Insect Wings Useful to Insects
One of the outstanding attributes of adult insects
is that they have wings. Wings allow insects to travel to new places in
search of food or mates. The ability to fly also provides a mechanism
to escape enemies and to find a place to spend the winter. Wings are one
of the keys to success for this group of animals.
But not all insects have wings. There are some
ancient groups of insects that are wingless. For instance, those insects
called firebrats and silverfish lack wings. The same is true of collembola,
tiny insects that feed on organic matter in the soil.
But most insect species have wings in the adult
stage. On the other hand, immature insects do not have wings. But in that
stage, the lack of wings is a benefit since many immature insects feed
in confined spaces, and wings would just get in the way. Such is the case
with fly maggots, which feed in dead animals or garbage heaps, the grubs
that crawl around in the soil looking for roots, and some caterpillars
that literally bore through the plant tissue on which they feed.
In some insects, such as termites and ants, the
wings are present in reproductive adults but not in other forms. Like
many immature insects, the workers of these social insects crawl around
in the tunnels of the nest where wings would just get in the way. Queens
of ants and termites actually chew off their wings, following mating flights.
Wings are very handy to insects as tools for locomotion.
Insect wings also are very handy to entomologists who classify insects.
Entomologists frequently use the variation of wing structure of insects
to write descriptions of species.
Most of the order names of insects are based on
a Latin root for the type of wing possessed by that order. Many of the
insect order names include "pteron," Latin for fur, wing or feather. In
the case of insects, it means wing.
Flies are classified in the order Diptera. "Ptera"
for wing and "di" for two, in reference to the two wings possessed by
flies. Two wings are unusual for insects, since other winged forms have
Beetles have a hard pair of outer wings called
elytra. Coleos, the Latin term for sheath, is the basis for Coleoptera,
the order name for the beetles. Hemi means half; consequently, the insects
in the order Hemiptera are half-winged. These insects have a leathery
front half of the wing while the back portion is membranous.
Butterflies and moths have scales on their wings.
So these insects are classified in the order Lepidoptera, which interpreted
literally means "scale wing." We find the same Latin root in the human
disease leprosy where the skin tends to flake or scale off. Even the poet
Robert Frost noted the colored scales on the wings of butterflies and
used the term "dye-dusty wing" to describe the wings of monarch butterflies
in his poem, "Pod of the Milkweed."
Lacewings fall in the order called Neuroptera because
their wings appear to be traversed by nerves. Grasshoppers and crickets
are Orthoptera, due to the presence of straight outer wings. The same
Latin root is found in the profession orthodontist, the specialist dentist
who straightens our teeth.
It is obvious that wings are important to insects
as a method of locomotion. It's also true that these wings provide obvious
characteristics to help scientists separate insects into groups called
orders. For both insects and entomologists, the wings have it!