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Plant Bug Digitization Milestone Reached!

posted Jul 19, 2012, 11:47 AM by Jeremy Frank   [ updated Sep 12, 2013, 11:00 AM by Katja Seltmann ]

Here at the TTD-TCN office at AMNH, we’ve just finished digitizing our first batch of bugs! This milestone in the project marks the digitization of over 9000 individual insect specimens. The data from this batch joins information on other bugs, their plant hosts, and their parasites from over 35 institutions, bringing us closer to our goal of creating a unique and useful resource on these economically and ecologically important bugs.

When most people hear the word bug, they think of it as a catchall term for insects, and maybe even some arachnids too. But the word also has another more specific meaning. When we say we’re creating a database of bugs, we’re talking about the insects in the group Heteroptera. One of the largest groups within the Heteroptera are Hemiptera, often known as the plant bugs. Hemiptera have needle-like mouths and many have wings that are half leathery and half membrane-like.

(Photo Credit:Brad Smith, under Creative Commons from 

Entomologists, researchers who study insects, refer to some insects in the order Hemiptera as plant bugs because they have mouthparts adapted to pierce plants and suck out the nutritious juices inside. This makes some species serious crop pests. For example, many plant bugs favor legumes like beans or peanuts as a food source. While they drain these important crops of their nutrients the bugs may transfer disease from one plant to another. The plants that these insects live and feed on are referred to as their hosts. Some of these hosts, like legumes, are an important food source for humans as well. In order to better understand the interactions between these bugs and their plant hosts the database also includes images and data from plant collections, focusing on those species known to be hosts to plant bugs. This effort will enable critical agricultural studies of the relationships between plant bugs and plants to be carried out.

In addition to the plant bugs and their host plants, the database also stores information on plant bug parasites as well. These small wasps use the unsuspecting plant bugs as a key part of their life cycle. In order for these wasps to reproduce and thrive, they must lay their eggs on or in a plant bug. Once the wasp egg hatches the newly born wasp larvae begins the slow work of consuming the doomed plant bug. Eventually, the plant bug perishes and the wasp reaches adulthood ready to continue the cycle. Because some species of plant bugs are pests these parasitic wasps can be considered a natural control
method to limit their numbers. This plant bug/parasitoid interaction makes understanding their life cycle, along with the life cycle of plant bugs, of considerable agricultural and economic interest in addition to scientific interest.
The addition of this first batch of specimens to the database is an important step closer to the overall goal and these data will undoubtedly prove useful in the future.