Wing Secrets That Help Insects Rule the World
The quest of insects to achieve total world domination is wing-powered.
Insects, the only invertebrates that have learned how to fly, use their wings as key assets in their global colonization. Their wings can be protective shells, musical instruments (grasshoppers), camouflage, signals to recognize each other, a means of attracting mates or warning predators, even tools to fly.
Insects are our greatest competitor for food. They also keep the earth clean and productive. These ecosystem workhorses could easily manage without us, but we could never manage without them.
In celebration of these chitin-made wonders, we’ve collected images to take you on a tour of the insect wing world.
Dragonfly wings, like those seen above, are stiff and heavily veined, representing an early kind of wing, entomologists believe. Wings probably began as protrusions of the insect body: lobes that gave extra gliding stability. The insect’s circulatory system nourished these protruding lobes, and became the veins we now see in insect wings.
Despite being relatively primitive, dragonflies are the fastest flying insects and have been clocked as fast as 35 miles per hour.
Wing venation is endlessly varied. Studies of venation patterns allow entomologists to trace lineages and identify specimens, like this dragonfly (order Odonata). Separating one species from another can lie in a careful examination of the branching and cross hatching of veins.
Broad similarities across several groups probably stem from an ancestral winged insect. Models like the Comstock-Needham System name typical insect veins, and suggest what the ancestral wing veins may have looked like.
An early and much-needed innovation was the ability of insects to fold their wings, demonstrated by this mayfly (order Ephemeroptera).
“Without that ability, flying is kind of awkward, like a fixed-wing aircraft,” said Dave Kavanaugh, curator of the insect collection at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
With fixed wings, dragonflies are restricted to flying in the open air. Flying through foliage or burrowing into the ground risks too much damage. Insects that fold their wings can use many more habitats.
Image: Eric Beaulieu/Flickr.
Trending Toward Simplicity
“Evolutionarily there has been a progression from complex wings, with lots of veins and cross veins,” Kavanaugh said, “to wings that are more streamlined.”
The wings of relatively primitive insects, like this lacewing (family Chrysopidae), closely resemble the wings of fossilized insects from the Carboniferous period.
Sometimes the best defense is to disappear, and wings can offer great diguises. This leafhopper insect (family Cicadellidae) has wings that look like leaves.
This moth from Brazil (family Saturniidae) is outfitted to blend into the forest.
Image: Luisa Mota/Flickr.
Built Butterfly Tough
The colored scales that cover butterfly wings advertise their owner’s identity in big, splashy colors. Butterflies like this swallowtail (family Papilionidae) retain many veins in their wings to act as struts for added strength.
Image: Gabba Gabba Hey/Flickr.
Wings can take on almost any color, texture, or appearance such as metallic, transparent or ghostly white, as in this cabbage white butterfly (genus Pieris).
Image: Evan Leeson/Flickr.
The dainty glasswinged butterfly (genus Greta) has pockets of transparency in its wings, which help it blend in wherever it is.
Image: Maki Aoyama/Flickr.
Speedy Beating Wings
For insects, bees have very advanced wings with simple venation, primed for lightweight strength. A set of tiny hooks couples the smaller hind wings to the front wings. This allows the pair to act as one, making the bee’s wings more aerodynamic.
Bees flap their wings at a furious pace, relative to their size: approximately 230 beats per second. Fruit flies, 80 times smaller than honeybees, flap about 200 times per second. Bees can increase their flight power by expanding the arc of their wing strokes when carrying a load of pollen or nectar.
Image: Stephen Bowler/Flickr.
Hardened Wing Covers
Beetles use their front set of wings as protective covers. Many beetles, such as this ladybug (family Coccinellidae) can still fly using their second set of wings. These wings, with fewer veins, can be neatly stored under the wing covers.
“That’s probably one of the reasons that beetles are one of the most successful groups of living things,” Kavanaugh said.
“They have the ability to fly when they need to. But they can invade soil and leaf litter, they can dig right into rotting fruit and eat, and they can dig into carcasses to help recycle them. Beetles have the best of both worlds.”Image: nutmeg66/Flickr.
The cuticle patterns we see as iridescence, on insects like this Baccharis leaf beetle (family Chrysomelidae), result from tiny layers in the chitin. The chitin patterns can be for interspecies recognition or to deflect mud and water. Wings appear metallic when multiple, fine-scale layers of chitin scramble incoming light and reflect a mishmash that looks shiny to us.
Image: Linda Tanner/Flickr.