Éanna Ní Lamhna explains how to identify creepy crawlies.
Many of the queries we get on the Mooney goes Wild radio programme relate to the identification of Creepy crawlies. People send in pictures of what they have observed and ask, "What is this"? Mind you, they often accompany the question with a further question - What will it do to you? Or even worse -"How do you get rid of it"? Identifying creepy crawlies is not an impossible task. After all it is us who have given them their names - they don't know what they are called. And indeed there were guidelines that were followed when creepy crawlies were being sorted out and given names. Those who name living things are called taxonomists. The universal naming language is Latin. Every single living thing that is named is given a family name that is common to all members of its family and a species name that is unique to itself. Of course many of them may have common local names too, but their official name, recognised in every country in the world, is the binomial Latin one.
So - lets give it a go. In order to identify an unknown living thing, a key must be followed. This means answering increasingly detailed questions until the exact individual is arrived at. In the case of our unknown creepy crawly we must first establish that it is an animal as opposed to a plant. Animals must find food as opposed to making it and to do this they move, at least at some stage of their lives. Our unknown individual moves - so it's an animal. Next we establish the presence or absence of a backbone. Our specimen has no backbone. So we must definitely be in the presence of a creepy crawly, scientifically termed an invertebrate.
Where to from here? Creepy crawlies have such a variety of shapes, body parts, legs etc. it might seem impossible, but a scientific approach will produce results. A simple question will sort out quite a bit. Has it no legs, six legs or some other number of legs? The only land creepy crawlies without legs are snails, slugs, earthworms, and the larvae of flies. Everything else has legs even caterpillars, which have short stumpy legs.
Now - how many legs? Eight legs and a body made up of only one or two parts means that we have a spider, a harvestman or a mite under observation. More than eight legs and we need to answer a few more questions. An oval shaped body with less than 15 segments and seven pairs of legs and there's no doubt - the thing is a woodlouse. Long and narrow, its body composed of lots of segments - it's something else entirely and more detective work is needed. How quickly does it move? Carnivores, which hunt for food, move much faster that things that eat plants and detritus. If your unknown with the many legs is running like the clappers, then it is a centipede, as opposed to a millipede which eats dead plants. Millipedes do have more legs than centipedes but neither group has the number of legs that the name might imply.
So that's it then? All we are left with is creatures with 6 legs and three body parts. These are insects. Yes but. The problem is that there are more species of insects than all other species on earth added together. How on earth can they all be sorted out? The taxonomists have a field day with insects, not least because new ones are being discovered in some part of the world every day. However there are distinct families of insects in Ireland and it should be possible to assign your insect at least to its family group.
Has it wings? How many? Are they front wings or back wings? One pair of front wings and you have a fly. Mind you, this could be anything from a mosquito to a bluebottle but at least you know what section of the insect book to look in. Back wings only, covered by hardened round front covers and that's a beetle. This is an enormous group; there are as many types of beetles in Ireland as all the rest of the insect groups added together. However, the design is the same - the hard rounded front wing cases covering the lowest third section of the insect give the game away. So Ladybird, Cockchafer, Ground beetle, take a bow.
Many insects have four wings and so must be classified accordingly. Wings covered with colourful powdery scales are the characteristic of butterflies and moths. Caddis flies have hairy wings and long antennae. Dragonflies and damselflies have both pairs of wings of similar size and short antennae. Bees and wasps have clear wings with veins - the front ones bigger than the back ones. So do mayflies, but nobody could mistake them for bees or wasps as they have long slim bodies with two or three long tails at their ends.
Some insects have wings but we rarely see them. Earwigs have small forewings and larger back wings but they mainly keep them hidden and folded up. True bugs, (a particular name for a group of insects not a general name for all insects as the taxonomically challenged Americans would have us believe), such as the shield bug and the cuckoo spit have perfectly viable back wings while their front wings give them their typical body shape. Grasshoppers have wings too but they seem to get more use out of their strong back legs. When we see what harm a swarm of flying locusts do in other countries, we should be glad that ours are not so bothered about flying. And of course our fully mature male and female ants fly in swarms in high summer to mate up in the sky. The normal workers with which we are all too familiar are not able to do this, as they have not developed wings.
The study of all these creatures is a fascinating one. Recognising and being able to name the object of your attentions makes them more interesting and allows you to communicate with others also bitten by the bug!