Bug of the Week returns to the tropical rainforest of Belize to visit a curious clan of insects known as lanternflies. While standing in the shade of a large tree, I was surprised by small raindrops falling from a cloudless tropical sky. Feeling a little like John Forgerty, I wondered where the rain was coming from on a sunny day. A careful inspection of the lichen covered bark revealed several wonderful lanternflies hiding on the branches merrily sucking plant sap and expelling liquid leftovers from their derrieres. Lanternflies are relatives of aphids, cicadas, and sharpshooters we met in previous episodes of Bug of the Week.
They obtain nutrients by inserting soda straw – like mouthparts into the vascular system of the tree and removing sap. Relatively large volumes of sap must be processed for the lanternfly to gain sufficient nutrients and the excess liquid squirts from the rear end of the insect as liquid called honeydew, hence the “rain” on a sunny day. It took me several moments of careful searching to discover the cryptic lanternfly. The dusty white color of the insect’s skin blended marvelously with the lichen covered bark of the tree.
Camouflage is one of the important ways a lanternfly evades its predators in the forest. A second line of defense was revealed as I attempted to capture the lanternfly. As my hand approached the insect, the bug jumped from the tree and opened its forewings to reveal a bright scarlet pair of hindwings. The insect took flight in a flash of color, settled on the bark of a nearby tree, and quickly disappeared from view on the lichen encrusted background. This type of flash coloration is a defense commonly used by other insects such as grasshoppers and moths.
Some lanternflies use one more trick to fool predators and that is to look like a predator themselves. Lanternflies in the genus Fulgora have an enlarged hollow structure adorning the front of their head. This structure has distinct patterns of color creating the image of two eyes and a grinning row of teeth. It is no surprise that one common name for this insect is the alligator bug or dragon-head bug. Image the surprise of a bird or lizard about to make a meal of a juicy bug when suddenly the predator is staring into the crazy face of a leering reptile. That would be enough to make me lose my appetite.
The excellent references “The Insects: An Outline of Entomology” by P.J. Gullan and P.S. Cranston and “Amazon Insects” by James L. Castner were used in preparing this Bug of the Week. Special thanks to Becky for fearlessly modeling the latest in a lanternfly accessory.