Insect super powers: dodging death

Being near the bottom of the food chain isn’t ideal.  Insects have many different predators including lots from the insect world itself and that’s before you’ve even started to take account of all the birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and mammals that consider insects an important part of their diet.  So how do insects dodge death and defend themselves against predators?  Read on to find out about some cunning techniques and surprising solutions!

Chemical Warfare

Did you know that some species of ladybird have clever, and some rather disgusting, ways of deterring predators?  Not only do many species display the bright warning colours of red or yellow combined with black, but some can exude a stinky yellow liquid through their knees when in danger.  This is called reflex bleeding because the liquid is made from their blood.  You may have noticed it if you have picked up a ladybird and seen yellow spots of liquid on your hand. 

Other insects can squirt noxious fluids into the air when they feel threatened.  Wood Ants, for example, spray formic acid.  The incredible Bombardier Beetle (seen here on the right) can combine two different liquids stored in separate chambers in its abdomen to produce a boiling hot chemical that literally explodes from the beetle’s rear. I wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end of that!

Cloaks of Invisibility

For many insects, protection from predators is all about not being seen.  There are some amazing masters of disguise whose camouflage is so good we have trouble spotting them.  For example, many moths are almost invisible when resting in their preferred habitat such as on the bark of trees.

How many insects can you spot?

Another form of camouflage is to disguise yourself as an object of no importance, such as a twig.  When threatened, this beetle (Platyrhinous resinosis) rolls over, draws in its legs, lies very still and looks just like a bird poo!

Platyrhinous resinosis

Masters of Disguise

If you can’t blend in with your background, you could always be a master of mimicry and pretend to be something really scary! This Hornet Clearwing is not actually a hornet with a powerful sting. It’s a moth, but by mimicking the colours and form of the hornet it will manage to put off many a hungry bird!

Serious Weaponry

Some insects have formidable weapons that may serve to fend off rivals, help catch prey and deter predators.  Look at the ferocious jaws of the Stag Beetle or the sharp pincers, or forceps, at the rear end of the earwig.  They might make you think twice before tackling these guys! In fact, the jaws of the Stag Beetle are all show!  They are actually quite weak and may even prevent Stag Beetles from feeding in their adult form. The fact that they exist at all just shows how effective they are at warding off predators.

Let us know if you have a favourite story about how insects dodge death and survive in a world full of predators.

Make do and Mend!

The HOPE British insect collection includes specimens from the early 19th century to the present day.  This means that some are very old and delicate.  Of course, all of the insects are very delicate and easily damaged.  Just think about the width of the legs or antennae of some of the insects you have seen in your garden!  Not much more than a hair’s breadth!  It isn’t surprising then that some of the specimens are showing their age and some are damaged.

In this post, learn how Tom Greenway, Junior HOPE Collections Assistant, repairs the damage and what happens to the bits that can’t be stuck back on!

“It’s always sad to see a damaged specimen but with a little bit of patience, and a mix of PVA glue and distilled water, we can make repairs to get them looking like new again!” 

Tom Greenway, Junior HOPE Collections Assistant

It isn’t unusual for the abdomen to fall off, as you can see here! Watch this video to see how we repair specimens.

Sometimes specimens will build up verdigris; a bluish-green crust made by a chemical reaction between the old pin, the insect and oxygen. We use a small brush to lightly remove it. Pins sometimes become rusty or damaged need to be replaced.  For that job we use special stainless steel entomology pins.

Any parts that may have fallen off, but can’t be assigned to a particular specimen, are collected and stored in a gelatin capsule. This can be useful for any researchers looking to analyse DNA. The capsule gets pinned at the end of the specimen drawer so that it is kept with the correct species. 

Insect super powers: surviving the winter

Insects have some really cool super powers and surviving extreme temperatures is one of them!  Have you ever wondered how insects manage to survive in the cold winter months? 

In the Summer, insects are all around us but in Winter they seem to disappear.  Where do they go and how do they survive the extremes of winter?  Unlike us, insects can’t put on a coat, hat and gloves or turn up the central heating!  With such a small body size, they could easily freeze as the temperature drops but they have some pretty cool ways of making sure their species continues to the next generation.

Take a look at these ideas. Who you think is right? Do you have a different idea?

Zane, Zeb, Zora and Zip are all right!

Strategy 1: Diapause

This is similar to mammalian hibernation where adults survive the winter in a state of torpor or dormancy.  Insects find suitable places to spend the winter such as holes in dead wood, under leaf litter or inside sheds and other buildings. They then become inactive, their heart rate slows right down and some insects even produce anti-freeze chemicals to stop them from freezing. 

Here are some insect species that undergo diapause:

During the Winter, only the queen bumblebee survives and amazingly all the other bumblebees die.  The queen spends the winter in an underground burrow already carrying the eggs that will be the next generation.

Butterflies such as Peacocks, Brimstones and Red Admirals shelter in garden sheds during diapause.  Sometimes you can find them inside houses – do not disturb!

Ladybirds huddle together in groups, for example, under bark of trees.

Strategy 2: Seasonal Lifecycles

The adult form of many insect species will not survive the winter but one of the other stages of their lifecycle (either the eggs, larvae or chrysalises) will survive by keeping warm in places such as leaf litter, under bark or in long grass waiting to be activated by the warmth of the sun in the spring.

The larval stage of the Stag Beetle and the Purple Emperor butterfly survive the winter, but the adults die.

Strategy 3: Migration

A few British insects such as the Painted Lady and Clouded Yellow butterflies migrate to Africa for the Winter.  Individual Painted Ladies have been recorded making journeys of nearly 2,500 miles. Unlike birds, the same individuals do not make the return journey the following year – that journey is made by a new generation.

Strategy 4:  Remain Active

Lots of insects do, in fact, remain active in the winter.  It is just harder to find them because they are keeping warm under leaf litter, amongst long grass or, in the case of aquatic insects, under water.  Most insects who do this are just feeding and waiting for the Spring when they can find a mate and reproduce but some species, such as Winter Moths and December Moths, reproduce during the winter months.

We would love to see your photos or hear about insects you have seen this Winter. What can you find in your garden or local outside spaces?  Be careful not to disturb them too much! You can tell us about it using the form on our Contact Us page, or email us at hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk.