Mysteries of Insects Revealed!

I’ve always had a lot of questions about insects — questions that no one seemed to know the answer to. About 20 years ago, I decided to interview an entomologist and write an article about insects. My only concern was that my editor would tack on some punny headline to my article, like “Stinging Bee Facts” or “Bugged By Insect Questions.” I would have to stipulate in the article itself that no such headline would be allowed. But would my plan work? I never found out because I never got around to interviewing an insect expert. Still plagued by insect questions, I have decided to revisit the article here in blog format. The great thing is that in the intervening 20 years the internet has grown to gargantuan size and now I can find out everything I want to know without interacting directly with another human being. And so you can do the same, I bring you…

Everything You Never Realized You Needed to Know About Insects

1. Do ants sleep?

Yes. I had observed what looked like sleeping in the large ants that had taken over my mother’s kitchen. Now and then they would all become inert. I didn’t know if it was sleeping or a reaction to the Skin-So-Soft that she had put on the countertop to repel the ants (its foul smell actually only repelled the humans). The internet is filled with conflicting, tenuous, and misinformed answers to the ant sleeping question. But here is a link to an article that puts the question to rest, based on a fire ant experiment conducted by Deby Cassill and colleagues at the University of South Florida: The secrets of ant sleep revealed. Cassill’s study confirmed that queen ants sleep longer than worker ants — a queen’s short naps add up to over 9 hours per day. There is even indication that they dream. By contrast, the workers take frequent, shorter naps that total only 4 hours and 48 minutes per day.

2. How long do ants live?

Longer than I thought (except for the males). In the case of fire ants, the males live just 4 days while they mate with the queen. Fire ant workers live about 6 to 12 months. Queen fire ants live up to 6 years. But some ant species live much longer. A queen Lasius niger lived for 29 years in captivity; the BBC Earth News says some queen ants live 45 years.

3. How do ants survive the winter?

In cold climates, some ants winter in a state of dormancy called diapause. Some underground ants have methods to adjust the temperature of their homes and they may burrow deeper to get below the frost line.

4. How do ants, flies, and other insects cling to smooth surfaces, like glass, even upside down?

I had always been told that somehow the little hairs on insect feet allow them to stick to smooth vertical surfaces. It’s interesting that this is still being told to children since it is based on an understanding of insects that is about 400 years out of date. We now know that insects secrete a sticky fluid as they walk so that they can adhere to smooth surfaces, even upside down. Spiders also use sticky fluids to adhere to smooth surfaces.

5. Are Daddy Long Legs spiders?

No! They are members of the arachnid class, but they are not spiders; they are called opiliones. As a side note, as recently as a few weeks ago, I told my stepson that Daddy Long Legs were the most venomous creatures on the planet but that their fangs were too small to be able to inject their deadly venom into human skin. I just found out that this is an urban myth. Summer camps all over continue to perpetuate this falsehood. Daddy Long Legs do not have venom at all, nor do they have fangs.

I may have had more insect questions 20 years ago when I first planned to write this article, but that’s all that come to mind at the moment. Perhaps we’ll see a part II of this post some day. Until then, let’s all show insects the awe and respect they are due and not step on them.

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