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The Insect Awards: Wired’s Entomological Hall of Fame

by Daniela Hernandez,
January 31st 2012

The Insect Awards: Wired’s Entomological Hall of Fame


Insects hold at least 13 titles in the Guinness Book of World Records. They also have their own tome of distinctions titled The Book of Insect Records, and its contents are a wealth of awesomeness.

Entomologists at the University of Florida scoured the literature to come up with insects that were the fastest, largest, longest, loudest and brightest. They also selected more unusual champions: best imitator, least specific vertebrate bloodsucker and most spectacular mating.

We’ve selected our favorites from among 40 categories, along with some of the Guinness honorees. Read on to find out who’s who among six-legged bugs.


Highest Jumper

The insect world championship title for high jump belongs to the 0.2-inch long froghopper, a common agricultural pest. Some species can jump as high as 28 inches.

Image: Kaldari / Wikimedia Commons.



The African cicada wins the the William Hung Prize for loudest, and consequently most annoying bugger. Entomologist John Petti, who selected the champion, limited the contenders to insects humans could hear.

Male African cicadas produce alarm calls and calling songs with an intensity of about 110 decibels from 20 inches away. By comparison, a jet flying at about 1,000 feet buzzes at just over 100 decibels and live rock music at about 110 decibels.

Males use their tymbal muscles to sing. When they contract and expand these chitinous structures, the muscles click, and the sound amplifies as it travels through the body. Males usually sing together, producing a very loud, often deafening, chorus. Bigger males tend to have louder calls, giving them a competitive advantage with the ladies and in fending off predators (by annoying them).

Challengers included the bladder grasshopper and the European mole cricket, which make sounds of nearly 100 decibels at a distance of 20 inches.

Image: Annual cicada, Bruce Marlin / Wikimedia Commons.


Stick-insect1.jpegGet out your yardsticks! A 12-inch ruler won’t be enough to measure the longest insects in the world, the walking sticks (order Phasmida). There are more than 3,000 species of these twiggy insects, and among them, a nearly 21.9-inch West Malaysian female Pharnacia serratipes wins for longest body length. She dethroned the previous record holder, a 21.5-inch Pharnacia kirbyi, who’d held the title for almost a century.

In case you’re wondering what the longest centipede is, that title belongs to the Peruvian giant yellowleg, which feeds on mice, lizards, frogs and bats. But don’t try to measure them; they may bite and their venom is toxic to humans.

Images: Top: Pharnacia serratipes stick insect, Wikipedia. Right: The stick insect Ctenomorpha chronus, Wikimedia Commons. Bottom: Peruvian giant yellowleg, Katka Nemcokova / Wikimedia Commons.


Largest and Smallest

Fairyflies-wikimedia-George-Poinar-Jr-John-T.-Huber.jpegThe tiniest adult insects are male fairyflies, tiny parasitic wasps from Costa Rica. Females are 40 percent bigger than males, which measure up to about 1/200 of an inch (0.14 mm) in length and are blind and wingless.

On the other side of the spectrum, five giant scarabs share the title of largest bug. These hulky beetles are each more than 4 inches long and weigh between 2.5 and 3.5 ounces, roughly the equivalent of a McDonald’s hamburger.

Also of note is the giant weta bug, which weighs about 2.5 ounces, and has been said to be large enough to eat a carrot. Nom nom.

Images: Top: From top left: Titan beetle, Goliath beetle, rhinoceros beetle, Goliath beetle, Elephant beetle, Wikimedia Commons. Right: Female fairyfly, George Poinar Jr / John T. Huber / Wikimedia Commons.



Insects shine bright to attract mates. And the one that exudes the most light, according to The Book of Insect Records, is the cucujo or Jamaican click beetle, which lives in Central and South America. The roughly 1-inch long insect has two headlights that glow neon green continuously, unlike the more famous firefly which flickers.

Watch the bioluminescent beetle in action:

See Video:

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Fastest Flyers

Zoom! The gold medal in speed flying goes to desert locusts, which can fly at about 21 mph. The corn earworm moths came in close second at 17 mph. (Airspeed, not to be confused with ground speed, is the speed relative to air, which may also be moving.) A second runner-up was not identified.

But fans of other speedy flyers, like the deer botfly, shouldn’t despair. These records may molt away: “Many insects surely fly faster, but their airspeeds have yet to be studied with modern methods,” wrote T.J. Dean in the Book of Insect Records.

Scientists use multiple methods to measure how fast insects fly, including stopwatches, wind tunnels, flight mills, cameras, Doppler radar, thermal imaging and radio frequency identification. Comparing results acquired using different measuring tools is difficult. Plus, insect airspeed is also sensitive to just about anything: an insect’s mass, size, age, gender, how much food and water it’s had, ambient temperature, humidity, solar radiation, wind, oxygen levels, whether it lives in the wild or in a lab, and the angle at which it’s flying.

Until all flying insects are measured under the same conditions, there may not be a definitive winner.

Images: Top: Desert locust, Christiaan Kooyman / Wikimedia Commons. Right: Earworm moth, Wikimedia Commons.



The Dracula Prize goes to Glossina palpalis tsetse flies, which were also in the running for the Fewest Kids in a Lifetime Prize.

These bloodsuckers live in African forests and are a tremendous public health concern. They are difficult to manage and are the primary carriers of human African sleeping sickness, a central nervous system infection, prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa.

They feed feed on mammals, reptiles and birds. They don’t bother to identify their hosts by smell, as other insects do. When they see a potential victim, they go right in for the blood draw.

The Hyalomma asiaticium tick won the Blood Glutton Prize. It can suck up three-tenths of an ounce of blood, the equivalent of about a third of a small shot of tequila.

Image: Tsetse have a distinct proboscis, a long thin structure attached to the bottom of the head and pointing forward. They use these to feed. Wikimedia Commons.

Best Costume Design

Two insects shared the Stevie Nicks Award for most molts, when they shed and replace their exoskeleton. Molting occurs periodically to allow insects to grow.

To be fair to insects young and old, which grow at different rates, entomologist B.R. Sojack selected a winner in both categories.

Among young insects, the mayfly wins with 45 costume changes. Among adults and immature critters, the firebrat takes home the prize with 60 molts.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.


Best Dad

The male burying beetle wins for Most Progressive Male. Other bugs, like wood roaches and some bark and dung beetles, also help their ladies out with the kids: by providing protection, helping to gather food, building the nest and rearing young. But only male burying beetles share are all parenting duties with the mom. And if the female defects, the single dad will pick up the slack.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Most Spectacular Mating

The Baum Chicka Baum Baum Award goes to common honey bees. Their mating ritual, which occurs 50 to 100 feet off the ground, is like a sexual kamikaze mission.

A horde of drones waits for the queen, and once they spot her, it’s an outright race to the finish.

“[The] ‘comet’ of drones pursues the female, with the winner forfeiting a portion of his phallus at the end of coitus and dying soon thereafter,” wrote entomologist Doug Sieglaff in The Book of Insect Records.

The queen usually mates seven to 10 times because she only gets about one-eighth to one-ninth her fill from each lover drone. She then mixes their sperm to make sure her kids are as genetically diverse as possible.

The poor drone, on the other hand, only has one chance to get it right.

Who can top that?

Image: Louise Docker / Wikimedia Commons.

Least and Most (re)Productive

The race was tight among insects vying for the Fewest Kids in a Lifetime prize.

The contenders included tsetse flies, with six to 12 larvae; solitary bees, with two to six; and poop- and carrion-dwelling scarabaeid beetles, with about six. To increase survival, beetle parents shield each egg in a dung ball covered in clay.

But top honors went to louse flies, which have about five larvae. Each develops inside the uterus until it’s almost ready to pupate, the stage where insects go through metamorphosis. Females produce only one egg at a time because their investment in each baby tsetse is so great.

Live birth in these flies “is thus analogous to giving birth to teenagers,” wrote Bianca Cecilie Nygård in The Book of Insect Records.

Genghis Khan Trophies for highest fecundity were awarded in two categories: social and non-social insects.

African driver ants win among social critters, those that form social networks like ants and bees. Their queen lays three to four million eggs every 25 days. How can she care for so many kids? She doesn’t. That responsibility falls to her minion ants. Her main responsibility is pumping out eggs, a task she does quite well.

In the non-social bug category, the Australian ghost moths capture top prize. One female from Adelaide, Australia laid more than 29,000 eggs. These moths are fly-by egg layers. Mid flight, they drop their eggs near gumtrees and hope for the best. Because they don’t take care of their young, there’s a very high death rate among baby moths.

Images: Top: African driver ant, April Nobile / / Wikimedia Commons. Right: Australian ghost moth, Dhobern / Wikimedia Commons.

Best Actor

Swallowtail butterflies are the most spectacular imitators among insects. Female Papilio dardanus can mimic other species of butterflies in more than 30 different ways, and not just in the way they look. The copying can extend to the way they taste and smell.

Image: Forehand Jay / Wikimedia Commons.

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Written by vaphc

January 31, 2012 at 11:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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