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Insect common names are sometimes misleading.


Take this tiny whitefly, for example. It isn't really a fly (not family Diptera). Instead it belongs to the same family as aphids and scale insects.

It also isn't really white.

whitefly-side(A one-sixteenth-inch long Silverleaf whitefly, Bemisia argentifolii. Photo by Scott Bauer, USDA-ARS)

If you could see under a microscope for a view like this, you would notice the body of the whitefly is actually yellow, almost the same color as the petal of the desert marigold flower the one at the top is sitting on.

Where does the whitefly get its name? Its body and wings are covered with a powdery coating of white wax particles. The wax probably helps protect it from water and predators.

Now you know more about whiteflies, what would you have named them?


Sometimes we find insects in places we did not expect.

mealybugs-on-sprouts-294Take these red potatoes from the grocery store. When they started to sprout, I set them aside to plant in the garden. A short time later, they looked like they were beginning to mold.

mealybugs-on-potato-sprout-301Looking closer, it became apparent it wasn't mold at all. Insects called mealybugs were feeding on the sprouts.

mealybugs-pile-55Mealybugs are relatives of aphids and cicadas. Like some of their relatives, they are covered with a waxy powder, which gives them the white color.

freshly-molted-mealybug-44Can you spot the nymph in this photograph that has recently molted and lost its waxy covering temporarily?

sticky-mealybugs-29Mealybugs suck the juices from plants. They excrete the excess plant juices in the form of honeydew, which is a wet, sticky fluid. Scientists speculate the waxy covering helps prevent them from drowning in their own honeydew.

It turns out that scientists have already discovered that different species of mealybugs have an affinity for sprouting potatoes. In fact, people rearing mealybugs for experiments, or to produce biological control agents, use sprouting potatoes to maintain their laboratory colonies.

Looking for an easy insect to rear for a science project? Consider the humble mealybug!


Have you ever encountered a sharpshooter?

really-clear-sharpshooterI'm talking about the group of plant-feeding leafhoppers that have oddly-shaped heads.

eally-close-sharpshooter-undersideYou can tell it is a sharpshooter by the prominent eyes and enlarged, swollen area of the head capsule known as the clypeus. It is yellow with faint stripes in this insect.

sharpshooter-croppedThat swollen area is full of muscles that help the sharpshooter pump fluids from the plant. You could compare it to the bulb of a turkey baster.

The sharpshooter uses its big eyes, too. When something approaches a sharpshooter, it quickly scoots to the other side of the twig or branch. If the potential predator comes even closer, it will leap away with its jumping hind legs.

This is probably a male smoke tree sharpshooter (Homalodisca lacerta) because it lacks the white, waxy patches on the sides of its wings that are found on females (image at BugGuide).

Life cycle:

leafhopper-eggsFemale sharpshooters lay their eggs in rows, generally on the undersides of leaves.

sharpshooter-nymph-goodThe eggs hatch into youngsters called nymphs. They don't have the bright coloration of the adults, although they do still have a protruding head and noticeable eyes. The nymphs undergo several molts and then become adults.

sharpshooter-nymph-psdYou can often see adults and nymphs feeding together on the same stem.

Unlike some insects, smoke tree sharpshooters are polyphagus, which means they will feed on a number of different plants. The sharpshooter in the top photos is feeding on hollyhock. The single nymph is on Texas yellow bells.

Do sharpshooters occur where you live? Have you ever seen one? What do they feed on where you live?