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In the insect kingdom, where blending into the environment is the norm, there exist a few extraordinary exceptions that defy the conventional color palette. These unique bugs, adorned with an extravagant display of hues, truly stand out in a crowd.
From the enchanting elegance of butterflies’ delicate wings adorned with iridescent patterns to the captivating metallic sheen of beetles, nature has bestowed upon these tiny creatures an astonishing spectrum of colors.
In this article, we will explore the diversity of colorful insects, and unravel the secrets behind their vibrant appearances and the purpose that these pigments serve.
Why are Some Insects So Brightly Colored?
You’d think that standing out like a sore thumb would be anything but beneficial when you’re a vulnerable little bug. But it definitely has its advantages. Colorful bugs may be metallic, iridescent, or even fluorescent so how does this help them and why?
Bugs and beetles with iridescent coloring were originally thought to have this appearance in order to attract a mate. The bright colors were also thought to serve as a warning to any would-be predators. While these things still apply, it’s since been discovered that the iridescence may also act as a form of camouflage. Researchers compared the prey survival rate of iridescent bug models to those without iridescence, and there are no prizes for guessing which came out on top. In the forest light, a shiny bug on a shiny leaf isn’t as easy to spot as you might think.
So how do these bugs get their coloring? Well, it’s all to do with how light reflects off the insect’s body. However, you only see the beautiful iridescence at a certain angle which is also advantageous to the bug.
You’ll also notice a ton of metallic bugs in nature such as the chrysina beetle. They shimmer in glorious shades of silver and gold but it’s nothing to do with pigmentation. In fact, their exoskeletons are made up of layers of nanostructures that cause the light to bounce off them in just the right way. Just like iridescent bugs, this benefits the insect in finding a mate and also for camouflage.
Now one of the most fascinating ways that insects become brightly colored is through fluorescence. This happens because of a chemical reaction where their exoskeletons absorb light and then re-emit it using special structures within their bodies. Not only does this serve as a great way to attract a mate, but it’s also ideal for telling predators to back off!
Of course, those bright colors and shimmery appearances aren’t without their disadvantages. For starters, being so bold means that these bugs stand out more to predators. However, over time, they’ve evolved many other efficient adaptations to make them less desirable to predators. This includes things like the ability to emit toxic chemicals or protective physical structures that protect them during an attack.
Types of Brightly-Colored Insects
The world is filled with brightly colored insects, from beautiful beetles to sparkling spiders and everything in between. Let’s take a look at some of the most amazing ones.
1. Rainbow Scarab Beetle (Phanaeus vindex)
You wouldn’t imagine that a bug that spends its life eating poop would be particularly beautiful, but the rainbow scarab beetle is exactly that! But you’d have guessed that if I told you that they were part of the dung beetle family.
In the sunlight, their bodies shine a beautiful shimmery shade of green, blue, or purple and that’s all thanks to iridescence. But they’re usually hiding out beneath a pile of dung where they build tunnels, nests, and raise their young.
Males have a horn on their heads, but females do not, however, both have that iridescent shine that is caused by light reflecting off their exoskeletons. This is a result of chitin and air which is found in layers within the exoskeleton.
2. Blue Morpho Butterflies (Morpho spp.)
The blue morpho butterfly is perhaps one of the most beautiful butterfly species on the planet. It’s recognized for its brightly colored blue wings that are covered in up to 1 million tiny scales that have irregular heights with the ability to reflect light, giving them their signature iridescent glow.
The reason for this iridescence is to protect the butterfly from predators. As it flies through the air, the iridescence gives the illusion that the insect is appearing and disappearing. But on the underside of the wing, it’s a different story, with brown coloration that aids in camouflage. The iridescence of the blue morpho is so effective that scientists are looking for ways to harness it and use it in products like dyes and paints.
3. Tiger Beetles (Cicindelidae spp.)
It’s really difficult to get up close to a tiger beetle as they’re one of the fastest bugs on the planet and they’re incredibly timid. But look from afar, and you’ll see that their bodies have a stunning blue, green, or red metallic shine.
There are several theories as to why the tiger beetle is so brightly colored, with some scientists suggesting that it’s to do with blending in, while others believe that their iridescence dazzles a potential predator. It’s also thought that the coloration can aid in thermoregulation or may make the insect look like something else; another way to confuse a predator on the hunt for a meal.
An interesting tiger beetle fact is that when hunting, they chase their prey so quickly that their eyes cannot keep up, and the bug goes temporarily blind!
4. Jewel Beetles (Buprestidae spp.)
It’s not hard to see where the jewel beetle gets its name when it comes in colors like emerald green, sapphire blue, and ruby red. But why are these bugs so brightly colored? For a long time, it was believed that this coloration was all to do with sexual selection. However, scientists now know that it’s more about camouflage.
That sounds weird because you’d think the bugs would stand out but depending on the angle of the light, the beetle can change the color of its iridescence. So, when it’s sitting on a sun-covered leaf, it’ll actually be hiding in plain sight. What’s more, studies have shown that these changes in color effectively deter predators like birds.
And did you know that the jewel beetle’s stunning appearance is down to layers of cuticles which is the same stuff your fingernails are made of?
5. Spiny Flower Mantis (Pseudocreobotra wahlbergii)
The spiny flower mantis is a small African species that grows to around 1.6 inches (4 cm). On the underside of the bug are several spiny structures, which is where it takes its name, but this isn’t its only defining feature.
Spiny flower mantises are white with green markings, so if you hold one in your hand, it’s very visible. While this might seem counterproductive to camouflage, just pop the insect into the foliage and you’ll see how invisible it becomes.
What’s more, if those bright colors and floral appearance don’t do enough, then the mantis will strike a horrifying pose to tell predators to go away!
6. Peacock Spider (Maratus spp.)
Now, I won’t lie, I’m not usually a fan of spiders, but the peacock spider is an exception because this is one of the most beautiful arachnids I’ve ever seen. Found in Western Australia, these spiders have specialized scales shaped like an airplane wing that allows them to create an iridescent glow using every color of the rainbow.
The males will raise their abdomens during a mating ritual, showing off their bright colors and dancing to get the attention of the female.
Up until just a few years ago, only seven species of peacock spider were recorded, but more have been found and there are now around 100. What’s more, those colorful flaps at the back of the abdomen are so beautiful that they’ve even started trending on social media!
7. Rose Chafer (Cetonia aurata)
The rose chafer is a species of beetle found across Asia and Europe, and they come in beautiful metallic shades of pink and green. You may see them feeding on flowers around grasslands, scrub, and wooded areas.
The iridescent coloration of the rose chafer is the result of circularly polarized light reflecting off of its body. This is likely for camouflage, although these beetles can escape a predator quickly if they need to thanks to their super speedy flight.
8. Golden Tortoise Beetle (Charidotella sexpunctata)
It’s easy to see where the golden tortoise beetle gets its name with its shell-shaped body. Its ‘shell’ is often transparent but, depending on the season and whether the beetle feels threatened, this can change color.
The main body of the golden tortoise beetle is, you guessed it, gold, and it shimmers in a beautiful metallic glow. However, the microscopic cavities in the cuticles of the bug’s exoskeleton contain pigmentation which is what allows the beetle to alter its color. Interestingly, these bugs will also change color during mating.
9. Emerald Wasp (Ampulex compressa)
The emerald wasp sometimes called the jeweled cockroach wasp, is one of the most stunning wasp species on the planet. They have an iridescent green body that glistens in the sunlight, but this beautiful appearance is deceptive.
Sometimes referred to as zombifiers, these wasps seek out cockroaches and inject a chemical concoction into their brains, essentially paralyzing them and making them nothing more than a host for the wasp’s young.
10. Madagascan Sunset Moth (Chrysiridia rhipheus)
Many agree that the Madagascan sunset moth is the most colorful moth in the world, with wings that display markings of orange, red, and purple on a striking black background. Not only this, but you’ll notice how their wings shimmer under the sunlight.
While the black portion of the wings is filled with pigment, the colored sections are created by optical interference and reflection of light off the curved scales. Madagascan sunset moths are, unlike many moth species, daytime flyers, and their bright colors serve as a warning to predators of their toxicity.
11. Dogbane Beetle (Chrysochus auratus)
The dogbane leaf beetle, as you may guess from its name, relies on plants from the dogbane family, particularly Indian hemp. These stunning beetles have a blue to green colored body with shimmering copper elytra.
These are very small beetles that are vulnerable to predation. For this reason, they can use their coloration as a warning to any bird or animal looking for its next meal. But if the predator doesn’t heed this warning, the dogbane beetle is also equipped with cardenolides; a type of chemical that gives the insect a terrible taste!
12. Rainbow Leaf Beetle (Chrysolina cerealis)
The color of the rainbow leaf beetle varies dramatically between individuals. However, in most cases, they are metallic green with red and blue stripes; quite a bold appearance!
The species can be found in Europe in grass and woodlands, but there is a genetically distinct population in Wales which is why it’s sometimes known as the Snowdon beetle. However, this population is in serious decline, with only around 1000 adults left.
Rainbow leaf beetles emit a colorful golden hue when sunlight reflects off their bodies, and this is where they get their name.
13. Picasso Bug (Sphaerocoris annulus)
Some gardeners would consider the Picasso bug to be a pest, but there’s no denying that these are some of the most beautifully patterned bugs on the planet.
Picasso bugs are so named because of their bodies that look as though they’ve been painted. While there are several species of Picasso bug, they generally have an off white coloration covered in rings, lines, and other shapes in many stunning colors.
It’s widely agreed that the reason for the Picasso bug’s bright colors is to warn predators that they won’t make a good meal. But if predators ignore this warning, they’ll have a shock since these are actually a relative of the stink bug and will kick out a terrible smell if they’re disturbed.
14. Barber Pole Grasshopper (Dactylotum bicolor)
Barber pole grasshoppers, sometimes called painted grasshoppers, have an amazing color and pattern with bands of yellow-orange, white, blue, and black running over the entire length of the animal.
The critters are native to North America and have this striking coloration to warn off potential predators. This is essential in their survival as the barber pole grasshopper does not develop wings and is therefore not able to fly.
You may have seen a photo of a Costa Rican rainbow grasshopper circulating the internet with extremely bright colors. However, this is not a real rainbow grasshopper and was actually the result of some clever Photoshop work for a photography competition. Nonetheless, the real deal is still pretty impressive.
15. Rosemary Beetle (Chrysolina Americana)
It’ll come as no surprise that, if you want to spot a rosemary beetle, you’ll need to look on a rosemary plant. However, they’re also commonly found on lavender, sage, thyme, and other similar species.
These bugs have a metallic green coloration with purplish stripes and while native to southern Europe, have become an invasive species in much of the UK in the last 30 years. They’re very easy to spot thanks to their metallic shimmer, so this certainly isn’t used for camouflage. The shine is thanks to layers of chitin in the exoskeleton and serves as a warning to predators.
16. Steelblue Ladybug (Halmus chalybeus)
When you think of a ladybug, you probably imagine a little spotted beetle but the steelblue ladybug will change your perception. This species is found in Southern California as well as Australia and New Zealand and has also been introduced to Hawaii.
Steelblue ladybugs, as their name suggests, have a beautiful rich blue metallic color, and they lack the spots associated with their cousins. They’re only tiny and, when you look at them from the top, their bodies are a perfect circle. Males typically have orange markings around the pronotum.
Light reflecting off their bodies acts as a warning to potential attackers although the steelblue ladybug is something of an efficient hunter itself. What’s more, in many cultures, these bugs are seen as a symbol of luck and love.