African Bugs

I ended my recent post on beetles by explaining that the Cicada is not a beetle, it’s a bug. I then mentioned that the terms “insect” and “bug” are not interchangeable – so why is this?

Well, insects are arthropods (creatures with an exoskeleton) with three body parts (head, thorax, abdomen), six legs, two or four wings, and two compound eyes and two or three simple eyes. Beetles are insects. Its true that a beetle is a type of insect, but there are plenty of insects that aren’t beetles – the same holds for bugs, which are a type of insect.

An unidentified Assassin Bug

Bugs are insects of the Hemiptera order, which is characterised by having piercing or sucking mouthparts, two pairs of wings, and reduced hindwings. This is clear in the picture above, of an unidentified Assassin Bug, (family Reduviidae) especially when contrasted to a beetle with its thickened shell and wing casings.

Assassin Bugs are ambush predators that feed on other arthropods. They stalk their prey with a strange clockwork-like walk before rushing out and grabbing their prey with their forelegs. The prey is then injected with a paralytic secretion from the Assassin Bug’s rostrum (beak) before being sacked dry. The bite is painful to humans, but nonlethal, and bites are exceptionally rare even when handling the bugs.

An Axe-head Cicada – Oxypleura lenihani – Associated with fig trees

The Cicadas of family Cicadidae are easily recognisable long before they are even seen, due to a shrill buzzing noise they make. This noise is produced by males using a special organ called a tymbal. Essentially it’s a membranous circular ring that the bug contracts and relaxes making a clicking noise; it does this extraordinarily quickly to produce the characteristic buzz. They have several calls and often “sing” in a loud chorus.

The transparent wings are prominent and they are capable of extended (if clumsy) flight. The young feed on tree roots and, fascinatingly, it takes many years, often decades, for the young to emerge, climb the tree, and moult into adults. Despite their prominence, their biology is poorly understood – but they are completely harmless to humans, beyond the loud noise!

A Velvet Ant (Family Mutillidae) also known as a Guinea Fowl Ant

Beyond the bugs, there are many other orders of insects that I want to touch on here. First of all, Order Hymenoptera – wasps, bees, sawflies, and ants. Hymenoptera are typified by having biting mouthparts, sometimes adapted for sucking or lapping liquids, along with mandibles; and many have stings.

The Velvet Ant above (Family Mutillidae – colloquially referred to locally as Guinea Fowl Ants as their markings are reminiscent of those of the Guinea Fowl) are actually wingless wasps. The females are wingless with very painful stings; males look completely different with shiny black bodies and long wings. They parasitize larvae and pupae of various other wasps and bees, beetles, cockroaches, flies, and moths. 

True ants (of the family Formicidae) have entire books written on their behaviour. They are social creatures with some absolutely unbelievable behaviours. The Matabele Ant shown above is a large ant with very painful bite. Once an hour, a scout (as shown) is sent out over a 50 metre radius to look for termites. If he finds none, he returns and a new scout is sent out. If he finds termites, he returns to the nest directly and musters an entire warrant that follows him almost in single file to the termites, where a huge raid commences and the ants bring back larvae and wounded termites as food.

A young male unidentified mantis

Mantids are predatory insects of the Order Mantodea, and have spiny prehensile forelegs that they hold as if they are “praying”. They have triangular heads with two large compound eyes and can turn their head to face their prey or predators. Most species have wings, though females tend to have underdeveloped wings if they even have any. Contrary to popular myth, the females don’t always eat the males after mating, they will certainly try to but this comes mainly from mantids seeing anything they can overpower as prey – regardless of species. This makes mating risky for the male. Mantids grasp their prey in their strong forelegs, orient the prey correctly, then devour it head-first (as this kills the prey quicker to reduce struggling and the possibility of injury).

A Stick Mantid – possibly Epioscopomantis chalybea

Mantids come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are large and look almost like twigs, others are smaller and look like leaves. Some are experts at camouflage and look exactly like flower buds. This stick mantid of the family Mantidae would be completely hidden in a tree or bush, but is quite prominent when discovered in a bathroom sink!

A Bark Mantis – Tarachodes species
A Milkweed Locust – family Pyrgomorphidae

One of the most instantly recognisable groups of insects is the Order Orthoptera, which consists of crickets, katydids, grasshoppers, and locusts. The Order is characterised by strong rear legs designed for jumping, and are known pests. Many can make sound by rubbing their legs against their body, but not all. The Milkweed Locust (Pyrgomorphidae) above doesn’t make sound but does produce a foamy secretion that it uses for defense – and is highly toxic to humans when ingested.

A young Garden Locust comes to watch us gardening

Many of the Orthoptera are very similar in the nymph stages, but some are still quite distinctive. The little fellow in the image above is almost certainly a Garden Locust (Acanthacris ruficornis) – the nymphs are soft and light green, though the adults are hard, large, with spiny legs that can break human skin when they kick. Pound for pound they’re also very high in protein and eaten by many of the locals. 

Of course, no discussion on insects would be complete without mentioning the most popular Order of all, the Lepidoptera – butterflies and moths. Lepidoptera have been the subject of many avid enthusiasts and collectors throughout the years, with beautiful pin-boards of various magnificent species, as the colouration, caused by dust-like scales, does not fade after death as it does for most things. Butterfly houses used to be a popular addition to stately homes, and it’s easy to understand why. As an Order, they’re everywhere, easily spotted, and most of them are readily identifiable to a certain degree for an enthusiast. They’re also not at all dangerous to humans, and being cute, fluffy, and colourful makes them tolerable to all but the worst insectophobe.

There are no hard rules as to the differences between moths and butterflies. Plenty of moths are active at day and butterflies at night, and some moths rest with their wings up – but moths tend to relax with wings flattened and be nocturnal. It’s just not 100% accurate. 

A Monkey Moth – Family Eupterotidae 

Monkey Moths are fairly common in these parts. They are hairy, plump, and often have rounded wings. Notably, they also tend to “play dead” when their flight is interrupted.

A stunning Mopane Moth – Imbrasia belina

Back in June, during my first visit to Zimbabwe, I dared to try mopane worm, a local delicacy. These larvae are harvested from mopane trees (Colophospermum mopane) by the locals and are eviscerated and dried before eating. I commented then that the dried larvae actually weren’t all that bad to eat (and are much higher in protein than beef) and now I have become intimately familiar with the adults. 

Those who follow my Instagram (@bkelly_cs) or Tumblr (bkellycs) will know that these little guys have become close friends, consistently coming to rest on me and often refusing to fly away. They’re quite harmless and gentle, but it has become a minor running joke with me – often I’ll coax the moth off my arm and back into the air, only for it to circle around once or twice, before landing again on my other arm or head.

A Red-veined Dropwing Dragonfly – Trithemis arteriosa

Dragonflies (Order Odonata, Family Anisoptera) are also easily recognisable and popular. Despite their fearsome names, they are insectivorous and harmless to humans. They have large complex eyes spaced wide apart and delicate transparent wings that lie flat when at rest. Their hairy legs act like a basket for catching prey mid-flight and Dragonflies often come in bright, vibrant colours, like the Red-veined Dropwing above – a skimmer, an easy photo target as they like to bask on rocks or twigs before short forays for food. This one let me get close enough to touch it before flying off just far enough to indignantly circle around and land defiantly on the exact same twig. 

A Pit-building Antlion – Cueta sp.

Finally, we come to the Order Neuroptera – the lacewings – and specifically Family Myrmeleontidae – the Antlions. Antlions are fantastic insects; the larvae look like grubs with humongous elongated mandibles, and make conical pits in the sand where they wait in ambush. The larvae have exceptional hearing and are able to hear the subsonic sound of ants and other insects approaching. Any insect unfortunate enough to stumble into the pit soon finds itself on the sharp end of the voracious predators mandibles, and is pumped full of venom and enzymes and dragged into the sand below.

Conversely, the adults are docile, lazy fliers that feed on nectar and plants (in some species the adults remain insectivorous but in a manner similar with Dragonflies).

Antlion Larvae and characteristic pit – photo by Susan Beatrice

Africa is renowned for its wide variety of exciting wildlife; from Hippopotamus, Elephant and Giraffe, to Lions, Leopard and Cheetah. These are the animals people know and love and want to see on safari, but as the Guides will advise, nothing is guaranteed. Rather than “waste” a trip into the bush and come back feeling disappointed, why not turn your attention downwards to the little wonders and beasts that roam the undergrowth, ply the skies, and hunt every bit as aggressively? You might even be surprised what you can find in your own garden if you look! Why not explore and take some photos of your own? Find the wildlife hiding in your pot-plants!


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