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Alien Nations: Up Close and Impersonal with Insects and Spiders

Sunday 10 June 2018

It is little wonder that many movie monster makers look to the alien world of insects for their inspiration. Here, with the aid of some amazing macrophotography, get up close and impersonal with some strange species that might not look too out of place in a sci-fi movie.

There are around ninety species of beetle backed flies – and this is one of them. Native to Asia and Africa they do are small sized insects but with macrophotography they do not look quite so small. The reason for its swollen appearance is not because it is about to lay eggs (or has just ingested something larger than itself which is enough to start off a gag reflex, possibly). Rather it has an enlarged scutellum. This is the triangular plate behind its pronotum, which is one of the three parts that makes up its thorax. Its wings are behind the scutellum.

Xylocopa collaris or the Carpenter Bee is a large insect found through Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. It can grow up to over two centimeters long. It may look like some sort of Pokémon creature but it is in fact very real. The reason for its common name is that it makes it nests in fallen logs in forests. Although it is quite often seen in parks and gardens it seems to ensure that it makes its nest far away from human habitation. The males are territorial and once they have staked out their own small parcel of land they will actively defend it.

There are about 200 species of the antlion, seen above in its nymph stage. In fact antlion is the name for the immature insect rather than the adult Myrmeleontidae – there doesn’t seem to be a common name (other than antlion lacewings) in the English language although others do have them. If you are from North America you will know this scary looking chap a doodlebug, which takes the fear out of it somewhat. For those of you outside the USA it is called a doodlebug because of the trails it makes in the sand while it searches for somewhere to build its trap. Hold on, trap? Maybe it is just a little scary after all.

Believe it or not this is an insect rather than a crustacean and the shot was taken on land. This brightly colored species is part of the Cixiidae family. It’s a planthopper, to you and I and these species have evolved to resemble the leaves that they live among. In a similar way to grasshoppers they use a hop as their primary mans of transportation from on plant to another. However, when they get to their final destination, they do not wish it to necessarily be literally their final destination so they walk very slowly so as not to attract the unwanted attention of predators.

If Cyrano de Bergerac was an insect, he would probably be this one. Usually known as lantern flies, the Fulgorids are sometimes referred to as elephant insects in local languages in Asia. More accurately would be cow insect, to be honest. The lantern fly feeds off plant sap in order to get the amount of amino acids that they need. The sugar water they take in is far in excess to the amount of energy that they need so they secrete what they do not need as honeydew. Step forward the ants, which need to the honeydew. They will often look after these sap feeders and protect them from predators and even the weather on occasion. If you think of humans and cows, you will get the relationship.

This is an ant, right? No actually it is an ant mimic spider, or crab spider known to scientists as Amyciaea lineatipes. It uses its resemblance to spiders to its advantage – the color and shape warns off predators that if eaten it will not taste pleasant at all. It also mimics the pose that ants adopt when threatened or poised to attack, making the resemblance even greater. The great coup of this piece of camouflage is its preferred food. You guessed it, ants. It’s like a wolf taking on sheep’s clothing in order to get close to the flock. Remarkable.

If you know what lycanthropy is you will know from where the root of the family word of this species, Lycosidae, comes. A beautiful example of a wolf spider, you can see the lupine characteristics that led scientists to so name this creature. They share many characteristics of wolves too, being agile and crafty hunters and, as you would suspect, they have excellent eyesight. Like wolves too, their hunting tactics can change. Some are wanderer hunters and will pounce upon unsuspecting prey when they come across it. Others on the other hand will make a burrow and patiently await the next meal to pass by.

The cicada close up. Around two and a half thousand species of cicada inhabit the planet and they are often referred to as locusts – unfortunate as they are not related to them at all. In the US they are sometimes called dry flies because of the shells they leave behind. Cicadas have a bad press generally because they are harmful to some crops but they do not sting or bite humans at all. Unlikely to happen in the US, in many parts of the world the cicada is regularly eaten and is an extremely protein rich meal (especially the female). Their shells are still used in traditional Chinese remedies too. They are noisy too, hence their name which derives from Latin and means buzzer.

It is quite remarkable how some species of insects have quite human features and this could remind the observer of Uriah Heap, one of the characters of Charles Dickens. You would have to go to Australia to come face to face with this Giant Prickly Stick Insect, however. The alternative name is just as descriptive and that is Macleay's Spectre. Most insects have rather dull names, but this one has two that are just fantastic. They are, too, about the most popular pets from the insect world. However, their eggs can take a long time to hatch and many owners have found themselves the adoptive parents of babies long after the real parents have expired.

Hey, they call me Mister Rainbow. In fact this is a blue-spotted tiger beetle. Again, like our friend the wolf spider, you can see why the naturalists chose this name. This particular species has speed on its side as well. It is estimated that the tiger beetle family can run at a speed of five miles an hour. For this feat alone it has been suggested that this is possible the fastest (when you take size in to account, of course) running land animals. Perhaps it should have been called the cheetah beetle, then.

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