Not everyone is a fan of insects; some people are afraid of these wonderful little creatures. However, I think we can all agree on a few specific bugs that don’t give us the heeby-jeebies. These are the ones you played with as kids, that bring back that wonderful feeling of nostalgia: ladybugs, dragonflies and more. But what did these popular insects look like before they took on the form we all know and love? Here is a list of six of your favorite insects in their ‘baby’ forms. Because we all have to start out somewhere!
To begin our list, I figured it was best to start with one of the most beloved of all insects: the Ladybug. Of course, these cute little beetles have a multitude of other names. I’ve heard them called ladybirds, lady beetles, and lady flies amongst other things. When you see a ladybug, you’re not just seeing…well, a ladybug. You’re seeing a specific species of ladybug! There are over 5,000 different species actually out there.
One of the most common in North America is Harmonia axyridis, the Harlequin ladybug. This species was introduced to North America from Asia in 1916 in an effort to control plant-eating pests like aphids. The species has become so successful in North America that it actually out competes endemic species of ladybugs – so there’s now a major love/hate relationship going on between North Americans and this beetle.
The positive aspect of the ladybug is that it will lay hundreds of eggs within pesky insect colonies, like aphids. Once those eggs hatch, a larva emerges that looks like something far from what you might imagine a baby ladybug looking like:
These spiky little baby ladybugs will devour any aphids that cross their path. They almost look like tiny alligators or something to me. After a few weeks, they will begin to molt (shed their skin) and grow until it’s time for the next stage of life: the pupa.
This when things get really weird. The larvae will attach itself to a leaf and seem to fall asleep for a few days. But don’t be fooled – they’re not sleeping! They’re undergoing metamorphosis into an adult ladybug! Once the process is complete, the newly developed ladybug will burst out of the old larva skin like an alien.
When it first comes out of the larva skin, the ladybug looks more like a shrimp than a beetle. It’s not until its shell begins to harden does pigment (usually red) begin to set in which gives it its characteristic ladybug appearance. The bright colors are a warning to predators that the ladybug would not make a tasty snack.
There’s a myth that you can tell how old a ladybug is by counting the number of spots on its back. This isn’t true; the number, shape and placement of the spots are in fact all determined by the species of the beetle and are fixed as soon as the ladybug emerges from its pupa.
There are some 5680 different species of dragonflies (order Odonata) described in the world today. Sometimes people get dragonflies confused with damselflies, since they do look quite similar. An easy way to differentiate the two is that dragonflies will usually keep their wings out perpendicular to their body when at rest while damselflies will tuck them back against their body.
I’m sure most of you have memories running around a pond, jumping at dragonflies. Dragonflies hang out near bodies of water because their baby, or nymph stage of life, is aquatic. They actually spend most of their life in this stage – up to 5 years as nymph vs. 5-6 months as an adult, to be exact.
Now, let me just tell you, you might think dragonflies are cool now but just WAIT until you hear what their nymph forms are like. They have extendable jaws (much like in the movie Alien) that they can sling out in order to catch underwater victims like tadpoles and even small fish.
They breathe through gills in their rectum – yes, you heard that right – and can even rapidly propel themselves by quickly expelling water through their anus. By being able to take off like a rocket when hunting prey, dragonfly larvae are one of the top predators in a pond environment.
When it’s time to change from an aquatic hunter to one of the sky, the nymph will climb up a reed and wait. When oxygen hits its skin, the nymph begins to breathe. Its skin splits at a weak spot behind its head and then a full-grown dragonfly emerges from the larval skin. Once it’s done pumping up its wings, the dragonfly takes to the air where it sets off to hunt flies, midges, and sometimes even butterflies. Dragonflies can move in six directions – up, down, left, right, sideways, and backwards and some species like the Southern Giant Darter have been clocked at moving of speeds of nearly 60mph! Crazy!
Tortoise Beetles are members of the order Coleoptera and are probably one of my favorite insects out there. I love them because they do look just like tiny tortoises! They even have the same ability to protect themselves from predators: when in danger, they’ll pull their shell down close to the ground making it hard for a predator to get at its soft body. Tortoise come in a wide variety of colors and patterns and almost look like little jewels:
Tortoise beetles do have a few tricks up their sleeves that their reptile versions definitely don’t have. For one, the adults are able to change color! The outer cuticle of the beetle’s shell is transparent and reflects light through a layer of liquid over the next layer of cuticle. The beetles change color depending on the availability of the liquid layer, so if they get agitated they can alter their appearance by adding or removing liquid from immediately under their shell. Watch as this Golden Tortoise Beetle does exactly that:
Amazing, huh? Now for something not so fancy… the larvae of tortoise beetles resemble tiny pronged aliens covered in spikes.
But when spikes aren’t enough to stop something from eating you, you have to resort to drastic measures. In this case, that means creating a fecal shield – which sounds exactly like you would imagine. Unfortunately.
Some species of tortoise beetle larvae take their fecal matter and place it squarely on top of their backs. Some even brandish them like clubs. In order to create a fecal shield, the tortoise beetle larva uses its long, prehensile anus to carefully place the poop across its back. I know, you need to see this in action. I have delivered:
The larva can carry fecal shields that weigh up to 50% of their total body weight. So to imagine, divide your weight in half and thick about carrying that amount of your own poop around to ward off predators. Doesn’t sound very fun, now does it?
While this defense system is effective, no means of protection is perfect. Predators with piercing, sucking mouthparts such as assassin bugs are able to go straight through the fecal matter shield and suck out the juicy insides of the tortoise beetle larvae. All that crappy work for nothing! 😉
Cicadas are easily recognizable insects with their big, wide set eyes, long, veined wings and unique sound. There are around 2500 formerly described species, though many more are probably waiting to be discovered.
You might have memories of these big bugs sounding off during the hottest months of the summer. These piercing calls are actually mating calls used by males and each species has its own distinct song. Some larger species of cicada can produce sounds in excess of 120 decibels at close range. That’s actually approaching the pain threshold of the human ear! In addition to attracting a mate, the sound actually wards off predators like birds – the sound is so loud it hurts their ears and its makes it hard for the birds to communicate. Even cicadas themselves have to protect themselves from their loud singing! Both male and female cicadas have a pair of large, mirror-like membranes called the tympana, which function as ears. The tympana are connected to an auditory organ by a short tendon. When a male sings, the tendon retracts, creasing the tympana so that it won’t be damaged by the sound. (source)
Most of a cicada’s life is actually spent underground in the nymph phase. They actually look like tiny little mole-like creatures because they have strong front legs modified for digging. They are found at depths of anywhere between 30 centimetres (0.98 ft) down to 2.5 metres (8.2 ft). To survive, the nymphs feed on root juice. I actually think they’re kind of cute.
Most cicadas will spend 2 to 3 years underground but other species, like the ones that just recently made headlines, only emerge after 13 or 17 years! When they do finally emerge from the ground, they’re obviously a bit curious about life above ground, as you can see from this little guy interacting with a big ol’ human:
Kind of cute, right? It looks like an insect version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. When the nymphs reach their final instar, they will climb onto a plant and shed their skins for the last time before an adult cicada bursts out of the old nymph shell. The adult cicadas will mate, lay eggs, and then die. 17 years of waiting and that’s the grand finale!
Fireflies are probably the most quintessential childhood friend. Running through a field at night trying to scoop up some of these magical flying creatures was probably the highlight of my summers as a child. There are about 2,000 species of fireflies in the world and most are able to produce what’s known as “cold light,” meaning there are no infrared or ultraviolet frequencies. The light is chemically produced from the insect’s lower abdomen and can range in color from yellow, green, or pale red with wavelengths from 510 to 670 nanometers.
The larvae of fireflies are also really cool looking. They’re covered in armor and are also able to produce a glowing light. That’s why they’ve been given the nickname of ‘glow worms,’ especially in Eurasia.
Fireflies hibernate over winter during the larval stage, some species for several years. Sometimes they do this by burrowing underground while other species will find places on or under the bark of trees and wait until they emerge in the spring. After several weeks of feeding, they pupate for 1.0 to 2.5 weeks and emerge as adults.
They’re really strange-looking creatures. It’s hard to imagine that this will one day become a firefly, isn’t it?
No list on popular insects is complete without the Praying Mantis! There are over 2,400 species of mantis worldwide. Each species looks really spectacular – some mimic twigs, others rocks, and even orchids like this one:
But before it can become an adult, the mantis starts out as an egg. A female will lay eggs into a frothy mass produced by glands in the abdomen. The froth hardens into a protective case containing the eggs called an ootheca.
Each ootheca can contain up to 400 mantis eggs! When it comes time for the mantis babies to hatch, they wriggle out of the ootheca. It’s really a bizarre sight to see. When they emerge, they’re perfect miniature versions of their adult selves – and are pretty freakin’ cute.
Some species of mantis nymphs mimic ants, like this one I’ve posted on in the past, to avoid predators. A mantis nymph increases in size (often changing its diet as it does so) by replacing its outer body covering with a sturdy, flexible exoskeleton and molting when needed. Functioning genatalia also develop (woohoo!).
Check out this video to get up close and personal with a hatching family of mantises. Warning: it’s kinda icky… but also really cool.
Praying mantis egg case hatching from Jeff Kastner on Vimeo.
And so ends our list of popular bugs in their baby forms. Hope you’ve enjoyed seeing these insects in their larval or nymph stages… it’s incredible how major a transformation each goes through before finally ending up as the creatures we are all so familiar with!