Ugly Insect Seeks Same

Out of luck in the love department? Well, at least you’re not a death-watch beetle.

AsianScientist (Feb. 10, 2017) – Some insects are beautiful—consider the iridescent beetles, elaborately patterned butterflies and psychedelic caterpillars that send nature photographers scrambling for their macro lenses. But others are decidedly unlovable—they live in dungheaps, scrabble on the ground instead of gracefully taking to the skies, or look like something out of a bad dream.

While most of us avoid this second group like the plague, some scientists build careers around them, seemingly unperturbed by the appearance and lifestyle choices of their research subjects. And with good reason: ugly certainly doesn’t mean boring. These insect pariahs lead absolutely fascinating inner lives; sometimes even, as we shall see, with a little poetry and pathos woven in.

Walk through a shopping mall this week—in the run-up to Valentine’s Day—and you’ll likely be assaulted at every turn by garish pink colour schemes, pictures of impossibly good-looking couples, and packaged sentimentality. But true love isn’t just about the conventionally beautiful—it’s also about celebrating the ugly.

So this month, The Bug Report is going to take its name literally, for once. And we are going to anthropomorphize with abandon, if that’s what it takes to wrap our heads around insects so strange to us that they might as well be aliens. In the spirit of the season, here are three beautiful (well, to me at least) love-themed vignettes that just happen to star ugly insects.

Knock three times (on the ceiling if you want me)

The death-watch beetle, commonly found in the wood of old houses, quite literally has a bad rap. It makes a tapping sound which, according to legend, is the sound of the devil himself impatiently drumming his fingers, waiting for someone to die.

But this poor creature is sorely misunderstood. Far from being a harbinger of death, the noise is actually about love—it’s a mating call made by male beetles banging their heads, hard, against the wood. Willing females respond in kind, and the short-sighted insects navigate by call-and-answer until they finally find each other.

As it turns out, females are more likely to mate with heavier males, presumably because the latter harbor more sperm. By attaching wads of Blu-Tack to the backs of males, researchers could trick females into mating with featherweights—and into getting short-changed in the reproduction department.

The next time you have a bad date, remember that these insects take 13 years to grow from egg to adult, and then have only three weeks to find a mate—through a process that involves repeatedly banging one’s head against the floor—before they die. Feeling better?

They found love in a hopeless place

If death-watch beetles were too grim, take heart: the next story only involves monstrously huge stick insects, so big and heavy that they were known as “tree lobsters.”

These giants lived on Lord Howe Island, an outpost of land about 500 kilometers off the east coast of Australia. Sadly, the population was decimated by rats in the 1920s, and the species was presumed extinct.

But a glimmer of hope remained—on a desolate 500-meter-high spire of volcanic rock another 20 kilometers out to sea, where climbers had reported sightings of the long-lost giant sticks. In 2001, a group of scientists undertook an exhaustive search—an effort which required death-defying feats of nighttime rock climbing.

Miraculously, they discovered a small colony of the nocturnal insects—the only ones left in the world—clinging to a rock crevice high above the sea. A pregnant female might have hitched a ride there on a seabird all those years ago—no one knows for sure.

After a lot of bureaucratic wrangling, the scientists finally got permission to return and collect four individuals—two male-female pairs—which they did on Valentine’s Day 2003. One pair quickly died in captivity, but the second pair—aptly named Adam and Eve—became the founders of the healthy colony now at the Melbourne Zoo.

I was strangely moved that people would risk life and limb to rescue creatures that few would consider beautiful. Still need more love? Look to the insects themselves: these giant sticks appear to couple up, and sleep “in pairs, the male with three of his legs protectively over the female beside him.”

Oh where oh where can my baby be?

OK, so lovelorn rapper beetles and giant cuddly stick insects are not your cup of tea. Let’s pull out all the stops: feast your eyes on the horned, armor-plated wonder that is the trilobite beetle, so named for the fossilized marine creatures it resembles.

Sightings are exceedingly rare; when one turned up last November in a forest in Singapore, video footage quickly went viral. But consider this—all the trilobite beetles that look like this are female. In fact, a male trilobite beetle was only seen a century after the species was discovered in the 1800s.

As it turns out, the sexes look nothing alike—while females are a spectacle to behold, males look like, well, plain old beetles. And at only five millimeters in length, they are tiny next to females, which can measure up to six centimeters. The only way to confirm that a male is from the same species is through DNA testing, or by catching mating pairs in the act—something that has only been done twice, in 1925 and in 1933. No one even knows if males look different from females at birth, or if the differences emerge as they mature.

One can only hope that trilobite females are better than humans are at running into these not-so-tall, dark and mysterious strangers. This Valentine’s Day, I wish them well.

This article is from a monthly column called The Bug Report. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: San Diego Zoo/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Shuzhen received a PhD degree from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, USA, where she studied the immune response of mosquito vectors to dengue virus.

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