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Real ghouls of nature

October 28, 2019

For Halloween, entomologists reveal their favorite horrors from the insect world

Cannibals. Vampires. Zombies. Parasites that devour you from within.

Whatever abomination prowls your nightmares and sends cold sweat trickling down your spine, nature likely has it beat.

For All Hallows Eve, ASU Now turned to the Social Insect Research Group in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, where connoisseurs of the insect world like postdoctoral research fellow Christina Kwapich and PhD candidate Andrew Burchill can tell you about bug behaviors you can’t even imagine.

Let’s take a dive into real horror…

I melt you       

Larvae of beetles of the Epomis genus look like a nice little snack for frogs. They’re not. If a frog bites one and decides it don’t like it? Too bad. It’s not letting go. It’s going to eat the frog, and it will be neither quick nor pretty.

The larva is much faster than a frog, and it has huge hooked jaws that won’t budge from its lips, tongue, throat, or wherever it’s seized. Next, it digests the tissue. Strange thing, though – there’s no blood. The larva is secreting enzymes which melt flesh. It’s digesting the frog before it eats it. After a couple of days of this, Mr. Ribbit is so weakened he can’t move. The larva now begins tearing hunks of tissue out of the frog until all that's left is a little pile of bones.

You gonna eat that?

Many ants share food by regurgitation from mouth to mouth. It’s called trophallaxis. Hopefully we won't see that trend popping up like shared plates at hip restaurants.

Dracula ants

Ants regurgitate digested food from babies to adults (the opposite way from how birds do it). Adult Dracula ants (yes, that’s their real name) only get their sustenance from biting their larval sisters and drinking their blood. “However, it doesn't really hurt the larvae, they're just doing their part for the colony,” Burchill said.

This is going to hurt…

A male bed bug will mate with a female by piercing the wall of her body cavity. “His sperm travels through her blood, called hemolymph, to her ovaries!” Kwapich said. 

Heads up

Female phorid flies lay their eggs behind the head of an ant. The fly maggot develops inside the ant and feeds on its living body, from within. The fly then emerges as an adult — by popping the ant's head off.

We’ll be safe in the cellar

Assassin bugs strum spider webs, mimicking a trapped and weak prey species. The spider thinks an easy meal has just landed. Nope. Instead, death has arrived.

Are you my mother?

Botfly maggots feed on the living flesh and guts of mammals. As an adult, the female botfly does not lay her eggs directly on prey. She’s too big and noisy. Instead, she captures a mosquito and lays her egg on it. “The mosquito then visits an unsuspecting human or other mammal, and the botfly's larva jumps onto the skin!” Kwapich said.

Yes, my pretties

In Central America, there is a parasitic worm that causes the gaster (abdomen) of one ant species to turn bright red, like a berry. This 'berry' is attractive to birds. They eat the ant, allowing the worm to complete its life cycle. When the bird poops, the parasite's eggs are spread around and collected by more ants.

Top illustration by Alex Cabrera/ASU Now 


Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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How to enjoy Halloween treats responsibly

Help kids avoid overindulging Halloween night with a protein rich dinner.
Consider sending excess Halloween candy to U.S. troops abroad.
October 28, 2019

ASU lecturer Jessica Lehmann shares tricks to avoid overindulging

The centuries-long transformation of Halloween from an ancient Celtic festival to the commercialized holiday we know today brought with it many changes. Gone are the bonfires, religious vestments and harvest sacrifices. In their place are jack-o'-lanterns, polyester superhero costumes and — of course — candy.

A recent Business Insider article reported that this year, Americans were predicted to spend nearly $2.6 billion on candy, with some sources estimating the average Halloween candy haul contains between 3,500 and 7,000 calories — several times the daily recommended allowance for most children.

While that sounds alarming, Arizona State University College of Health Solutions lecturer Jessica Lehmann said it shouldn’t be your only focus on the holiday.

“Halloween is a season with so many fun and exciting dimensions to explore, not just another — yawn — candy splurge day,” said Lehmann, who is helping to plan the college’s sixth annual “Food and Thought” community event “Women in Food and Agriculture” taking place Thursday, Nov. 14 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus.

A food sampling will precede the free event at 5 p.m., followed by a panel discussion covering such topics as farm to table, school gardens and food and nutrition advocacy, featuring some of the leading food entrepreneurs and innovators in the Phoenix metro area.

A registered dietitian, Lehmann stepped into share some, ahem, tricks for responsibly enjoying the holiday — and its treats — in moderation.

Question: A lot of times parents will let their kids (and themselves) overindulge a bit on Halloween. But how much candy is too much candy?

Answer: I assure you, eating a little extra “fun” food on a special occasion is fine. Eating candy all day isn’t going to make someone feel good, but enjoying a few treats on Halloween is going to be fine as long as a person is eating an overall healthy diet otherwise. By the way, a healthy diet pattern includes mostly nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains and some lean proteins and healthy fats. As long as someone is getting the nutrients they need, they can enjoy a small treat every day, no problem.

There’s no need for parents to be too restrictive about candy. Don’t make “Halloween candy” too big of a deal. Then kids will get the message that there’s a taboo around candy and that will make it even more irresistible and harder for them to be rational around candy. At the same time, don’t make candy too available. For example, wait to buy the candy for trick-or-treaters until just before Halloween so it’s not around. Instead, put your efforts into enjoying the season and introducing your kids to a variety of Halloween traditions. On the day of Halloween, set yourself and your kids up for success. Eat regular, nutritious meals. Do some extra meal prepping, knowing that Halloween evening gets extra busy. Plan to eat an early, protein-rich dinner before trick-or-treating. Serve something filling such as tacos, bean and cheese quesadillas or chili. And bring water while trick-or-treating.

Q: What is the best way to portion your kids’ candy haul?

A: There are many ways to handle this, but I recommend sorting the candy out together when the kids are young. Later, around third and fourth grade, they can start learning to do it with a little less supervision, and then later than that, they can sort it on their own. The goal is to help our kids become independent, food-literate adults who can make healthy eating choices and approach candy sensibly.

Help the kids pick out their favorite kinds of candy and keep them in the pantry to enjoy. There’s no need to hide the candy, but there’s also no need to keep it out in plain view to remind them it’s there. Make a plan together for the kids to enjoy their treats gradually. There is going to be an excess, so plan to give the rest away. My family sends ours to the U.S. troops abroad, which is organized by a local Girl Scout troop here, and they collect candy the day after Halloween at my kids’ elementary school.

Some families choose to replace the extra candy with a toy. For example, the Great Pumpkin might come to visit in the middle of the night and leave Legos in place of the candy.

Q: We all know the fuddy duddy on the block who hands out toothbrushes for Halloween. What are some alternatives to sugary candy that are actually crowd pleasers?

A: Glow-in-the-dark bracelets, lottery tickets, temporary tattoos and mini water bottles are welcomed!

Q: Can “fun size” candy bars be dangerous by tricking us into thinking we’re having less when we’re actually overindulging?

A: No foods are dangerous. Sweets exist because they are delicious. It’s our choice if we want to eat a bite of chocolate, whether it’s from a small chocolate bar or a large chocolate bar. Or maybe we don’t even like chocolate and there are other treats we’d prefer to eat.

Top illustration by Alex Cabrera/ASU Now