The Boneheaded Ecologist and the Zombie Fly

Last summer, while working on my square meter photography project, I made a lot of discoveries, including quite a few species I’d never seen before. Only one made me briefly question my understanding of life and death.

I was peering into my little square meter plot one morning in August when I spotted something light-colored sitting motionless on top of a dewy leaf of grass. It was small enough that I had to train my macro lens on it to get a better look. What I saw through the lens appeared to be the exoskeleton of a small fly. It was pale and appeared to be just an empty shell.

Now, tt’s been long enough ago that I don’t remember exactly WHY I thought it might be the exoskeleton of a fly; it seems pretty far fetched in hindsight. There are two ways I could have been right. First, the “fly” could have been dead. Maybe it was killed and eaten by a spider or assassin bug, both of which feed by liquefying and then sucking the insides out of their prey. I might have been looking at a discarded husk of something a creature like that had eaten. However, the fact that the insect was perched upright on a piece of grass makes that seem pretty unlikely.

The second possibility is that the “fly” had molted out of its previous exoskeleton after outgrowing it. This happens with the nymphs of various species that go through incomplete metamorphosis. However, flies don’t go through incomplete metamorphosis – they transform from larva to adult via a pupal stage. Because of that, there’s no way I could have been looking at the shed skin of a fly. I’m such a chucklehead.

Nevertheless, at that particular moment, my brain was telling me that I was looking through a macro lens at a fly’s exoskeleton. Even if it wasn’t an empty fly, it sure looked like the dried and hollowed out body of SOMETHING. Picture my shocked face, then, when that dead empty shell started to slowly walk up the leaf…

Now, I want you to study the above photo. That’s a dead creature, right? Of course it is. Except that it wasn’t. I’m not the brightest bulb, but even I know that zombie flies, or any kind of zombie insect, aren’t a real thing. (Don’t you dare steal my movie idea, though – it’s MINE!) Clearly, I was looking at some kind of living creature. I just couldn’t imagine what it might be.

Later, I discovered that my “zombie fly” was really a derbid plant hopper. According to, “Derbids generally can be recognized by having the row of spines on the second hind tarsal segment and having the apical segment of the beak short.” Oh. Well, now I feel silly… I completely missed that row of spines on the second hind tarsal segment, and I didn’t even think to look for the apical segment of the beak!

Look at the gorgeous blue and red coloring on the wings of this derbid planthopper. This photograph is from September, but is the same species as the one I photographed in August. I found another in early October, and all three were within my square meter plot. I’ve not yet seen one elsewhere (but I’m sure they exist).

Derbid planthoppers are a very diverse group of insects with almost 1,700 species found around the world. According to a couple online sources, derbid nymphs feed on fungi. Adults feed on plants, and at least some are host-specific, meaning that they feed only on a single plant species or group of species. I would love to know if the derbid I photographed was a specialist feeder on one of the plants in my little plot. I would also love to know if the derbids I found in the plot in September and October were actually the same individual as the one from August. It seems unlikely – but probably more likely than a zombie fly.

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…