Author Archives: ae9

A Valid I.D.

Unless you live in some modern, high-tech studio apartment, chances are your home has some kind of arthropod lurking around. That creeper could be anything from a cockroach in your garbage, to a spider in the attic, or a fly on the wall.  I, however, had the experience of meeting a much larger nemesis.

Allow me to set the scene. I walk into my room and plop myself onto my bed, ready to avoid life, but the second my body hits the bed, I hear a loud buzzing noise coming from beneath me. Seconds later, I’m panicking in my sheets as some winged beast from the fiery depths of hell comes flying at me. Moments later as my stomach sunk back into place, I noticed it had landed on my window, and I could see that it was some kind of bug.

The Monster

Although my usual response is to run away and find someone large to crush it for me, instead, I took a surprising interest in the creature. It doesn’t seem to have any stingers, obvious chewing mouthparts, or scary coloring, so I started observing it from a comfortable distance. I figured that I’ve spent way too many hours studying insect anatomy to not get a closer look.

Using what I’ve learned about arthropods so far, I was able to perform a process of elimination to figure out what I was looking at.

The first clue was that the arthropod had six appendages, which could only mean it was an insect. The second clue was that the insect had flown at me—a sign that it had to be winged. My years of skimming Nancy Drew books, however, caught up to me as I couldn’t be sure of any of my other guesses. Luckily, I had my camera nearby so I was able to get closer, without getting nearer. I noticed that I couldn’t see its wings despite the fact that it had just flown at me. This could mean that is was an endopterygote, with what seemed to be elytra. My best guess for its morphology was that it was part of the order Coleoptera, in other words, a beetle. I had my doubts, however; although Coleoptera is the most diverse insect order, I had yet to see this distinct shield-like shape on its back.

brown stink bug durham 101806

Heteroptera Morphology

As my last step, I used the internet to help me solve this puzzle. It turns out the monster under my bed was a stink bug. Stink bugs, as the name implies belong to the “true bug” order, or Hemiptera; this meant my initial guess of Coleoptera was incorrect. I still found this to be strange, however, considering how dense the outer layer on its winged region looked. As a matter of fact, stinkbugs, belonging to the sub-family Pentatomidae, are actually characterized by this hardened, shield-like layer. Additionally, as the name also implies, these bugs defensively release a foul smelling chemical that makes them unappealing to nearby predators. The puzzle piece I was missing here was the view of the haustellate, an anatomical trait that would’ve been a dead giveaway since beetles have mandibles.

Its—unwelcome—presence in my house is actually quite a common occurrence during winter times. It is speculated that this need for warmer shelter is the reason they were first introduced to the states, but also makes them household pests. Additionally, they tend to be pests due to their destruction of crops; because they were fairly recently imported, for a long time these bugs had no natural predators and were becoming a severe problem in the states.

While my experience may not necessarily change lives, solve scientific mysteries, or produce cures, it does demonstrate that my perspective on “bugs” has changed. Instead of simply cowering away from this tiny threat, I was able to use logic and deduction to identify and figure out whether this insect posed a threat at all. You won’t see me touching bugs any time soon, but I can now regard them as interesting and dynamic members of our world.

Invisible Sex Tornado

Now, I’m usually no fan of mosquitoes, cockroaches, or really any creepy crawlies that can be considered pests, but I have quite a beef with one group—gnats.

            Whereas most insects somewhat seem to learn their lesson after being shooed away, gnats are persistent buggers—pun incredibly intended—that have no regard for consent. If you’re enjoying a sweet afternoon in the park, you’ll find them hovering over your head and even if you move away, they’re still there. Not alone, I might add! They tend to form these clouds around your head and kind of make you like Pig-pen from the Peanuts comics.

            If that’s not annoying enough try getting a mouthful of these barely visible guys while biking or running along a trail, which I may or may not have done (I did).

            As a dedicated pretend scientist, however, I was really curious about why they tend to surround me and also how they choose their fixed positions to swarm.

            It turns out that the term “gnat” is a group name for specific insects belonging to the order Diptera, sub-order Nematocera. Because of the eclectic term, gnats can be quite diverse. There are even some biting gnats that can be parasitic pests whose bites may lead to severe allergic reactions. I’m more interested in the non-biting type, though.

            One of these types is the fungus gnat, which can belong to the families Sciaridae or Fungivoridae, which I will use as examples of gnat behavior.


Fungus gnat males actually tend to assemble into those cloud shapes in order to increase their chance of mating; these clouds are appropriately called ghosts. So while my title may be a bit of a violent image, it isn’t necessarily inaccurate, now is it?

Well, that answers my question of what they’re doing (or who), but how do they choose their location? As the name suggests, fungus gnats tend to seek damp, humid areas where fungus might grow, or more generally areas of decaying organic matter. After copulation, the females will seek these areas for their larvae which can only burrow and eat, due to their holometabolous life cycle. This cycle, however, has earned gnats the title of pests from farmers and gardeners. This mostly has to do with the fact that the larvae will destroy plants by eating away at the plant roots. Consequentially, the male gnats swarm near any green, moist environment suitable for their offspring.

Awesome, but with all the plants about, why follow me?

There seem to be two explanations for this. One of them is quite simple actually. Sitting outside on a hot summer day, I, and every other human, tend to sweat and become hot—in effect, becoming a warm, humid environment. This (literally) sexy combination causes the gnats to surround my face as it has become the hot new bar in town. This is further visible, if you’ve ever seen them surrounding a dog’s or cat’s eye as they are attracted to the wet environment of the eyeball. Additionally, breathing out carbon dioxide at a higher concentration also attracts them. There is a third explanation, though I couldn’t find much more evidence, from Lori Eberhard that suggests gnats are attracted to sweet smells and considering how many products are needed to maintain this hair, I might just be their Willy Wonka!

The Moth Effect

Like every other genre, horror can be based in cultural roots and societal norms; as a modern, industrial country, the United States has its own themes—ranging anywhere from office romance to racial tensions in the streets. As a result, it is this very industrial situation that disconnects us so much from the mythology of the past and yet enhances the fears of a world beyond a forest. In this case, I am specifically thinking of insects. Indeed, there are a whole slew of horror films dedicated to these creatures:  Arachnophobia, The Fly, Mimic, and Them! to name a few. Being an avid horror gamer, however, I wanted to focus on a specific game, namely Resident Evil.

Now for those not so up-to-date on their gaming, RE narrates the events following a viral outbreak with devastating effects across many species. The series has become iconic for its mesmerizing story, seeming scientific realism, and grotesque imagery.

As I mentioned, the RE series actually tends to seem quite realistic and provides the player with several of the researchers’ notes. For the giant moth on the right side, the following was recorded,

“The research into moth-based B.O.W.s was a failure in this experiment. Mutating it to a larger size did not keep them in proportion, making their wings strong only enough to hover over the ground. However they did also develop the ability to spit poison on prey as a means of compensating for their flight problems.”

            The moth they seem to have based the design off of was most likely the Gypsy moth. Now, after playing these games for a countless number of hours, I had to wonder exactly why a moth would ever be chosen as a specimen. Belonging to the order Lepidoptera, all moths tend to share key traits that unite them. Some of these relevant traits include:

1. All moths undergo complete metamorphosis where the young experience serious physiological changes towards the adult stage.

2. Most moths have a tubular food canal called a proboscis used for siphoning nectar from a plant.

3. Most moths are omnivorous or phytophagous.

4. Moths also tend to avoid human interaction as you can see from this “little” guy below.


With that said, I can resubmit the question, “Why moths?”

Consequentially, the type of moth used in the game was a gypsy moth or Lymantria dispar. Gypsy moths have actually plagued the U.S. since their accidental introduction in 1868 and more than a hundred years later continue to be widespread pests with sizeable damage to the environment. Although most do siphon nectar, some moths actually do eat away at foliage. Because of their quick generation times and dispersal through flight, moths tend to be quite difficult to extinguish. So, if the idea to use an omnivorous pest as a weapon wasn’t bad enough, you can throw in the idiotic notion of making this American-specific, uncontrollable pest larger! With their drab and foreign appearance, it is easy to understand why, compared to butterflies, they would be chosen as nightmarish creatures for scientific experimentation, but in all honesty, these moths seem to be as deadly as a puppy fighting a lion.