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Bugs—we know them when we see them, right?

May 22, 2017

Like most beetles faced with a camera, this one stands its ground.

I overslept a good hour and a half on Monday (Victoria Day), so when shafts of morning sunlight finally found their way into my parkade sleeping spot at 8 a.m. I was still there. And standing beside my sleeping bag, I waited patiently until one long finger of dusty light just managed to touch the tips of my scruffy Doc Martins.

As I waited, I also followed the slow progress of a tiny black dot as it slowly crossed the concrete expanse of the parkade, moving more or less perpendicular to the light.

On close examination the dot appeared to be a basic sort of very small beetle. At least it looked to me like a beetle. It had a hard body and wing cases of iridescent green, plus pincer-like mandibles and six translucent chitinous limbs which glowed orange in the strong backlight.

As with most beetle-like insects, this one did not flee the proximity of my camera. It stood perfectly still while I photographed it from very close up using my WG-3’s 1 cm focus mode.

I expect that unlike some other insects which are quick to flee danger, lumbering beetles may be hardwired to stand and trust their heavy armour for defence. Either that or they recognize a special kinship with my tough little, armoured Pentax WG-3 camera.

It’s really unfortunate that I cannot identify the exact kind of beetle that I saw Monday morning—I always try but I’m certainly no entomologist. And given how confusing and contrary the naming and defining of animals can be (taxonomy), It’s entirely possibly that I’m assuming too much to even say that it was a beetle.

Beetles aren’t bugs and other etymological, er, entomological confusions

This is an invasive Asian species with at least twice as many spots as a native B.C. ladybug.

As an example of how tricky it can be to identify an insect, consider the typical B.C. ladybug pictured above and which I photographed on a window late Monday afternoon.

Most people would say that this polka dotted red bug is a ladybug but really it’s not. It’s a Harmonia axyridis, commonly called a multicoloured Asian lady beetle—which is not the same thing.

It so happens that May is Invasive Species Month in B.C. and the multicouloured Asian lady beetle is a good example of an invasive species in British Columbia.

Introduced to North America in 1988 from Japan by the U.S. government for the purpose of agricultural pest control, the multicoloured Asian ladybug has (along with other introduced foreign beetle species) helped to absolutely decimate the native North American ladybug species, such as the nine-spotted Coccinella novemnotata.

I can’t even recall the last time that I saw the once ubiquitous nine-spotted ladybug in Vancouver, or any of the other North American species, such as transverse ladybugs (Coccinella transversoguttata) or two-spotted ladybugs (Adalia bipunctata).

All I ever seem to see are the 18-spotted variety of multicoloured Asian lady beetles (though this species can appear in a dizzying number of colours and spot patterns).

Now it’s bad enough, identification-wise, when seemingly obvious ladybugs are not, in fact, ladybugs but it gets worse. Ladybugs—despite their name—are not bugs at all they’re beetles. And while beetles are insects they are not bugs.

True bugs all belong to the insect order Hemiptera and are defined as having piercing mouth parts which can suck the juice from plants or animals and beetles don’t have these parts.

Now spiders, which are arachnida—a category separate and distinct from insects—do have piercing and sucking mouth parts but there is no consensus whether they are actually bugs or not.

Sowbugs (aka woodlouse)—you will not be surprised to learn—are also not bugs; they are terrestrial crustaceans related to crabs.

Don’t even get me started on worms or the subjective difference between butterflies and moths!

It is true that virtually all bugs, insects, arachnids and crustaceans do fall under the phylum of Arthropoda. But, as this covers any terrestrial life form with an external skeleton and represents more than 80 percent of all known living animal species, it hardly serves to usefully narrow anything down for anyone.

For some years now, in a desperate attempt to cut through the confusion for young students pining to learn something, the entirely subjective non-biological term “minibeasts” has been used in the United Kingdom primary school system to refer to all the various bugs, insects, slugs and other invertebrates which people generally conflate as “creepy-crawlies”.

The above may be fine for children but I consider it to be a stopgap solution, or a kludge at best. Sooner or later, I think, someone really must do something about the underlying mess of scientific classifications and formal and informal names (which I imagine like layer-upon-layer of old wallpaper in the rambling Victorian-era house that is Science).

But, as you can probably guess, it’s not at all clear to me whether this taxonomic renovation needs to be carried out by etymologists, or entomologists, or both.

One down, at least 350,000 to go

A clear photo of a Harpalus affinis.—©entomart, via Wikimedia Commons

Update: I would like to thank a Twitter user for identifying my parkade visitor as a species of ground beetle called Harpalus affinis—originally native to the Palearctic region of Europe and Asia but now widely distributed in Canada.

Like other members of the Carabidae (ground beetle) family, the Harpalus affinis has a ridged and metallic-sheened wing case (elytron)—green or copper in its case. It is also something of an urban critter, having made itself quite at home in various human-made environments.

The Harpalus affinis is known and studied as one of the temperature-tolerant beetles that thrives in cities and it is also seen to be quite beneficial in apple orchards, where it will eat the seeds of several weed species and prey on pests of the apple crop, including apple maggots, the larvae of the codling moth and apple aphids. Click the images to enlarge them.

From → Fairview, Insects

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