I am an ant! Really!

Ant-mimicking Hemipteran nymph uid 5268I lie.

I am not actually an ant at all, but looking like one may save me from critters willing to eat harmless vegetarian bugs like me but unwilling to attack nasty-tasting, big-jawed ants.

Starting again, a bit more seriously: these photos show a couple of insects I found together in my garden recently. The first is about 6mm long, the second about 8mm. My first and only thought was that they were ants, although the transparent rim around their bodies looked strange for an ant (and just as strange for anything else) and so did the bracket-shaped shoulder-piece of the larger one.

Ant-mimicking Hemipteran nymph uid 5253I uploaded both photos to my Flickr photostream and the good people from the Field Guide to Australian Insects and Encyclopedia of Life Images soon put me on the right track: “I’m guessing that these are close to the Broad-headed Bugs (Alydidae). Both seem to be immature stages and the wings have yet to develop completely. The adult would have wings covering the abdomen,” and, “not an ant but an Hemipteran nymph … it vaguely resembles other ant-mimic bugs in the family Nabidae I know from Europe,” and, “Definitely an ant-mimicing heteropteran nymph. We (Aussies) have numerous species spread among several families that have ant mimics as nymphs,” and, “Semi-transparent seams give the impression of several constrictions, where there are none!” (Clicking on the images on this page with take you to Flickr, where you can see the whole discussion as well as full-size photos.)

In this light, the puzzling features weren’t so odd: I know a native cockroach  and a beetle which have transparent edges to their coloured carapaces, and the ‘shoulder-piece’ is simply a pair of wing-buds.

Once the right track, I succeeded with an image search. The best match I found was on Brisbane Insects’ invaluable site, Rhyparochromidae – Seed Bugs, which told me that Rhyparochromidae is a family closely related to Lygaeidae (Seed Bugs, Milkweed Bugs and Chinch Bugs). They are small dull brown or blackish bugs which eat seeds; many of them are flightless.  When (if) my bugs become adults, they should look something like this or this (not my photos), with wing patterns mimicking the ant-like body segmentation.

These bugs are far better ant-mimics than the jumping spiders I found a while ago. Some of their relations are pretty good, too – visit Brisbane Insects’ ant-mimicry page to see them.

Excessive antennae

Katydid nymph
Look at my antennae, everyone!

Katydids are closely related to grasshoppers and crickets (they are all classified as Orthoptera), and the easiest way to tell katydids, at any age, from grasshoppers is the length of their antennae.

This little one (8-10mm long) seems to have overdone it somewhat but is perfectly normal – see, for instance, a differently coloured one I photographed in April. When it grows up it will look something like this or this, but it is often impossible to know the exact identity of a juvenile insect.

Katydid nymph front view
Face to face with the same nymph, with the antennae blurred to invisibility by depth-of-field limitations of the camera.

Shape-shifting bug

Hopper adult and nymph
Leaf-hopper (Flatidae) adult and nymph

This picture could well have appeared in my gallery of microfauna a few days ago but I thought it deserved a little more prominence.

What do we have? Two insects on a plant stem, obviously. Two completely unrelated insects, most of us would think – like a man and his dog leaning against opposite sides of a lamp-post, for instance – but we would be wrong: they are the same species. The one on the right is a juvenile – a nymph – of the larger winged insect on the left.

They are Hemiptera – ‘true bugs’. The adults are known as leaf-hoppers or plant-hoppers and these two are probably Colgar rufostigmatum or Colgaroides acuminata in the family Flatidae. The nymphs, as far as I can tell, are not known as anything at all. They are only about 5mm long without the peculiar tail of waxy filaments and are easily overlooked. The adults are more visible, at 8mm or so, but can easily be mistaken for a spine or new leaf on the stem of the plant. Like many Hemiptera, they feed exclusively on sap they suck from the plant.

Insects of many families undergo radical transformations during their life cycle, of course. The caterpillar-pupa-butterfly sequence is well known (but still amazing); cicadas spend their long childhood underground, eating roots, and dig their way out to split open and take wing; dragonflies spend their infancy as ugly aquatic predators before climbing out and emerging as adults; and so on. By comparison mammals (like us) are boring  …  just about all we do is get bigger.

Growing Giant Grasshopper

Giant grasshopper nymph (Valanga irregularis)
Immature Giant Grasshopper, Valanga irregularis

As the Wet settles in, the plants are growing like crazy and the herbivores take full advantage. When this young one has moulted another time or two, sex will become as important as food (see this photo, for instance) but the one imperative of a Giant Grasshopper nymph is very simple: Munch!