Archive for the ‘fun’ Category

Insect Minute – Cicadas

Friday, July 27th, 2012

If there is an insect that represents the feeling of summer, I would argue it is the Cicada. At an afternoon baseball game or cook out, a chorus of male cicadas are there providing a soundtrack, doing their most animated singing at the warmest point of the day. This association between summer and cicadas is not unique to North Carolina or North America for that matter. Cicadas are found on every continent, with the exception of Antarctica.  In fact, there are 2,600 described species in the world ranging from very large (110 mm) to relatively small (14 mm), most of which are members of the family Cicadidae. The other family of cicadas, Tettigarctidae, is a very small and relictual group that is represented by two species present only in Australia. These Australian cicadas are known as the hairy cicadas and communicate by transmitting vibrations through vegetation instead of singing like the Cicadas we are familiar with.

The members of the family Cicadidae sing using organs called tymbals which are located on the abdomen of the males. The tymbal is like a drum. A complex membrane with taenidia-like striations running parallel along the surface and as the membrane vibrates and the enlarged chambers within the trachael system in the insects body act as a resonating chamber.

Image from Cicada Mania

Image from what-when-how

The males use the tymbals to attract females and have distinctive calls to ensure that they attract the females in their species. Males and females have tympana on the underside of their abdomen which the females use to hear and orient toward potential mates, while the males use the tympana to identify competeing males.

Image from Cicada Mania

The life cycle of cicadas is pretty neat, a female cicada will lay eggs into the twigs of a woody host plant using a lance-like ovipositor. When the nymph hatches it drops to the ground and, using it’s fossorial legs, burrows into the soil where it spends the majority of its life feeding on juices it sucks from tree roots. The cicadas we are that we hear every summer are known as the dog-day or annual cicada. The latter name is actually a misnomer. Many believe that the dog-day cicada has a one year life cycle when in fact they live under ground for up to 8 years before they emerge. Because they emergence patterns are asynchronous they do not make as big of an impression. When it is time for cicadas to come above ground the nymph will dig to the surface, climb part way up the tree and molt into its adult form.

The periodical cicada get the most attention because of the grand synchronized emergence that occur every 13 to 17 years. These cicadas are in the genus Magicicada, which looks a lot like magic cicada. That is not too far off when you consider that no one knows exactly how they time their appearance. What is it that signals all the members of a brood to emerge at the same time? Some researches have hypothesized that it is a temperature shift, others believe it could be that the cicadas are tracking the seasonal changes in their host plant until they reach 13 or 17 cycles. It could be a combination of both or something else entirely but because they are so long lived it is hard to pinpoint the reason.  Regardless of how they do it, it makes an impact on anyone who is lucky enough to experience it.

photo by billy liar

If you would like to learn more about cicadas there are plenty of websites dedicated to them. They are such enigmatic little creatures it is no surprise!

  1. DrMetcalf database
  2. Cicada Mania
  3. Track brood emergence of Magicicadas at

Transcript of Insect Minute 4 – Cicadas

Hi this is Heather with your Insect Minute brought to you by WKNC and the NC State Insect Museum.
Do you love the sound of cicadas singing on a warm summer night? Typically the serenaders you hear are Dog Day Cicadas, which have broods that emerge every year. But, if you were in Wake County in the summer of 2011 you may have heard a different sound. The sound of hundreds of thousands of periodical cicadas singing in unison! These infrequent visitors are in the genus MAGICICADA. Magicicadas have an amazing life history. They live underground as nymphs for 13-17 years feeding on the juices they suck from tree roots. Then, in a synchronized emergence they take to the trees where they molt into their adult forms, feed and mate. Magicicadas have black bodies, orange wing veins and striking red eyes. The dog day cicada has green wing veins and lack red eyes, making the red eyes a key distinguishing character.
Guess what is coming in 2013? You got it; North Carolina will see another grand emergence of magicicadas. So keep your eyes to the trees and your earplugs at the ready!
If you’d like to learn more about the cicadas visit the museum’s website at where you find out more about the museum and read our blog where we talk about interesting stuff going on in the world of entomology.

Insect Minute – What is the biggest insect?

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

When you are in a specialized career, like entomology for example, you are bound to get many questions. Some of the common questions we get are “What is the most dangerous insect?” “Which has the worst sting?” or “Who would win in a fight between place two large insects that would never cross paths here?” We’ll save these questions for future Insect Minutes. The question that we seek to answer this week is, “What is the biggest insect?”

Aggggghhhh!! That is one big insect!!

To answer this question we need clarification, how do you quantify “biggest”? Insects are very diverse and they come in many shapes which means that the longest is not the heaviest.  So to answer the question of what is the “biggest” completely there are two answers.

The longest insect is the Chan’s Mega Stick from Borneo. Phobaeticus chani is a member of the stick-insect order Phasmatodea. Our native species, Diapheromera femorata, is 3 to 4 inches long. Phobaeticus chani is 14 inches long, if you include the legs the length extends to 22 inches!! Despite its large size very few people have seen one, in fact if you searched all the insect collections in the world you would only find that 3 have been collected. All stick insects are masters of camouflage living up to the order’s prefix which comes from the Greek, phasm, meaning phantom. It may be that the Chan’s megastick is even more elusive because they typically reside in canopy of the rainforest.

Phobaeticus chani, or 'Chan's megastick,' mounted and displayed.

Image from

The aptly named Goliath beetle is arguably the heaviest insect, based on the bulk of the five beetles included in this genus. The Goliath beetle, Goliathus regius, found in western equatorial Africa is the largest of the group weighing in at 3.5oz! This beetle is about the size of a small apple or bar of soap. Not big by vertebrate standards, but huuuge for an insect.

image by opacity (Anne Petersen)

People find the look and docile behavior of these beetles very attractive and keep them as pets. The grubs, or larvae, of the Goliath beetle require a lot of protein while they develop but once the beetle reaches adulthood it relies on high-sugar foods like sap and fruit making them quite easy to care for. The Goliath beetle is also often used in insect fights; a spectator sport that capitalizes on the male beetle’s natural tendency to fight other males when a reproductive female is present.

So, as you can see, these insects couldn’t be more different from one another and yet they are both contenders for the title: The WOOOORLDSSS Biggest Insect!

Transcript of Insect Minute 3 – The Biggest Insect

Hi this is Heather with your Insect Minute brought to you by WKNC and the NC State Insect Museum.
“What is the biggest insect?”  Well that depends, is the longest or the heaviest
The longest insect is the Chan’s mega stick found in Borneo.  The walking stick can be over 1 foot in length! Can you imagine finding an insect the same size as your foot-long sub? Chances are slim any of us will see one, even if we do make it to Borneo because they are well camouflaged, looking just like the limbs of the trees they reside in.
The heaviest insect is only 4 to 5 inches long but what he lacks in length he sure makes up for in mass.  The aptly named Goliath beetle weighs 3.5 oz which makes this beetle about the same size and weight as a bar of soap. Imagine trying to lather up with this guy, the last thing you’ll be is squeaky clean.
If you would like to see pictures of these insects and find out more about them please visit the museum’s website at where you also find out information about the museum and read our blog where we talk about interesting stuff going on in the world of entomology.

a story from the archive

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

I’ve been organizing my vast document archive this week, in preparation for my upcoming move, and I found this story I wrote back when I first arrived at NCSU. Context: In December 2007 I was asked by the students to be a panelist for a departmental holiday party skit, modeled after NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me. We had a “bluff the listener” segment, where someone listens to three stories and identify the one that is real. Here’s the story I told.

Call it serendipity, but when Dr. George Nixon of the British Museum fell asleep with an alarm clock near his pan traps while camping in Peru he discovered a new method for collecting certain parasitic Hymenoptera. His pans filled with tens of specimens of the euphorine braconid genus Elaterophaga, a parasitoid of adult click beetles previously known from only one reared specimen. Suspecting that the ticking sound mimicked that of click beetles righting themselves and that this was the source of the attraction Nixon experimented with more refined designs – including a model that employed a wind-up toy’s motor and two pieces of wood that slap together. The snapping trap was so successful that it not only brought in more species of Elaterophaga but also several genera of scelionids that parasitize click beetle eggs. Nixon published his design along with a survey of elaterid parasitoids in a 1955 issue of Entomological News. European entomologists refer to this mechanism as the click trap, but to my American colleagues it will always be the beloved, if not broadly useful, “clap trap”.

Is it real? You decide.

Hexapod Haiku 2012 – honorable mention (poet over 13)

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

The following five haiku, in no particular order, earned honorable mention in this year’s Hexapod Haiku Challenge. We thank the poets for sharing their artistry and congratulate them on their works:

spring rain
aphids busy
being green
Ernest J. Berry
Picton, New Zealand
dying bumblebee
my friend bends over and asks
are you all right?
Gail Ingram
Christchurch, New Zealand
all the insects
I’ve killed–waiting
in the other world
Dave Russo
Cary, NC
Molting is a must
The vehicle is renewed
Same old heavy soul
Anish Thakkar
Raleigh, NC
roach legs
by the cat bowl
long winter night
Dave Russo
Cary, NC

Hexapod Haiku 2012 – honorable mention (poet under 13)

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

We had two honorable mention entries from the poets under 13 this year, which I present below (a bit late – sorry!) in no particular order. Congratulations!

Tree Lobster

Big as a man’s arm
Living on a little bush
Not knowing they’re there

Smriti Sridharan
Raleigh, NC

(the above poem is about the Lord Howe Island stick insect, Dryococelus australis, which was recently rediscovered on Ball’s Pyramid; the judges appreciated the relevance of this poem and the contrast between large and small)

Insects flying in
Summer sun searching
for anything they want
Harmen Alleyne
Urbana, IL

(the judges liked the freedom expressed in this poem; as a child you’re always told what to do, but insects have the freedom to do whatever they want!)

Hexapod Haiku 2012 – runner-up (poet under 13)

Thursday, April 19th, 2012
Stinkbugs like to stink
Please, never squish a stinkbug!
Also, don’t catch them
Mary-Katherine Thompson
Raleigh, NC

Judges’ Comments: We delighted in reading this whimsical plea, which captures the spirit of youthful conversation: insistent and awkwardly constructed, yet humorous. The request in line two (we can almost hear the *crunch* of that poor insect in some unsuspecting hand) is almost negated by the non sequitur in line three. Don’t squash that bug! In fact, don’t even catch it in the first place. The protagonist longs to share her knowledge of these offensive insects, and we are captivated by her enthusiasm and the promise of relevant advice.