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Bugs who hop islands

by Sydney Smith
April 6, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 11


Mind your toes

Close-up of the giant water bug Lethocerus patruelis.
Credit: Michalis Hadjiconstantis
New bug in town: Tuck your toes in if you plan on swimming in Cyprus.

Beachgoers beware! A giant water bug has made its way to the island of Cyprus. Measuring as long as 12 cm, Lethocerus patruelis has never been recorded so far from the mainland until now (J. Grigore Antipa Natl. Mus. Nat. Hist. 2023, DOI: 10.3897/travaux.66.e94457). Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, the countries closest to the east side of the island where the bug was found, would be at least a 100 km trek. So how did the creature pull off the island hop?

Perhaps pure grit. Also known as the toe biter, the giant water bug is a fierce predator. Silently waiting to ambush its prey in shallow water, L. patruelis uses “tail-like organs extending out of the water surface for breathing,” says Iakovos Tziortzis, one of the study’s authors and a biologist at the Water Development Department in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus. The bug hunts the likes of invertebrates, fish, turtles, and birds—and, as its nickname hints, is even known to nip citizens too.

It was actually citizen scientists who discovered the new Cypriot. Multiple Facebook groups dedicated to the island’s biodiversity posted the sightings online. Upon investigating the posts, the team obtained two toe biters for species confirmation. One was collected after being spotted lurking on a sixth-floor hotel balcony. The hotel owner mentioned that a similar bug was found lounging near the pool lawn the year before. “Fortunately, none of the authors was bitten” during collection, Tziortzis tells Newscripts, though truthfully, the critter only chomps when stressed.

The bugs must have a good bit of stamina. Current theories for how they docked in Cyprus are via direct flight, transport by currents or ships, or a combination—possibly in search of food or a better habitat. An animal with many monikers, the toe biter is also called the electric light bug because “they surely are attracted to lights so this could be a way of finding their way to land,” Tziortzis says.

Maybe citizen scientists can help address some of these biting questions. Indeed, in a press release, the authors advised curious beachgoers to “keep their eyes open and their toes out of the water.”


Heads up!

Toe biters aren’t the only island hoppers. Tiny bees were recently found in the Pacific islands of Fiji, Micronesia, and French Polynesia, thousands of kilometers from their nearest known neighborhoods (Front. Ecol. Evol. 2024, DOI: 10.3389/fevo.2024.1339446). “Smaller than a short grain of rice,” the long-elusive Hylaeus bees were a buzzing surprise for the team, says James Dorey, lead author and lecturer at the University of Wollongong in Australia.

Close-up of a cute little (3–5 mm) bee found in Fiji.
Credit: James Dorey Photography
Marooned in Fiji: You might be surprised how Hylaeus bees travel.

A long-standing mystery, Hylaeus bees were previously spotted in the Tuamotu Archipelago in the South Pacific in 1934 by Elwood Zimmerman, an undergraduate on a Polynesian expedition. But the bugs were filed away in a museum until 1965, when bee expert Charles Michener named the species Hylaeus tuamotuensis. The bees’ presence on the island—about 3,000 km from Australia, New Guinea, and New Zealand, where they were known to live—has remained unexplained for 90 years, and the species was feared extinct.

But the bugs weren’t the total mavericks they seemed to be. Using DNA and morphological analysis, the scientists determined that the recently found bees constitute eight new species of Hylaeus and are indeed long-lost relatives of the enigmatic H. tuamotuensis.

It turns out that the sneaky bees have been evading scientists for the past 9 decades by simply flying over their heads. Dorey’s team found their hideout by using nets in the tree canopy rather than relying only on the usual ground-level sampling methods. Borrowing this approach from his gum-tree fieldwork in Australia, Dorey “was secretly hoping that if there were actually Hylaeus” on the island, they would find them there, he tells Newscripts.

Because the bugs are so tiny, they probably couldn’t fly long distance like the hardier toe biters. Being windblown across the ocean probably would have been too rough on the critters too. The “much more likely answer for their seafaring success,” Dorey says, is rafting. Hylaeus often nest in wood. After big storms, broken branches could have ferried the bees among the islands. By traveling this way, “probably over thousands of years,” they have become fairly cosmopolitan.

The sailing bees will always belong to the forest, though, and the forest to them, as the name of one of the new species emphasizes. Hylaeus veli is named after the “veli,” who are magical, elf-like woodland people of Fijian folklore. Mischievously charming yet powerful, veli have been said to punish anyone who dares to chop down a beloved tree.

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