When people say ‘wildlife’, they usually mean ‘animals’ (and sometimes birds). Occasionally, they might lend a fleeting thought to botanical beauties. But rarely are arthropods thought of. Aside from the charismatic honey bees and butterflies, the tiny, squidgy, creepy, crawly arthropods are easily overlooked. They can’t be cuddled and squealed over, and the most commonly-encountered ones are often scary or annoying. Google image search ‘I love wildlife’ and you mostly get big cats, bears, meerkats and baby things.
Technically, arthropods are animals too, just another Phylum in the Kingdom of Animalia, parallel with the chordates (animals, reptiles, and birds). So there is absolutely no reason not to include them in talk of ‘wildlife’. Yes, cheetahs, pygmy possums and meerkats are darned cute – I get giddy over them too! But arthropods are just as endearing. And they are also a vital link in the ecosystems that the cheetahs and meerkats frolic in every day.
Unfortunately, most of the attention that arthropods get is unfavourable or in shock. Spiders are terrifying, mosquitoes and flies are annoying, cockroaches are gross, praying mantises are just off the charts with wackiness. If we are not staring in horror and awe, we’re reaching for the spray can. Remember Danny Kaye’s soothing fairytale ode to the Inchworm? Today, inchworms are mistakenly blacklisted as pests, doomed to death before they can finish measuring the marigolds.
Last month was Mammal March Madness, a great conservation/science education initiative started by evolutionary biologist Katie Hinde and colleagues at Harvard University. I first learnt about it this year, by watching the madness unfold on Twitter. It is a great science engagement tool and I reckon there is potential to start an Arthropod April Antics to beat the mammals at their own game. (If you have the time to incite arthropod bracket madness, you can totally use my idea!)
So to prove that arthropods (I’m just going to focus on insects here) are not all weird, scary and annoying, here are 10 examples of insect cuteness to rival a pygmy possum snuggling with a baby meerkat. You just have to look a little bit harder to find them.
- Banded bee (Amegilla species)
The teddy bears of the bee world, these would melt a heart of steel. There are over 200 species of Amegilla in the world, with their characteristic striped abdomens (usually metallic blue), fluffy golden head and darting flight pattern. Banded bees are solitary, nesting in burrows made in sandstone, sandy soil, or even mud brick houses. They are also important pollinators for crops (e.g. tomatoes in Australia) and native plants. If you live in Australia, look out for some next week and submit your observations to the Wild Pollinator Count!
- Bee flies (Diptera: Bombyliidae)
Bee flies are also great pollinators, but are rarely noticed on flowers. Many species are parasites of other insects, sometimes bees, but also beetles, grasshoppers and even other flies. They lay their eggs in the other insect’s nest, and the young bee fly will eat the rightful heir out of house and home. But their teddy bear head and stork-like proboscis make them cuter than a giraffe in a pollen puddle.
- Chalcid wasps (Chalcidoidea)
Wasps aren’t all scary. Most chalcids are tiny. You may never see them, but you might want to have a look! There are about 22,000 known species in the world, but it is estimated there are more than 50,000 more that haven’t been described yet. They don’t sting humans, because they are too busy parasitising other insect species, mostly the insects we see as ‘pests’, like sawflies, wood beetles and aphids. Despite their mercenary role in the ecosystem, they are adorable. Watching their wandering antics can easily take up a morning. Some chalcids are easily-identifiable by their Transformer legs, enlarged ‘thigh’ sections that add to their charm, while others have antennae that look like deer antlers or peacock feathers.
- Weevils (Curculionoidea)
Not many of us like finding weevil larvae in our morning porridge (although they are cultivated for food in some countries!). But you can’t help having a soft spot for their parents. They are the Snuffleupagus of the insect world. They come in all shades and sizes, but their quaint little elephant nose will pause your swatting hand long enough for them to escape. And they aren’t all bad – some species are important pollinators of palms and cycads, including date palm and oil palm.
- Hoverflies (Diptera: Syrphidae)
A truly angelic insect to rival the honey bee – most hoverflies munch insect pests as larvae and all are pollinators as adults. They are also the hummingbirds of the insect world and can make romance in mid-air. What’s not to like?
- True bug nymphs (Heteroptera)
Babies of any animal are adorable. But what about insects? These shield bug nymphs are worthy of a squeal or two. Not all true bugs (including the shield bugs, stink bugs and assassin bugs) are nasty. Some are predatory, feeding on other insects that damage plants, and some may feed on weed plants we don’t want around. They are also one of the few insect groups that exhibit parental care and a community spirit – in many bug species, the mother will guard the eggs until they hatch. In some predatory species, nymphs will search for prey together and share the spoils among the group.
- Pintail beetle (Mordellidae)
Are these the court jester? Who knows? Very little research has been done on the ecology of pintail beetles. Are they pollinators, predators or pests? One North American species is apparently a predator of gall wasps, but most other Mordellidae species are thought to be vegetarian. Either way, their quirky costumes and habit of huddling together in flowers is enough to grab your attention and start asking questions.
- Sepsid flies (Sepsidae)
Despite their unsavoury-sounding name, these flies (also called Ensign flies) provide an important ecosystem service. Similar to dung beetles, they are one of Nature’s sanitary officers. They are attracted to rotting plant or animal matter, which they help to decompose and recycle through the ecosystem. They are tiny black flies, almost ant-like in appearance, with an obvious waist that is not commonly seen in flies. Most species have a black spot on each wing and wave their wings in a characteristic ‘windmill’ dance as they rest or walk.
This group of insects are not actually flies, they are close relatives of wasps and bees. Most people think of sawflies as the larvae, repulsive ‘spitfires’ and leaf-munching pests. The adults are rarely seen, but most of them are flower-visitors and forgotten pollinators. Some studies have found that sawflies carry just as much pollen as bees and hoverflies, but their lower abundance means we often overlook their contribution to pollination. This is an Australian alpine species of Tenthredinidae that is yet to be identified.
- Insect interactions
Insects see the world infinitesimally smaller than you and I do. In their entire life, many of them will only travel a few hundred metres around the place they were born. To see the world through their eyes, and experience the community they live in, you have to think small and be patient. I almost stepped on this little conversation happening on an apple orchard floor, in a hurry to get my traps out one cold morning. It was a nice bit of perspective for my grumbling – a few hours later, once the dragonfly had warmed up, this little grass fly wouldn’t have been so lucky!
© Manu Saunders 2015