Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Week for the Bugs: Part I – It’s all in the beak

Very young bugs with thrips, their close relatives

Last week I did something that has become unusual for me: I went to an Entomological Society of America Annual Meeting (its 59th). Yes, I was one of about four thousand bug-obsessed people who descended on Reno, Nevada, for 5 days of presentations on the current state of entomological research in North America (and the World). One bug or another was the buzz for each and every of the 2,200 presentations from entomologists from all over the United States and three dozen other countries. Well, bugs in the common sense, anyway.
A stink bug deploys its all important beak
When I was a child, defining a bug was simple: if it scurried on spiny legs and wasn’t a spider, it was a bug. Such logic sufficed for a child, but as I grew older and began my indoctrination into the entomological mysteries, I learned that there were ‘bugs’ for the common people and ‘true bugs’ for scientists. 
A lightening 'bug' is actually a beetle (Ellychnia corrusca)
 The Heteroptera Latreille, 1810, then an order of about 40,000 species of insects, contains the 'true bugs’. As adults, most heteropterans have ‘different wings’, that is the front pair are hardened and thickened (except towards the tips) and the rear pair are larger and translucent. Heteropterans also have their mouthparts formed into a beak or proboscis for piercing and sucking the juices of insects, plants, or even people.
A seed bug Peritrechus fraternus
The true bugs of my youth included the always creepily interesting assassin bugs and ambush bugs. Then there were the pesky plant bugs, lace bugs, leaf-footed bugs, seed bugs, and the smelly and foul-tasting stink bugs. A trip to a pond or stream revealed armies of water bugs, usually going by other names such as toe-nippers, backswimmers, waterboatmen, and water striders. 
Bug eats bug - note membranous hind wings of victim
 Perhaps the most infamous of true bugs are the bed bugs (family Cimicidae). Along the road to becoming blood-sucking parasites, an ancestor of the bed bugs lost its wings, but otherwise they are typical bugs. Well, so they said, but I never saw one until I was much older. Along the road to becoming a university professor, I lost the Heteroptera as an order, but I gained a world where bed bugs are now common.
Two bed bugs from Queensland with beaks deployed
Heteroptera was good enough to get me through university, and as a suborder sustains me still, but science moves on and today’s true bugs now include the Homoptera (‘same wing’) of my youth. What was once Homoptera have a host of common names. Aphids, plant lice, whiteflies, mealybugs, and scale insects are familiar to anyone who has tried to grow a plant. And then there are the noisy cicadas (aka locusts); bizarre lanternflies; and far too numerous hoppers (plant-, leaf-, tree-, and frog-) and spittlebugs. 
Meet the bugs in spittlebug
 I suppose, 'spittlebug' should now be two words, ‘spittle bug’, at least for those who feel that common names must follow the current scientific wisdom. All bugs with similar piercing-sucking mouthparts, irrespective of their common names, are now subsumed in the older ordinal name Hemiptera (‘half wings’) of Linnaeus, 1758.
A 'throat beak' leafhopper Colladonus belli (Uhler, 1877)
The Homoptera is well and truly gone (see Gullan 1999) and has been replaced by two tongue-twisters. Auchenorrhyncha is, I assume, from the Greek for ‘throat beak’ and referring to an anterior origin of the proboscis. This includes the 42,000 or so species of cicadas, laternflies, and assorted hoppers and spittle bugs.
'Breast-beaked' Giant Lupine Aphids (with thrips)
 The Sternorrhyncha or ‘breast beaks’ have a more posterior proboscis as in the 15,000 or so species of aphids, plant lice, and their scaly, mealy and whitefly relatives. Don’t get too attached to these names, though, because scientific progress may shatter them as well. Some day, a grouchy old throat-beak lover may be bemoaning the Auchenorrhyncha of his youth.
Water strider, currently secure in suborder Heteroptera
Gullan, PJ (1999). "Why the taxon Homoptera does not exist". Entomologica 33: 101–104.


  1. Nice 'bug' overview. I miss the Homoptera, treehoppers being the first group in which I developed a taxonomic interest (and still tinker with for fun).

  2. Man! Just when I was getting used to Homoptera and Hemiptera...

    You made it to the ESA annual meeting! Did you get the calendar? I haven't received my complementary copy yet and I'm wondering how the photos came out.

  3. Hey Bones,

    Yeah, Homoptera seems less than well anchored. I've been trying to get my head around it for the last couple of weeks and may post on it soon (with or without understanding it).

    Just in case they didn't send you a copy, I brought you back the ESA calendar. The Tachina that leads the pack is a beaut and the Sympetrum in November almost gives you the alpha and omega (but Peter Naskrecki makes the bulk and the others are pretty impressive too). If you are going to the meeting next week, I can pass it on to you.