Photo of the Week – February 14, 2019

Last weekend, I went out to see how our family prairie was looking. Honestly, it didn’t really look that much different than it had a few weeks ago, but it was sure nice to be out there. I made my way down to the pond and wandered around on the ice with my camera. What stood out more than anything else were the bubbles in the ice. Much of the ice looked like a glass of 7-Up soda had instantly frozen solid, suspending all the rising bubbles in place.

Surely someone has studied the reasons behind all the various patterns and bubbles that form in ice. I can grasp the processes behind some of what I’m seeing, but much of it remains as fascinating mystery to me. This week, the biggest mystery was the myriad tiny streams of bubbles around every plant stem I could see within the ice. The stems appeared to be fuzzy because them. I assume the stems were releasing some kind of gas (methane?) but the explanation for the shape and pattern of the frozen lines of bubbles was beyond me. Regardless, my lack of understanding didn’t diminish my enjoyment of them. I hope you enjoy a selection of ice bubble photos from that day…

What kind of bug is a bug?

Giant milkweed bugs – adults and nymphs – on butterfly milkweed, Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

The term bug gets thrown around a lot, and in common language refers to just about any insect or insect-like creature. Technically speaking, (donning my nerd hat) true bugs are only those insects in the taxonomic order Hemiptera, suborder Heteroptera. Of course, we used to be able to say that true bugs included anything in the order Hemiptera, but as you may know, that order now includes hoppers (suborder Homoptera) – including cicadas, leafhoppers, etc.. It also includes insects in the suborder Sternorrhynca, which includes aphids, scale insects, mealy bugs, and others. All of this is obviously information you can easily apply in your daily life and conversations.

Example: (standing at the water cooler) “So hey, Joe, don’t you think it’s crazy that mealy bugs are Hemipterans now? It’s just weird, right?” (Joe punches you in the stomach and gives you a wedgie)

Ok, but whether or not your knowledge is appreciated by others, sometimes it’s just nice to know things. So if you’re interested, here are some tips for distinguishing true bugs from other insects.

Heteropterans are characterized by a few different features. The easiest to see in the field are located on its back. Adult true bugs have a triangle structure (scutellum) between their wings. Technically, that triangle is located right behind the pronotum, which is the structure right behind its head. The triangle can vary greatly in size and shape, but it is (nearly?) always there, as long as the bug is a full adult. We’ll talk nymphs later…

Stink bug on wavy-leaf thistle at Griffith Prairie, north of Aurora, Nebraska.

The other distinguishing features on a bug’s back are its wings, which are crossed over each other at rest. The base of each wing is thickened and solid, but the tip is membranous and often transparent. As a result the folded wings have a two-toned appearance, which, combined with the triangular scutellum, is fairly easy to recognize. (Bonus knowledge: bugs actually have FOUR wings, but you rarely see the other two unless the bug is flying or dead, which doesn’t help much when you are trying to identify a little critter scurrying away from you.)

Assassin bugs mating on annual sunflower. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve in north-central Nebraska.

For comparison, beetles (which are NOT bugs) have two hard shells, called elytra, covering their wings. When they fly, they have to lift those elytra up out of the way. This makes them look a little like a DeLorean with its doors open.

These four beetles all have the hard wing coverings (elytra) that help distinguish them from bugs. They include (clockwise from top left) a long-horned milkweed beetle, scarab beetle, soldier beetle, and lightning bug/firefly, which is neither a bug nor fly.

The other characteristic of bugs to look for, if you have the opportunity, is the mouth. True bugs have a long segmented proboscis, through which they suck up their food. This feature can be helpful in distinguishing bugs from beetles, which often have distinct mandibles, but not so much from creatures like cicadas, leaf hoppers or other Hemipterans (see first paragraph), which also have sucking mouthparts. When feeding, a bug will insert its proboscis into a plant (or, in some cases, another insect). The rest of the time, bugs keep their proboscis tucked up underneath their body, making it difficult to see.

Wheel bug (a true bug) in the Loess Hills of Iowa. Wheel bugs and their close relatives assassin bugs and ambush bugs often have more prominent mouthparts than other bugs, which makes them easier to identify as true bugs.
Stinkbug with extended proboscis on Illinois tickclover (Desmodium illinoense). Deep Well Wildlife Management Area, Nebraska.

Immature bugs can be a lot more difficult to identify. Bugs go through incomplete metamorphosis; they start as an egg, hatch as a tiny nymph, then molt several times as they grow before their final molt into an adult. If you’re hankering for another wedgie, the technical term for this life cycle is hemimetabolous.

Nymphs of giant milkweed bugs – Lincoln Creek Prairie in Aurora, Nebraska.

Nymphs resemble adults fairly closely, but have only little stubs for wings (which get longer as they grow and molt). Bugs don’t get functional wings until their final molt into adulthood. Besides limiting their movement, this lack of full wings also makes bugs hard to identify using the earlier tips. You can still look for their proboscis to distinguish them from beetles, but otherwise identification is tough, unless they happen to be clustered around adults of the same species.

Knowing that the term bug applies only to a select group of insects is helpful. Whenever you hear someone use the word colloquially, referring to a beetle, grasshopper, or even spider, you can smile smugly to yourself. In the right situations, you can even make a helpful correction, spreading your knowledge around a little. Just be careful of your audience. Smug corrections to the wrong people can lead to some significant discomfort in your lower torso…