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…
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.)
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.
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.
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 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…