It’s been said that Florida is the home to many wonderful things.
The Fountain of Youth.
The best beaches.
Crystal clear springs.
And, one very popular mouse.
Florida’s flora and fauna are just as magnificent — but often under appreciated. Take, for example, the weird and wonderful native invertebrates — those animals without a backbone — that call Florida home.
The vinegaroon, better known as the whip scorpion, is a fearsome-looking creature. But it’s not dangerous.
Vinegaroons are not actual scorpions, but are related, and sport an unusual defense mechanism – vinegar-like acid.
When threatened, these arachnids can secrete the foul-smelling liquid making predators think twice about making this animal a meal.
Vinegaroons burrow under rotting logs, into mulch, rocks, and so on, and seek out snails, slugs and insects, such as cockroaches and crickets, for dinner.
Another strange-looking invertebrate found in Central Florida is the antlion. Their look is as frightening as their name, but this insect is quite helpful.
Antlion larvae (juveniles) create conical depressions in the sandy soil and wait for unsuspecting prey to fall in to the “sand trap.” Once the prey falls into the trap, the antlion grabs it in its mandibles (jaws), pierces the prey and injects a substance that paralyzes the prey, then it proceeds to suck the juices out of its dinner.
Antlions also will use their tails to flick sand causing the prey to fall into and remain the trap. Antlions are easy to find in the soil along the edge of a roof overhang or along foundations. Antlions prey on a variety of insects, many of which are harmful to other animals and plants.
To the horror of anyone fishing the next insect out of a pool drain or coming across it on the bank of a river, the giant water bug, is as weird as they come.
The giant water bug, or “toe biter” as it is frequently called, is a large, predatory insect with a brown body and large, black eyes. Its two front legs are what earns it perhaps the most unusual nickname. These two legs function as pincers with hollow tips that inject venom. Better still, the adults fly, and they have two projections on their abdomen which allow them to breath.
While they might sound like something out of a sci-fi horror film, the giant water bug prefers to be left alone and doesn’t seek out humans as a food source.
Giant water bugs prefer slow-moving and clean bodies of water.
They are not really at home on land, and giant water bugs often are seen lumbering around, as they fly from one body of water to the next. If that’s not enough, the females lay their eggs on the backs of the males. And, apparently, they taste like shrimp, and, as a result, giant water bugs are a common street food in many parts of the world.
Large in size and quite striking to see, the click beetle is a common insect found across the United States.
Click beetles often are considered serious pests, but their reputation is not earned. Only a few species are economically significant in terms of potential damage. In fact, click beetle larvae do us a favor by preying on wood-boring larvae, which do considerable damage in Florida’s forests.
Click beetles have large “false eyes” on their backs. While they are not functional eyes, they serve a very real purpose. The “false eyes” of the click beetle helps to deter predators looking to make them a meal. Predators see those “eyes” as being real and, with eyes that large, the risk is not worth the reward, causing most predators to leave these insects alone.
Click beetles commonly are seen around rotting tree stumps.
Using their flattened bodies, click beetles have one more trick. When threatened, click beetles will drop onto their backs and play dead. Click beetles, like all insects, have three body segments. The head, the thorax (right behind the head) and the abdomen. To get back onto their feet, click beetles move their head and thorax forward locking one small part into their abdomen. When they release the parts again, they flip themselves into the air, righting themselves while producing a loud “click” in the process. The loud “click” can be quite startling at first, and once you’ve heard it, you’ll always remember it.
If you like to read the labels on candies, shampoo, or even fruit juices, you might recognize the term cochineal.
Cochineal is a common red dye used for many years in a variety of products, from makeup to food and even paint, cochineal is still in production across other parts of the world. You can find cochineal in Florida. This substance comes from a common scale insect aptly named cochineal scale.
Common on the prickly pear cactus, cochineal scale is not typically a huge problem for plants, although the insects do pierce into the plant parts and then suck out the juices.
Cochineal scale insects have various life stages with some crawling on the leaf, while others stop moving and form a layer of wax over their bodies for protection. The wax layer leaves a while, cottony looking mass on the leaves. Carefully scrape off and smash the bodies of these insects and you’ll see the brilliant red color.
The cochineal dye, collected from these insects, is safe for use in food items, but is used less today than in previous years, as synthetic dyes are now more common.
So, as these examples demonstrate — with just a bit of research, closer observations and an open mind, it’s easy to see why Florida’s insects are just as wonderful as other treasures that call Florida home.
By Whitney C. Elmore
Dr. Whitney C. Elmore is the UF/IFAS Pasco County extension director and an urban horticulture agent III.
Published May 12, 2021