They creep, they crawl. You might love them or you might hate them, but you probably have a definite opinion about them. Some are downright beautiful and some are kind of icky, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to insects.
If the thought of a beetle or a wasp sends you running for the hills, this is not going to be the story for you. Sorry. (Check out our bird guide from April.)
If you are fascinated by insects or if you have children who dig them, we’re here to help.
We asked Jo Holley and Alex Wild, husband and wife entomologists at the University of Texas, to give us the top 25 insects to look for in Central Texas. They laughed, of course, because there are probably between 5 million and 10 million insects, more than 360,000 beetles alone that have been described. There’s probably many more that haven’t been classified yet.
They came up with 29, plus three other creepy crawlies that you might want to look for: two spiders and a non-insect arthropod.
Wild says he’s always been into bugs, and remembers as a young boy in Rochester, N.Y., trying to put carpenter ants in a cup. He is now the curator of entomology for the UT Biodiversity Collections.
“It’s the kind of thing where you’re never really bored,” he says. “They are everywhere, and there are so many different kinds doing something.”
His favorite are ants.
Holley grew up in Australia, where people have a lot of respect for insects and spiders, she says. In high school she was really into microbes, but when she got to college she took a course in entomology and was hooked.
“I really like the novelty of learning new things,” she says. With insects there are so many new things. “So many of them do weird, interesting stuff,” she says. “Plus they are also really pretty.”
She’s an assistant professor and studies social insects and the way they interact. Currently she’s digging the honey wasp, which makes honey just like a bee.
The fear of insects is a learned behavior, they say. Yes, there could be a genuine visceral response to the feeling of being touched by something unknown, but we learn to fear insects either because we have a parent who shared that fear with us or we once held a bee in our hand and got stung.
Many insects sting or bite as a defensive mechanism against the scary humans, unless we happen to be a food source for growing eggs, as we are for female mosquitoes. Most insects that bite or sting are brightly colored or have stripes that advertise that they are dangerous.
“They are teaching bird predators you don’t want to eat me,” Holley says.
What is the point of insects, anyway? Wild turns that around: “What good are we? What good is anything? All living things are there to make more of themselves.”
With insects especially, there are so many we don’t know much about, including what they do or what they eat, he says.
Insects definitely have a place in our ecosystem, Holley says. Some are pollinators and help plants, including the ones that feed us.
Some, like dung beetles, help us process all of our waste, “and, while that’s not an attractive thought, it’s a very, very important job,” Holley says. “The world would be a very, very worse place without the dug beetle.”
Many get rid of pests. The ladybird beetle, which you might know as a lady bug, eats aphids off flowers.
Insects are also at the heart of our recreational activities, Holley says. “All those beautiful birds that people like, a large number of birds are feeding on insects,” she says. “People love to fish, and a lot of fish eat insects.”
But really, what’s the point of a fire ant? Turns out fire ants eat other insects and worms. They are an introduced species and when they showed up, the tick population was reduced.
Mosquitoes, which are by far the most dangerous type of insect because of the diseases they carry, are great food for many different animals. Fleas also have caused a pandemic or two, but they are food for snakes, spiders, frogs, lizards and ants.
Remember, an insect is just trying to live its life, Holley says, and it’s a fascinating one. For example, the queen bee somehow convinces her daughters to not have children, but instead to be the babysitters so she can have as many babies as she wants. “That comes with a lot of policing to make sure that none of her daughters lay eggs and punishment systems if they do,” Holley says.
The metamorphosis of insects is fascinating because it is far more developed than most other animals, Wild says.
They often start out as tiny eggs that become thousands of times the egg’s mass as an adult. In between, the young have the perfect body for eating and getting bigger. Sometimes the young form is as big as the adults and often it looks nothing like the adults’.
Imagine if your teenager sealed himself in his room and came out days later as a beautiful full-grown adult. We can dream, but insects live this life.
Now that you’re sold on the wonders of insects, let’s go find and study them.
A lot of insects don’t really like the heat, so you’re going to find them underground or under rocks and logs and in shade, like the eaves of your roof. They come out in the evening, especially under your porch light.
Wild recently did an experiment to see how many insects he could collect using a black light in his Central Austin backyard. On one night, he collected 200 to 300 different species, and probably about 10,000 individual insects.
One of the best places to see insects is also a great place to see birds. It’s right at Hornsby Bend by Austin Water Utility’s biosolids facility. Yes, insects — especially the larvae — love to eat the bacteria coming from the wastewater.
“All the resources get concentrated in the treatment ponds,” Wild says.
We don’t have many army ants in the area, but Wild has spotted them there.
If you’re not going to the treatment ponds (it can be stinky, Wild says, when the wind blows a certain direction), you can find insects all around you.
Look in windowsills, in the flower pot by your front door, anywhere near water. A great place to also look for insects is at the cemetery, where flower vases filled with water by grave sites attract both the pollinators and the insects drawn to water.
If you want another spot — that isn’t a treatment pond or a cemetery — head to a greenbelt that has a lot of foliage and native plants. Look inside any flower that is shaped like a cup. You’ll often find an insect inside looking for nectar.
In trees, insects often find their way into holes in the tree or on leaves or underneath bark.
One of the best ways to attract the right kind of bugs to your yard and not the pests is to use only native plants. In Holley and Wild’s yard, they haven’t seen a lot of fire ants because they’ve filled the yard with native plants.
If you do have pests, physical removal is best, they say, instead of pesticides, which can harm the insects you do want. Plant those native plants to encourage the native species of insects, too.