Incredible Creatures: Insect and Arachnid Myth Busters Edition

Daddy longlegs, commonly called harvestmen in the scientific community, are Arachnids, just like spiders, but they are not spiders. (SUPPLIED PHOTO)

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Think you know your insects and arachnids? There are a lot of myths and misconceptions regarding these animals. Some of which can cause us to fear them more than necessary, or misunderstand their biology. See if you can pass this little insect and arachnid quiz: Does the number of spots tell you a ladybug’s age? Are daddy longlegs poisonous? Are killer bees more venomous than honey bees? Do bees die if they sting you? These are some of the myths and mysteries we will explore in this months Incredible Creatures.

A Lady Never Tells Her Age
When doing presentations on insects to youth, I often like to ask if the number of spots on lady beetles (also called ladybugs) mean anything. The most common answer I get is that it tells you their age.
In Manitoba we have 66 different species of lady beetles. Sometimes the common names of these species refer to the number of spots on them. Some of our species in Manitoba include the two-spotted lady beetle, five-spotted lady beetle, seven-spotted lady beetle, nine-spotted lady beetle, thirteen-spotted lady beetle, fourteen-spotted lady beetle and fifteen-spotted lady beetle. How long a lady beetle lives will vary with the species. Weather, food supply and predators will also affect how long they live. For many it will be just a few weeks, but some species can live for 2 or 3 years if the conditions are right. But no lady beetle can live for 5, 7, 9, or 15 years.
While the number of spots can be useful for identifying a species of lady beetle, it does not tell you the age. And be warned, in some species the number of spots can vary among individuals, so counting the number of spots is not always a good way to identify a species. As an example, the multicolored Asian lady beetle can have anywhere from zero to 19 spots.

Daddy longlegs: Venomous or not?
I’ll actually pose 3 questions on daddy longlegs: 1) Are they spiders? 2) Are they venomous? 3) Do they produce silk?
Daddy longlegs, commonly called harvestmen in the scientific community, are Arachnids, just like spiders, but they are not spiders. Within the Arachnids, spiders have their own order called Araneae. Daddy longlegs have their own order called Opiliones.
There are about 6,650 species of daddy longlegs worldwide that have been discovered, although there could be over 10,000 species. To put this into perspective, there are about 10,000 species of birds worldwide. Daddy longlegs have eight legs like spiders. But in spiders there are two easily distinguishable regions to the body (cephalothorax and abdomen), and in daddy longlegs these are fused so they appear as one body segment. The attached photo is a daddy longlegs, not a spider. Daddy longlegs do not produce either venom or silk. While spiders are mainly predators (with the exception of a few that include other foods), many species of daddy longlegs are omnivores, feeding on small insects but also plant material and fungi. And whereas spiders ingest their food as liquid, daddy longlegs can swallow chunks of solid food.
I have handled daddy longlegs many times and never been bitten. They will run quickly to get away when I try to handle them, but never have attempted to bite. Although some are capable of biting humans, without venom they would not be dangerous. And if you were to look really carefully at them you would notice that they have two simple eyes, and not six or eight found in spiders. So don’t be afraid to handle a daddy longlegs and look it in the eye, if you can get it to hold still.

Are killer bees more venomous than honey bees?
With a name like killer bees, people assume the worst. They fit in well for low budget horror movies. But is a killer bee really that dangerous? Killer bees, more properly called Africanized bees, are a subspecies of bee that were created by breeding the East African lowland honey bee with honey bees from Europe. They were introduced in Brazil in 1956 in an attempt to make honey bees that produced more honey and were better adapted for tropical conditions than the European strain of honey bees. One day in 1957, someone went around to all the experimental hives and removed the grate-like queen excluders, which hold the queens in the hive. With nothing to hold these queens back, they flew off with their colony in a process called absconding. From Brazil they spread across the continent and north through Central America, Mexico, and into some of the more southern states of the United States.
Africanized bees are no more venomous than your average honey bee. About 100 stings would still be required to be dangerous to the average person (with the exception of those with allergies to bee venom). What makes them more dangerous than common honey bees is their level of aggression. They are more sensitive to movement and activity near the hive, and will respond in larger numbers when they detect alarm pheromone (a chemical substance produced to warm the other bees of danger). So although they are not more venomous, they have a shorter temper and will bring more of their sisters into the battle. They will also pursue the perceived threat a much longer distance from the hive.
In Africa these more aggressive traits are helpful to the bees from which Africanized bees were bred. Raiding honey badgers (Mellivora capensis) can consume a colony’s entire store of honey and the larvae if the bees do not defend the colony well. Those colonies that are more aggressive would be the ones to survive.

Will bees die after they sting you?
If you answered that bees die after they sting you, I’ll give you a half mark. If you answered that bees do not die after they sting you, I’ll give you a half mark. If you answered that it depends on the type of bee, congratulations, you get a full mark.
Honey bees are the only bees that die after stinging. All other bees don’t. Honey bees have barbed stingers. When a honey bee stings, it cannot pull the barbed stinger back out. It leaves behind not only the stinger, but also part of its abdomen and digestive tract. This massive abdominal rupture kills the honey bee. Bees other than honey bees do not have barbs on their stinger. So theoretically they can sting you more than once. They usually won’t, however, unless thoroughly provoked.
When some of the myths and mysteriousness behind insects and arachnids are known, they become a lot less scary for some. So handle that harvestman without any hangups. And if you see a thirteen-spotted lady beetle, make sure not to overestimate their age. Overestimating a lady’s age never ends well.
Incredible Creatures is a monthly contribution to provide information on some of the common yet often not well known creatures that we share space with in Manitoba and abroad.

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