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Insects: They're What's for Dinner

Feeling hungry? Why don’t you fuel up on crunchy, delicious, protein-packed insects! You’ll be in good company — lots of animals do it. Insectivores get most or all of their food in the form of six-legged critters.

A pileated woodpecker on a tree trunk with an insect in its mouth.
A pileated woodpecker on a tree trunk with an insect in its mouth. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Insects are everywhere. There are 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 insects in the world. That’s 100 quintillion. (This is according to the Entomological Society of America. Entomologist study insects, so they should know.) For every one person on Earth, there are about 1.4 billion insects. Talk about a full fridge.

But while there are a lot of them, you still must catch your prey. Insects can be tiny, most of them can fly and they often hide away in secret places. Let’s learn from some of the expert bug catchers.

Woodpeckers


Will County woodpeckers love to eat wood-boring insects like termites, ants and beetles. They hear them scurrying around under tree bark. Woodpeckers can also feel their vibrations. Powered by incredible muscles, their sharp bills jackhammer through the bark. The pounding would turn other birds’ brains to mush, but woodpeckers have extra cushioning to protect them. It’s like wearing a bike helmet.

Woodpeckers can’t pull out the insect with their beaks, because it is the same size as the hole. They fish out their meal with their extra-long, sticky tongues. What to do with it when they are not eating? They stick it up one nostril and wrap their tongue around their skull! Can you do that?

Frogs


Frogs’ tongues are uniquely sticky and incredibly soft. (They are 10 times softer than your tongue.) Say a fly buzzes by. The frog shoots its tongue out faster than a blink of an eye. When the frog tongue hits the insect, it wraps around the insect like a sticky gum blanket, filling all the bumpy cracks of the exoskeleton.

 

Words to know

Boring: To drill a hole into.

Carnivorous: Feeding on other animals.

Echolocation: The location of an object reflected by sound.

Exoskeleton: A rigid external covering for invertebrate animals.

Insectivore: An animal or plant that eats insects.

Saliva: Watery liquid secreted into the mouth by glands.

Tentacle: A slender, flexible limb in an animal.

 

Frog saliva is a non-Newtonian fluid, which is just a fancy way of saying it gets more solid and sticky under pressure. When frog saliva smacks into the fly, it grips the creature, quickly pulling the fly back into its mouth. Then the frog needs to close its eyelids and push its eyeballs down, forcing the fly into its throat as the saliva starts to flow normally again.


Try it yourself! Want to see a non-Newtonian fluid in action? Just add a little water to corn starch, enough for the mixture to be a thick liquid. Pick some up and squeeze it in your fist. With all that pressure, it turns into a solid! Now release your fist and hold your mixture in the palm of your hand. Watch as it turns back into a liquid, dripping between your fingers!


Bats


Bats use echolocation to “see” insects at night. They chirp, sending high-pitched calls out in the environment. These sound waves bounce back, painting a sound picture of everything around them. Using this super sense, bats can not only tell what shape their prey is, but also which direction they are flying. Some bats can even use echolocation to identify bugs hiding on leaves. When they zero in on an insect, they chase it down for a tasty treat.

They need to be good at hunting because a bat might need to eat half its body weight in insects each night. That’s a lot of pest control! All the bats of Will County are insectivores with molars designed to grind down hard exoskeletons. Yum.

Sundews

A closeup of a spoon-leaved sundew.
A spoon-leaved sundew. (Photo via Shutterstock)

You thought it was just animals that eat insects? There are a couple plants willing to get in on that action. We mostly think of tropical carnivorous plants, but spoon-leaved and round-leaved sundews live here in northeastern Illinois. They have sticky fluid at the tips of their tentacles that trap insects. This looks like a dewdrop, hence the name. Enzymes on their leaves break down and digest the food. Watch it in action in this short video. Sundews are threatened locally, so keep an eye out for them in wet places like swamps, fens and even rotting logs.

Humans


If 2 billion people around the world already eat insects, why not you? Insects have been a regular part of the human diet all throughout history. High in protein with a low environmental impact, there are at least 2,000 edible bugs, including crickets, mealworms, ants and grasshoppers. Don’t know where to start? Check out the Plum Creek Nature Center gift shop for candy-covered insect treats. Or stop by Hidden Oaks Nature Center during the month of November. They will be passing out sweet and savory insect samples at the front desk.

Do insects sound yummy to you, just like lots of other animals of Will County? This is a tiny list of all the animals that love to eat them. There’s also spiders, moles and dragonflies. Can you think of any other insectivores? When you are outside, look around. Is anyone munching on insects?

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