NOVEMBER
2001

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

11-20-01

Some Insects Are Finicky Eaters

Our Thanksgiving celebration is all about food. To be usre, there is fellowship with family and friends. But food was the historical reason for the event, and it remains to today.

One old biological adage holds that we are what we eat. It is true that the cells and tissues of our body are built from nutrients in the food that we consume. But the adage might also say something about our eating habits.

The type of food that humans eat and the way they prepare it varies from culture to culture—and even from family to family. You can learn a lot about people from the type of food they eat.

People preparing meals have to be concerned about the food habits of those who are to be fed. Sometimes, personal food habits are based on religious grounds. Some people eat certain foods and not others for medical reasons. Foods are also eaten, or not eaten, because of personal beliefs or tastes.

So with a mob of hungry family and friends traveling over the hills and through the woods to grandma’s house, what is grandma to do? Probably, like good mothers everywhere, she just prepares so much food that there will be something for everyone.

If Mother Nature were to throw a Thanksgiving feast for all of her animals, she would have a little problem providing the right kind of food. Many animals, including the insects, are rather finicky eaters.

Their food places insects into one of three general categories. Insects are generally vegetarians, meat eaters or connoisseurs of dead and rotten stuff.

Some vegetarian insects feed on a wide range of plant material. Adults of the Japanese beetle, for instance, feed on about 350 types of plants. They are easy to please since this food range includes almost all deciduous fruits and small fruits, shade trees, crop plants, garden flowers, vegetables and weeds.

Grasshoppers are also general feeders. They will feed on most types of plants but, as their name suggests, prefer grasses. Of course, like humans at any Thanksgiving feast, hungry grasshoppers will consume food other than their preferred items when necessary.

Some plant-feeding insects confine their munching to closely related plants. For instance, that garden pest, the imported cabbageworm. It feeds on plants of the cabbage and mustard family. Cabbage, cauliflower, kale, collards, Brussels sprouts, mustard and turnip are attacked. The same plants are also food for the cabbage looper.

Some plant-feeding insects are downright hard to please when it comes to food. Many aphids are very food specific. So specific that they won’t feed on anything but a preferred plant. That, of course, sometimes makes it difficult for these aphids to find food, and many don’t.

Insects that are classified as animal feeders vary from feeding on only one species of animal to feeding on many different species. The bot fly is one of the animal feeders that has specific food tastes. Bot fly larvae live in the host animal. There are cattle bots, sheep bots, rabbit bots and even a human bot. But bot fly larvae seldom show up on other animal hosts.

Some animal feeders could care less about the host that provides the meal. Horseflies and deer flies would just as soon feed on cattle as on horses or deer. Deer flies will also feed on dogs—and even humans—if given the chance.

The nice thing about having insects around is that Mother Nature doesn’t have to worry about leftover food. There are many insects that feed on dead stuff. Insects like crickets, cockroaches, burying beetles and fly maggots are part of nature’s cleanup crew.

To these insects, eating leftovers is a way of life. Very much like many of us who participate in the annual Thanksgiving feast. We find ourselves eating leftovers for days afterward!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox