White eyes, black body. Why do insect eyes turn white after they die?

Written by Joe Ballenger
Wasp Picture

Wasp picture, via AaE FB inbox

Some of the more interesting questions we get aren’t even about living insects. People have lots of questions about dead bugs, too.

Hey there, I just had a quick question, I was in my backyard when I came across this little guy in the dirt. I’m not sure if the coloration is because of it being dead, or it was like that to begin with. I was hoping you could shed some light for me!

This question is neat, because it combines two of our previous posts. Nancy has written before on how insect eyes work, as well as structural coloration.

So why did the eyes of this bug turn white after it died?

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How long will it take a dead bug to decay?

Written by Joe Ballenger

We got this question in our Facebook inbox, and it was one of those questions which kind of nerd-sniped me.

Hello, so I have a rather odd question. I understand bugs have exoskeletons. So the decaying process can take a long time. I have a gnat fly who is now dead and stuck inside me television. The TV gets hot so, you think it would help the process. So what will happen to this gnat. Will it decay or will he be inside my TV forever. Thanks!


Pinned beetles. Image Credit: Nancy Miorelli

Even though this is a fly stuck in a TV, this brings up a really important question that I had never considered before today.

We currently live in a world where much of our data has a finite lifespan. Information stored on digital media will decay after awhile, and will eventually disappear after a few decades. Eventually the raw data I generated last week will no longer be around, no matter how important it ends up being.

Taxonomists, the scientists who catalog new species, store their data in a physical manner. Everything we know about insects are contained in collections, like the pinned beetles above. To document insects, we need physical specimens, and these are preserved by sticking pins through them and keeping them in the optimal environment which prevents decay…kind of like the example of the fly in the TV.

So how long will an insect last, if kept in the optimal conditions?

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Announcment – New Writer – Joanie Mars

Written by Nancy Miorelli

I am so excited and honored to introduce Joanie Mars as our new writer. When Joe and I started this little project about three years ago, we had no idea that it was going to grow into what it has. We now have over 8,800 followers on Facebook, we receive between 50-100 of your emails a week, and over 10,000 views a week on the blog. We just can’t keep up anymore! So we’re incredibly excited to introduce Joanie.

Joanie will be full time with us in August after she defends her thesis and moves to Texas.

Watch our live video below!


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Wait…predatory bees?

Written by Joe Ballenger

Since it’s summer, and bug season is in full swing, we get a lot of neat observations in our inbox. I wanted to highlight one such observation in this week’s post, because it involves one of my favorite bugs:


My name is Curt and I live in southeast Wisconsin. I saw these bees and thought it looked kinda odd. What exactly am I looking at?

Curt bee

So let’s unmask this mystery!

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Why Do Bugs Circle Lights and Fibonacci, and Other Mathematical Patterns Found in Insects

Written by Nancy Miorelli

what mathematical patterns are found in insects? Ask an Entomologist

I recently received this question when talking to one of the tourists at the Maquipucuna Ecolodge, where I work. I thought it was so interesting because we always hear about mathematical patterns – especially Fibonacci sequences found in leaves and shells – but what about the animal kingdom? So can you find any mathematical patterns in insects? Yes  –  but it’s not as apparent.

Sleeping Cuckoo Bee. Note the eyes.
PC: Giles Gonthier (CC by 2.0)

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How do stored product pests get water?

Written by Joe Ballenger

Here’s a question I *really* like:

Indian meal moths and grain weevils get into stored grain products and manage to complete entire life cycles without any access to moisture. How do they manage that?

I really like agricultural pests, stored product pests in particular. They have super cool biology, and they’re really important. Between the farm and the table, 10-15% of the harvest can be lost to bugs which live inside stored products. If that wasn’t bad enough, these bugs can break grains and mess with the humidity inside storage facilities. This damage introduces fungus, which can reduce the value of the product by as much as half its worth. This fungus can also make people very sick, so they’re important to both agriculture and medicine.

If you think about the environment these bugs live in, it’s very extreme. They live their entire lives without seeing a drop of water, all while evading hyper-intelligent animals which are constantly looking for new ways to kill them. There’s life in the driest deserts in the world, but these animals live in an indifferent environment. While harsh, these desert animals do not live in a place which is actively trying to kill them. You could argue that these bugs are the ultimate extremophiles.

So how do these guys get water in such a harsh place?
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Do male insects have sex hormones?

Written by Joe Ballenger

This is a really good question, for a number of reasons. There are sources which claim that male insects don’t contain sex hormones, but as far as I can tell, this goes back to a 1995 paper where a group of scientists weren’t able to replicate the results of a 1966 paper which explored this topic.

The literature is mostly agnostic on the topic of male sex hormones. Because female insects are the targets of most pest control efforts, more efforts have been put into controlling female reproduction than male reproduction. It’s still important, though, because the newer pest control tactics (like SIT) depend on manipulating male reproduction.

So even in graduate school, it kind of surprised me that this topic isn’t better studied.

We’ve talked about how insects produce male and female insects, and I’d refer you to these posts for an idea of how that works. Instead of talking about how bugs make boys and girls, this post will be about how the boy and girl parts get booted up so they can begin making babies.

Awhile back, Nancy wrote a post about what happens when an insect turns into a cocoon. She also made a video about insect physiology that talks about what happens when an insect molts, and what happens when it turns into an adult.

There’s a lot of hormones involved, which are explained in Nancy’s video. Briefly, a hormone called Juvenile Hormone (JH) keeps the insect from turning into adult. Another hormone, 20-hydroxyecdysone (20-E), tells the insect to shed it’s skin. These hormones are conserved throughout insects; all insects use these hormones in the same way. This is a very important system, and is essential for understanding how insects turn into adults.

In order to discuss insect sex hormones, however, we need to forget all about what happens in the larval stages. Adult insects have hormone systems which are completely different from the larval insects. In essence, adult and larval insects are completely different animals.

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