Love Bugs? Become an Entomologist!

Entomology is the science of insects. People who study insects are called entomologists. Insects have been observed for thousands of years, but it was not until as early as the 1500’s that insects were scientifically studied.

There are many things that we don’t know about the insect world. An Entomologist’s goal is to learn more about insects; like how they are related, how they reproduce, and how they can be kept away from the food we eat! There are billions of unknown species of bugs throughout the world, and billions of things to learn about them!

Entomologists have really important jobs. They study many different things about the world of insects like their classification, life cycle, distribution, behavior, ecology, and populations. Because there are insects all over the world, Entomologists study insects in all environments. Some Entomologists study insects that live in cities, while others study bugs that live in our backyards and even on our pets! These scientists also may work with our helpful insect friends like honeybees, silkworms, ladybird beetles, and wasps.

Helping Hands – The Taxonomist:

Biologists who group organisms into categories are called Taxonomists. They help entomologists categorize newly found insects. They also meet together to talk about their study of insects and to share ideas, just as all scientists do.

Learn more about the Bugs of Summer and participate in our
HTHT @ Home Science Experiment:

July E-News: Buzz-ing Science: Rise of the Brood II Cicadas

If it hasn’t happened yet, it could occur any day now.

The first signs are little holes in the ground in yards, orchards, and fields. Then, one warm evening, big, red-eyed bugs start to crawl out of the holes. The next morning, thousands upon thousands of these black, winged insects, known as cicadas, cover sidewalks, mailboxes, tree branches, and roofs across certain areas of the United States. The loud throb of their alien-sounding, high-pitched screeches fill the air.

For the first time in 17 years, vast clouds of cicadas are set to swarm the Eastern United States this summer, from Georgia all the way up to New York! If you don’t like bugs, watch out. For anyone who lives in the invasion area, the cicadas will be impossible to ignore. And, if you’re caught by surprise, the experience can be pretty overwhelming. Some people find it downright creepy.

Puzzling Cycles

Even if you don’t get to witness the great cicada awakening, it’s worth pondering the phenomenon. Despite years of research, the life cycles and habits of cicadas still present puzzles to modern science.

Researchers are especially interested in the types of cicadas that will be swarming over the eastern United States this summer. Called periodical cicadas, these insects live only in this part of the world, and they appear just once every 17 years, on the dot. Related periodical cicadas have a precise 13-year cycle. Other species, known as annual cicadas, make an appearance every year. The emergence of these puzzling creatures seems like something straight out of a science fiction movie but it’s not only real, it’s a really special phenomenon that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world!

All cicada eggs hatch into juveniles underground, where they go through five stages of development before emerging as adults, mating, and starting the cycle all over again. Adult periodical cicadas are about 1.5 inches long. It may set you at ease a little to know that these creepy-crawlies can neither bite nor sting… phew!

Prime Time

One big mystery is why periodical cicadas wait such a long time and a particular number of years before emerging. The answer, some scientists now suggest, appears to involve weather and mathematics. 

Periodical cicadas belong to a genus called Magicicada, which first appeared sometime around 1.8 million years ago. Back then, glaciers covered the land, and the climate of Eastern North America was unpredictable. Sometimes summers were warm. Sometimes they were cold. Scientists that study the Cicadas say that juvenile Magicicada won’t even crawl out of the earth until the soil reaches 64 degrees F. After that, they need consistent warm temperatures, usually above 68 degrees F., to survive. By evolving to stay underground as long as possible, some experts say, cicadas reduced their chances of emerging during a particularly cold summer.

In one study, researchers from Tennessee and Arkansas looked at what would happen if there were one dangerously cold summer every 50 years for 1,500 years. Their mathematical model showed that cicadas with a life cycle of 7 years had only an 8-percent chance of surviving. With an 11-year cycle, survival jumped to 51 percent. At 17 years, cicadas had a 96-percent chance of living.

So, staying underground longer is better. In fact, periodical cicadas live longer than almost any other insect! 

Multiple Breeding

Both 13 and 17 belong to a special class of numbers called primes. This means that the numbers can be evenly divided only by themselves or the number 1. The first few prime numbers are 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, and 19. Mathematicians spend a lot of time trying to understand prime numbers. Cicadas somehow understand primes instinctively. What’s more incredible, the insects seem to know how to count.

The fact that 17 and 13 are primes reduces the chances of interbreeding among different populations of 17-year and 13-year cicadas. Multiples of prime numbers are unlikely to overlap with multiples of other prime numbers. So, a cicada population that hatches every 2 or 5 or 7 years will hardly ever hatch at the same time as a population that hatches every 13 or 17 years. And the 13- and 17-year cicadas will emerge at the same time only once every 221 years.

If populations don’t hatch at the same time, they can’t mate with each other, so their genes remain distinct. That’s important because genes help determine the length of the insect’s life cycle. If a 5-year cicada were to mate with a 17-year cicada, for example, the length of the cycle would be different every generation. The 17-year cicadas would immediately lose their timing advantage.

To understand the process better, scientists recently crossed a 13-year species with a 17-year species. They’re curious to see whether the offspring hatch after 13 years, 17 years, or somewhere in between. Now, it’s a matter of waiting for the results—which will take years to get.

The results might also help explain how cicadas know when 17 or 13 years have passed. Some experiments suggest that the insects actually count years while they wait underground. Cicadas may also respond to cues in the environment. The trees that cicadas feed on produce flowers every year. When scientists from the University of California, Davis transplanted juvenile cicadas onto potted trees and forced the trees to flower twice in one year, the cicadas hatched a year early.

Learning More

If all of this puzzles you, you’re not alone. Scientists have lots of questions, too.  Despite the numerous studies done on these fascinating creatures, it’s still difficult even for scientists to explain how this remarkable complex species work. 

Throughout history, Cicadas have continued to captivate our curiosity. Check out this Library of Congress newspaper archive from 1911 when two broods- a 13-year and 17-year (Brood II) swarmed in the same summer.

If you want to know more about cicada invasions, talk to someone who was around in 1996, 17 years ago. Or look up 17-year-old newspapers from the affected region in your local library. Chances are, you’ll find articles about cicadas. 

You’ll also get a better idea of when to expect their arrival—if they haven’t arrived already! Cicadas emerge later in colder places. Washington, D.C., for example, would most likely see them earlier than somewhere that has cooler climate such as Detroit. 

Most of the stories you hear will probably be full of wonder and admiration for the unique creatures. Their large size makes them spectacular. Their rarity makes them special. As a bonus, they’re totally harmless. Some people even eat them!

Whether or not you choose to chew your cicadas, it makes sense to swallow any creepy-crawly feelings that you might have and appreciate the insects now. After all, you won’t get another chance for a long, long time.

Want to Learn More? Check Out These Great Resources:

Cicada Invasion Crafts: 6 Buzzing Ideas from Bug Soup to Jewelry

July E-News: Discoveries that Have the Cicadas Buzzing

After 17 years underground, billions of cicadas are ready to emerge and see sunlight for the first time. They will blanket the East Coast until around mid-June, buzzing like jackhammers in harmony as they search for a mate. Since 1996, the periodical insects, which belong to a group called Brood II, have lived as nymphs two feet deep in the soil, feeding on nothing but the liquid they suck out of tree roots. Once they crawl up to the surface, they molt, mate, lay eggs and die within a month.

Scientists are still trying to determine how periodical cicadas know when to emerge. But in the last 17 years, researchers have made some other important discoveries about other insects, some of whom also enjoy swarming the United States. From the oldest fossil to the newest findings, the Cicadas have missed out on a lot since 1996! Check out our list of the top 10 discoveries that will have these bugs a buzzing this month!

#10. British Researchers Figured Out How Insects Fly. 

In 1996, scientists at the University of Cambridge solved the mystery of how many winged insects can produce more lift than can be explained by aerodynamic properties. The team unleashed hawkmoths into a wind tunnel with smoke and then took high-speed photos of the insects in flight. By studying how the smoke moved around the moths’ wings, researchers were able to determine that flying insects create whirling spirals of air above the front edges of their wings, providing more lift.

#9. Scientists Uncovered an Entire New Order of Insects. 

In 2002, entomologists discovered a group of inch-long wingless creatures that comprised a new order, a taxonomic rank used in the classification of organisms. The first to be identified in 88 years at that time, the order, dubbed Mantophasmatodea, consists of insects with features similar to praying mantises. The finding became the 31st known insect order.

#8The World’s Largest Insect was Discovered in New Zealand.

Scientist Mark Moffett, known as Doctor Bugs, discovered the world’s largest insect, a surprisingly friendly female Weta bug, while traveling in New Zealand in 2011. The massive creature has a wingspan of seven inches and weighs three times as much as a mouse. Here’s a video of the bug eating a carrot out of Moffett’s hand.

#7. Brood X Invaded the East Coast. 

In 2004, another group of cicadas known as Brood X emerged after 17 years underground. The bugs’ motto? Strength in numbers. This class is the largest of the periodical insects, including three different species of cicada.

#6. Researchers Pinpointed the World’s Oldest Known Insect Fossil. 

Until 2004, a 400 million-year-old set of tiny insect jawsoriginally found in a block of chert along with a well-preserved and well-studied fossil springtaillay untouched for almost a century in a drawer at the Natural History Museum in London. The rediscovery and subsequent study of the specimen meant that true insects appeared 10 million to 20 million years earlier than once thought. The researchers believe these ancient insects were capable of flight, which would mean the tiny creatures took to the skies 170 millions years ago, before flying dinosaurs.

#5.  America’s Bee Population Started to Plummet. 

By spring of 2007, more than a quarter of the country’s 2.4 million honeybee colonies had mysteriously vanished. Something prevented the bees from returning to their hives, and scientists weren’t sure why, but they gave it a name: colony-collapse disorder. According to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the phenomenon continues to plague apiaries across the country, and no cause has been determined.

#4. Scientists Figured Out How to Extract DNA From Preserved Insect Specimens. 

In 2009, researchers removed a barrier from the study of early insects, a practice that often left ancient specimens destroyed. In the pasttoo much tinkering around with tiny specimens meant that the samples often became contaminated or eventually deteriorated. The scientists soaked nearly 200-year-old preserved beetles in a special solution for 16 hours, a process that allowed them to then carefully extract DNA from the bugs without damaging them.

#3.  A Swarm of Butterflies, Thought to be One Single Species, Turned Out to be 10 of Them.

In 2004, researchers used DNA barcoding technology to study the Astraptes fulgerator butterfly, whose habitat ranges from Texas to northern Argentina. What they found was remarkable: an insect that was thought to be one species was actually 10 different species. The species’ habitats overlapped, but the butterflies never bred with its doppelganger neighbors.

#2. The First Truly Amphibious Insects Were Discovered. 

In 2011, a study reported that 11 species of caterpillar with the ability to live underwater indefinitely were found in freshwater streams in Hawaii. The twist? The same insects studied were land-dwellers too.

#1. A Fly Found in Thailand was Determined to be the Smallest in the World. 

Discovered in 2012, the fly, named Euryplatea nanaknihali, is 15 times smaller than a house fly and tinier than a grain of salt. But don’t let the miniature bugs fool you; they feed on tiny ants by burrowing into the larger insects’ head casings, eventually decapitating them.

You can see the full list of insect discoveries that the 17-year Cicadas missed in the May Issue of Smithonian’s Surprising Science Magazine: Leaproaches, Mutant Butterflies and Other Insect News That the 17-Year Cicadas Missed

Want to Learn More? Check Out These Great Insect Resources:

Koday’s Kids: Insect Guide50 Activities for Learning & Playing with InsectsUniversity of KY – Entomology for Kids:10 Weirdest Insects in the WorldBugs for the Young Science Explorer Going Buggy with