Leaproaches, Mutant Butterflies and Other Insect News That the 17-Year Cicadas Missed

Since 1996, scientists have found the oldest fossil insect, the largest living bug, a new taxonomic order and more

Periodical cicadas
Periodical cicadas, like the one pictured above, have missed a lot of news about insects since they last appeared. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

After 17 years underground, billions of cicadas are ready to emerge and see sunlight for the first time. They will blanket the East Coast until around mid-June, buzzing like jackhammers in harmony as they search for a mate. Since 1996, the periodical insects, which belong to a group called Brood II, have lived as nymphs two feet deep in the soil, feeding on nothing but the liquid they suck out of tree roots. Once they crawl up to the surface, they molt, mate, lay eggs and die within a month.

Scientists are still trying to determine how periodical cicadas know when to emerge. But in the last 17 years, researchers have made some other important discoveries about other insects, some of whom also enjoy swarming the United States. Here are 17 news items about the bugs’ brethren since 1996.

1. British researchers figured out how insects fly. In 1996, scientists at the University of Cambridge solved the mystery of how many winged insects can produce more lift than can be explained by aerodynamic properties. The team unleashed hawkmoths into a wind tunnel with smoke and then took high-speed photos of the insects in flight. By studying how the smoke moved around the moths’ wings, researchers were able to determine that flying insects create whirling spirals of air above the front edges of their wings, providing more lift.

2. Cuba claimed that the United States brought an insect infestation to the island. In 1997, Cuban authorities accused the U.S. of staging a biological attack the previous year by using a crop-duster to spread insects over the island. But what really happened? An American commercial airliner had flown over the country and released smoke to signal its location, an event that coincided with bug infestations on Cuba’s potato plantations.

3. A plague of crickets ravaged the Midwest. In 2001, hordes of crickets descended upon Utah, infesting more than 1.5 million acres in 18 of the state’s 29 counties. The damaged wreaked on the ironically named Beehive State’s crops totaled nearly $25 million. Michael O. Leavitt, Utah’s governor at the time, declared the infestation an emergency and sought help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in combating the little critters.

4. Scientists uncovered an entire new order of insects. In 2002, entomologists discovered a group of inch-long wingless creatures that comprised a new order, a taxonomic rank used in the classification of organisms. The first to be identified in 88 years at that time, the order, dubbed Mantophasmatodea, consists of insects with features similar to praying mantises. The finding became the 31st known insect order.

5. A swarm of butterflies, thought to be one single species, turned out to be 10 of them. In 2004, researchers used DNA barcoding technology to study the Astraptes fulgerator butterfly, whose habitat ranges from Texas to northern Argentina. What they found was remarkable: an insect that was thought to be one species was actually 10 different species. The species’ habitats overlapped, but the butterflies never bred with its doppelganger neighbors.

6. Researchers pinpointed the world’s oldest known insect fossil. Until 2004, a 400 million-year-old set of tiny insect jawsoriginally found in a block of chert along with a well-preserved and well-studied fossil springtaillay untouched for almost a century in a drawer at the Natural History Museum in London. The rediscovery and subsequent study of the specimen meant that true insects appeared 10 million to 20 million years earlier than once thought. The researchers believe these ancient insects were capable of flight, which would mean the tiny creatures took to the skies 170 millions years ago, before flying dinosaurs.

7. Brood X invaded the East Coast. In 2004, another group of cicadas known as Brood X emerged after 17 years underground. The bugs’ motto? Strength in numbers. This class is the largest of the periodical insects, including three different species of cicada.

8. America’s bee population started to plummet. By spring of 2007, more than a quarter of the country’s 2.4 million honeybee colonies had mysteriously vanished. Something prevented the bees from returning to their hives, and scientists weren’t sure why, but they gave it a name: colony-collapse disorder. According to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the phenomenon continues to plague apiaries across the country, and no cause has been determined.

9. Gypsy moths destroyed thousands of trees in New Jersey. In 2007, gypsy moths ravaged more than 320,000 acres of forest in the Garden State. One of North America’s most devastating forest pests, the insect feeds on the leaves of trees, stripping branches bare. Agricultural officials said the infestation was the worst of its kind since 1990.

10. Scientists figured out how to extract DNA from preserved insect specimens. In 2009, researchers removed a barrier from the study of early insects, a practice that often left ancient specimens destroyed. In the past, too much tinkering around with tiny specimens meant that the samples often became contaminated or eventually deteriorated. The scientists soaked nearly 200-year-old preserved beetles in a special solution for 16 hours, a process that allowed them to then carefully extract DNA from the bugs without damaging them.

11. Hundreds of ancient insect species were found lodged in one chunk of amber. In 2010, a team of international researchers discovered 700 new species of prehistoric insects inside a block of 50-million-year-old amber in India. The finding signaled to scientists that the area was much more biologically diverse than previously thought.

12. The first truly amphibious insects were discovered. In 2011, a study reported that 11 species of caterpillar with the ability to live underwater indefinitely were found in freshwater streams in Hawaii. The twist? The same insects studied were land-dwellers too.

13. Scientists discovered a cockroach with more than just a spring in its step. In 2011, a new species of cockroach, for whom jumping and hopping accounts for 71 percent of movement, was found in South Africa. Saltoblattella montistabularis can cover a distance 50 times its body length with each hop. Dubbed the leaproach, the insect relies on its powerful hind legs, which are twice the length of its other limbs and make up 10 percent of its body weight, to propel it forward in high-speed bursts.

14. Japanese scientists documented radiation-induced mutations in butterflies. When a massive earthquake and tsunami severely damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011, dangerous radioactive materials were spewed into the air and waterways. The following year, Japanese researchers said they observed dented eyes and stunted wings in local butterflies, mutations they believe were a result of radiation exposure.

15. The East Coast suffered a stink bug epidemic. In the summer of 2011, growing numbers of stink bugs prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to issue an emergency ruling that would allow farmers to use lethal insecticides. The insects had invaded crops of apples, cherries, pears and peaches from Virginia to New Jersey.

16. The world’s largest insect was discovered in New Zealand. Scientist Mark Moffett, known as Doctor Bugs, discovered the world’s largest insect, a surprisingly friendly female Weta bug, while traveling in New Zealand in 2011. The massive creature has a wingspan of seven inches and weighs three times as much as a mouse. Here’s a video of the bug eating a carrot out of Moffett’s hand.

17. A fly found in Thailand was determined to be the smallest in the world. Discovered in 2012, the fly, named Euryplatea nanaknihali, is 15 times smaller than a house fly and tinier than a grain of salt. But don’t let the miniature bugs fool you: they feed on tiny ants by burrowing into the larger insects’ head casings, eventually decapitating them.