute eyesight and superb flying abilities, and are able to catch prey in the air. Dragonfly larvae live in water and are also formidable predators, shooting out their modified mouthparts to catch prey.
A common and widespread butterfly, the large white lays batches of eggs on its food plant, and the eggs hatch into caterpillars a week or two later. The caterpillars feed, grow and moult, and eventually turn into pupae. Some pupae hatch into adults in just two weeks, but later ones remain as pupae over winter, hatching into adults the following spring. This process of metamorphosis occurs in many insects, and means the adult stage has the primary purpose of dispersing and reproducing, while the main function of the larva is to feed and grow.
Although unpopular, the house fly plays a vital role in decomposition and the recycling of nutrients. To feed, this species spits onto food before sucking it up with its sponge-like mouthparts. As in other flies, its second pair of wings is modified into small appendages which help with balance, and claws and pads on its feet help the house fly to grip any surface. This species has surprisingly keen senses, with acute vision and an amazing ability to taste with its feet!
Now you see it…
Like many insects, the Lompoc grasshopper uses camouflage to avoid predators. Other species go to the opposite extreme, displaying bright colours that advertise to predators that they are toxic or taste bad. Grasshoppers differ from crickets in their shorter antennae and they produce sound by rubbing their hind legs against their wings, rather than by rubbing their wings together. Intriguingly, grasshoppers have ears on their abdomen, and crickets have them on their front legs.
Like other ant species, the leaf-cutter ant has a fascinating and complex social system. Its colonies contain millions of individuals, divided into different types or ‘castes’, each of which does a different job. Only the queen reproduces, laying thousands of eggs each day, while large soldiers protect the colony and other workers cut leaves to bring back to the huge underground nest. Leaf-cutter ants don’t actually eat leaves, instead using them to cultivate a fungus on which they feed.
The common froghopper is capable of leaping 70 centimetres into the air – the equivalent of a human jumping over a tower block – and its jump is so powerful that it creates G-forces of over 400 gravities, compared to the 5 gravities experienced by astronauts blasting into space! Although many insects are referred to as bugs, the ‘true’ bugs are species in the order Hemiptera, which include the common froghopper. All bugs have specialised piercing and sucking mouthparts, which in the froghopper are used for feeding on plant sap.
Honey bees live in hives consisting of wax ‘honeycombs’, which are made up of cells used to store food and rear the young. Only the queen honey bee reproduces, while the sterile workers collect nectar and pollen and store the nectar as honey. The honey bee plays a vital role in pollinating flowering plants, including crops, and has been domesticated by humans for at least 5,000 years. However, this important species is under threat from habitat loss, the use of insecticides and the spread of a parasitic mite.
The large, heavy-bodied Lord Howe Island stick-insect was thought to have become extinct around 1920 after rats were introduced to Lord Howe Island, the only place it was known to exist. Fortunately, the species was rediscovered on a small rocky outcrop 23 kilometres away in 2001. This unusual insect, sometimes known as the ‘tree lobster’, is now being bred in captivity with the hope of reintroducing it into the wild.
Insects are not always the most popular or well-loved of animals, and are often overlooked in favour of furrier, cuddlier and cuter species. However, they are vitally important to the planet and are captivating creatures in their own right.
The insect world is currently being celebrated in the new ‘Alien Nation Season’ showing on BBC Four in the UK, and you can also find out more these fascinating creatures at BBC Nature – Insects.
You can also view more photos and videos of insects on ARKive.
With over a million species of insect described so far it’s tricky to pick a favourite, but if there’s one you think we should be celebrating we would love to hear about it!
Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author