What’s That Bug? Identifying Five of Nature’s Most Eye-Catching Insects
Have you ever spotted a hairy caterpillar in your path? If you’re in Florida, you may have stumbled across a tussock moth caterpillar, a relatively harmless insect that emerges yearly during the spring. However, there’s also a chance you crossed paths with a puss caterpillar. Named for their cat-like fur, puss caterpillars hide venomous spines beneath a thick coat of hair (setae) and are known for their painful sting. The next time you spot an unknown insect, how are you going to know what it is, let alone if it’s safe?
The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) loves helping people identify insects and related arthropods. We’ve even set up the Insect ID Lab, where we accept specimens for identification. Local UF/IFAS Extension offices are also available to identify insects and suggest pest management options.
We know that collecting bugs isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Moreover, potentially dangerous insects should only be handled by professionals. That’s why we’re going to be taking a look at some recent additions to the subreddit What’s This Bug? as well as some selected postings in Featured Creatures, a UF website providing in-depth insect profiles, that will allow you to get to know these insects from a safe distance.
1. Asian Giant Hornet
The Asian giant hornet, more terrifyingly referred to as the murder hornet by the media, made headlines recently when it was first spotted in the northwest corner of the United States. Native to Japan, these hornets are known to be lethal to humans; however, they pose a far greater threat to honey bee colonies. Asian giant hornets are capable of launching coordinated attacks on beehives, decapitating guard bees and feasting on the larvae inside the nest. A dozen Asian giant hornets can wipe out a colony of 30,000 bees. Asian giant hornets are easily recognized by their wide faces, teardrop eyes, robust wings and orange and black stripes.
2. Hummingbird Moth
You could hardly be blamed for mistaking this entry for the bird it’s named after. This hummingbird moth — possibly a hummingbird clear wing due to its red coloration — is hovering above a plant and sipping nectar just like a hummingbird would. These moths even emit a hum like hummingbirds. Found throughout North America, hummingbird moths play an important role in pollinating flowering plants, as their long tongues enable them to reach flowers inaccessible to and ignored by other pollinators. Be sure to double-check the next time you see a hummingbird; you might really be seeing an insect pollinator at work.
3. Rhagastis albomarginata
Here’s another insect masquerading as a different creature. Posted on r/whatsthisbug, many Redditors commented their disbelief that the larvae of Rhagastis albomarginata have cartoonish, pale blue “eyes.” Like the hawk mouth caterpillar, this insect does in fact have distinctive markings that resemble the eyes of a snake. Eyespots are common in the animal kingdom, especially among insects like moths and butterflies, and help animals ward off predators. If you think the resemblance to a snake is a coincidence, think again. Some species of caterpillars have been known to inflate the tops of their heads and rock side-to-side just like a snake.
4. Asian Bush Mosquito
The Asian bush mosquito, also known as the rock pool mosquito, is recognizable by the black and white scales on its thorax as well as the black and white stripes on its legs. Of course, a mosquito’s leg banding may be the last thing on your mind as you’re swatting it away.
If the Asian bush mosquito does manage to bite you, fear not. Although their bite is as annoying as any other mosquito, Asian bush mosquitoes have not been implicated as a significant vector for mosquito-borne viruses. However, their propensity to live in close proximity to humans, especially in water collected in discarded tires, is something to keep an eye on.
If you’re interested in a career managing mosquitoes, UF offers online master’s degree and graduate certificate programs featuring courses on managing mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases. Courses include Advanced Mosquito Biology, Advanced Mosquito Identification and Problems in Entomology: Mosquito Management.
5. One Unlucky Wasp
Here’s one last entry from r/whatsthisbug. This image is of a wasp, but what’s interesting is what’s growing out of it. Ophiocordyceps is a genus of parasitic fungus known to infect wasps, ants and other insects. Famously, Ophiocordyceps create “zombie ants.” Infected ants have an urge to leave their colonies, climb a nearby plant and lock their mandibles around a leaf. A stalk then emerges from the ant’s head to spread spores and begin the process all over again. Research shows evidence of similar wasp-zombification.
Zombified wasps may not be the answer to controlling wasps; however, entomologists are always looking for novel solutions to pest management, including using fungi to control insect populations.