Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Insect Universe

The sky is big.  Really big.  For an insect, it is hard to understand just how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is.  You may think it’s a long way up the tree to the canopy, but that’s just peanuts to the sky.  In a sky this big, flying is the only way to travel.  But don’t be concerned if you lack the necessary aerial appendages.  This Guide will show you the tricks and tips employed by the veterans—the hitchhikers of the insect galaxy.

There are many ways to travel in the insect world if you are a clever arthropod.  Imagine, for example, a hardworking bumblebee, whose wings beat at 200 times a second.  On a single foraging trip, she may gather 100% of her own body weight in pollen and nectar to bring back to her thriving nest.  Bumblebees are workaholics and tolerate frivolity about as well as TSA, so as a hitchhiker, you must be creative in order to catch a ride.  You could employ the strategy of a beetle in the Silken Fungus family (Cryptophagidae).  Simply hide inside of a flower, near the nectar.  Wait patiently until you see a bumblebee, who—expecting a sweet sip of nectar—will extend her tongue.  This is your chance to catch a ride!

A Cryptophagid beetle on the tongue of a bumblebee queen.

The bumblebee, who is about 10 times your size, will immediately try to remove you.  Don’t panic!  Just use those commuter biceps to hang on as you would on a crowded subway.  Once attached, a Cryptophagid beetle cannot be persuaded to release the bee’s tongue until she returns to her nest for help.  At this point, he drops off and seeks out a mate among those of his species enjoying their sweet abode.  Although some think the beetles provide a contribution to the health of the bee colony by being the nest’s dumpster divers, this relationship probably neither helps nor harms the bumblebees, aside from the obvious inconvenience and annoyance of a hitchhiker, of course.

Alternatively, you could follow the more subtle strategy of the pseudoscorpion.  These hitchhiking specialists have gigantic pincers, an arthropodian version of the “hitchhiker’s thumb” that allows them to hitch a ride from one premium tourist location to another on the appendages of flying insects.  The pseudoscorpion is so tiny that its insect carrier doesn’t seem to notice at all.  After arriving at its destination, it simply drops off in search of the local fare—much smaller Arachnids (mites).  Similar to the Cryptophagid beetle, the pseudoscorpion clearly doesn’t harm or help its ride.

Phoretic pseudoscorpion on a click beetle.

Of course, if you wish to return the favor to your ride, you could follow the example of the mites that hitchhike on carrion beetles.  Phoretic, or hitchhiking, mites can be found on all types of flying insects, from flies to bees, but the most interesting example is those that ride on carrion beetles.  These mites consume the eggs and larvae of carrion-eating flies, thereby making more room at the buffet table for their rides.

Mites on a beetle.

Once you’ve mastered the techniques necessary to hitchhike in the insect world, feel free to broaden your horizons.  Arthropods are also known to take advantage of other flighted friends for rides, including both birds and bats.  In just one bird nest, as many as 53 species of hitchhiking arthropods have been found.  Millipedes especially, despite their unwieldy appearance, have been shown to be talented at catching a feathery ride from one bird nest to another.  And those phoretic mites can run at speeds equivalent to tiny cheetahs as they dash in less than five seconds from the nostril of a hummingbird to a flower.  All of this just goes to show that you don’t have to have wings to move quickly and easily between your destinations.  So hop aboard for a fun ride…and don’t forget your towel!

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2 thoughts on “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Insect Universe

  1. Pingback: Cryptic Cryptophagids « standingoutinmyfield

  2. Pingback: Heinlein Links to Share | standingoutinmyfield

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