Bug du jour

Believe it or not, but the fruit fly beats the cockroach hands down (or is it six legs down?) when it comes to surviving a nuclear disaster.

While cockroaches have long enjoyed the reputation of being able to survive anything, even an atomic bomb explosion, they’re not as tough and radiation-resistant as the common fruit fly. In fact, studies have found that fruit flies can probably survive 10 times as much radiation as cockroaches.


It once was a tradition among some people in Mexico to dress fleas in tiny clothes. You won’t find many people who practice this art, called pulgas vestidas, anymore, but you can still see photographs of these tiny, dressed-up insects in some art exhibits and museums.

The phorid fly might be tiny, but it has a powerful weapon in its possession: the ability to turn ants into gruesome zombies. After identifying an ant victim, the fly swoops down to lay a single egg into the ant’s head. The developing larva takes control of the ant’s body, first forcing it to walk far away from the rest of the ant colony. As the larva grows and eats the ant’s brain from the inside, the ant dies. Eventually, the ant’s head falls off and the next generation of zombie-creating fly emerges to repeat the cycle.

There are parts of the Amazon Rainforest in South America where you’ll find only one type of plant, and no other … and it’s all because of ants, in particular, lemon ants.

Lemon ants create these special forest areas — called devil’s gardens — by injecting a poison into the leaves of all the other kinds of plants. The poison, called formic acid, starts killing the plants within one day. Why? Because the trees the ants don’t kill have hollow stems that make perfect nests for their colonies.

The largest devil’s garden scientists have found so far has more than 300 trees in it and is around 800 years old.

(By the way, the ants that make those gardens are called lemon ants because that’s kind of what they taste like: lemons.)

Amazing, wonderful, yet also likely to give you nightmares, AntWeb’s slideshow of digital ant photographs shows you unprecedented closeups of more than 12,000 of the world’s many ant species. The wide variety of heads, jaws, hairs and body shapes is mind-boggling.

AntWeb also has an awesome network link for Google Earth that lets you visually browse the globe for which types of ants are where. No surprise, the state where I live (Florida) is swarming with them (and I’ve received the bites to prove it).

How could I not pick Argia apicalis as the bug du jour? This photograph of a spectacular blue-fronted dancer (a type of damselfly) won first place in the Encyclopedia of Life’s “Life is Blue” photo contest. Quite tiny (33 to 40 millimeters), these blue insects still make for amazing closeup photos.

The Encyclopedia of Life, by the way, is a project worth supporting. It’s goal? To “provide freely accessible information by and for communities around the world about all of the 1.9 million known species on our planet.”

How much heat can some insects take? Not many can beat the Sahara Desert ant, which can remain active with a body temperature of more than 50 degrees C (that’s 122 degrees F!). That comes in handy, considering the desert surface where it lives can reach up to 70 degrees C (a whopping 158 degrees F) at the hottest point of the day.

Scientists believe Sahara Desert ants have managed to push heat tolerance about as far as possible for most animals on our planet. Only single-celled or microscopic creatures known as thermophiles (from the Greek words for “heat” and “love”) can beat them; these tiny heat-lovers thrive at temperatures of up to 80 degrees C (176 degrees F)!

The ominously named deathwatch beetle makes a tapping sound by repeatedly hammering its head against a wooden surface to attract a mate. One explanation says these insects earned their frisson-inducing moniker because their taps could be heard in old buildings on quiet spring nights, when people might be keeping watch near a family member’s sickbed. When occupants heard that tapping sound, they thought it was an omen the sick person might die.

Watching and listening to the bug in action is kind of spooky when you think about scenes like that.