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10 Amazing Insect Defensive Tactics

Updated June 14, 2019 49.6k views10 items

It's not easy being at the bottom of the food chain. Insects have predators coming at them from all sides, so they've cooked up a whole bunch of ways to defend themselves. When you're tiny, you need to be tough. That's why insect defense mechanisms are so strange, effective, and often downright amazing.

How do insects protect themselves? Some of these techniques are pure offense, but most of them have evolved into remarkable defenses. Hiding, fighting, playing dead... nothing is off the table when it comes to survival. These are 10 ways insects protect themselves.
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  • Mimicry

    False advertising. Basically, these insects are piggybacking on a good thing that other insects developed the hard way. For example, Monarch butterflies have a free pass because they taste, really, really bad to birds. So the Viceroy butterfly thought to itself - ok, cool. And went off and bought the same dress. Viceroys look exactly like Monarchs, despite the fact that they taste just fine (I will have to take the word of birds on this). Many species of wasps, as we all know, have alternating bands of black and yellow on the abdomen. The robber fly has developed those same stripes in order to pass as something dangerous. There are spiders that mimic ants, flies that mimic bees, and even entire groups of insects display mass behaviours like beetle larvae that co-operate to mimic bees. Find something that's working for other bugs and copy it. Plagiarism at its finest.
  • Camouflage

    Unlike the mimics, these insects have worked hard to blend in on their own terms.

    Insects that blend in with their surroundings often manage to escape detection by predators and parasites. Birds can't eat what they don't see in the first place. This tactic involves not only matching the colors but also disrupting the outline of the body and eliminating reflective highlights. Also, holding very still... because once you move, obviously you won't look so much like whatever it is you're standing against. These guys usually stay close to home or make only short trips out and back - since their coloration tends to be area-specific. Lots of grasshoppers and katydids have colors that work great against a background of dried leaves or gravel, but not so well against green leaves. Conversely, other species that live in those leaves are usually a shade of green that matches.
  • Photo: Bruce Marlin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

    Mimesis

    This is different than mimicry or camouflage, though it uses the same principle. Some insects "hide in plain sight" by resembling objects in their environment. A thorn could really be a treehopper; a twig might be a walkingstick, an assassin bug, or a caterpillar; and sometimes a dead leaf turns out to be a katydid, a moth, or even a butterfly. Some caterpillars resemble bird droppings, and others have false eyespots on their wings or body to create an imitation of a predator's head. Often, these guys are the coolest-looking... the details in their appearance astonishing in their accuracy and creativity.
  • Photo: Hectonichus / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Repellency

    If there is one thing most of us have in common, it's a distaste for foul smells. And the really bad ones can be enough to make you recoil. Ever been at the epicenter of a skunk attack? It's like someone is burning tires directly in your NOSE. Stink bugs have special glands that produce a foul-smelling reek. The caterpillar form of some swallowtail butterflies have glands just behind their heads, that, when disturbed, will rear up and release a terrible stench. Darkling beetles will raise their big, black butt in warning when they are threatened, and if you don't pay attention to the warning - will expel acrid, foul-smelling fluid.