Weird Animal Question of the Week

Tarantulas, Killer Caterpillars, and the Most Misunderstood Bugs

We hung out with swarms of bug scientists to find out the most common misperceptions of the critters under our feet.

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Cale Nordmeyer of the Minnesota Zoo holds a vinegaroon, also known as a whip scorpion.

Shakara Maggitt hands me a vinegaroon, or whip scorpion, a sci-fi looking bug with big black claws used to hold their prey. “They’re so cute!” she says, and I’m shocked to find myself agreeing with her.

Bonding with bugs is the point of the Insect Expo at the 2016 International Congress of Entomology, and the impetus for Weird Animal Question of the Week to ask: What is the world’s most misunderstood insect?

Spiders, mosquitoes, and bed bugs were also mentioned, but here are the good, the bad, and the bugly.


Justin Schmidt, author of the new book The Sting of the Wild, knows a thing or two about truly unpleasant bugs—and he says this isn’t one of them.

This “docile” arachnid of the southwestern U.S. and Florida won’t bite people, but if harassed, it will spray a vinegar-like acid from the base of its long tail that's 15 times more concentrated than the vinegar on your salad, he says.

It "feels like it's burning a little hole in you," Schmidt says. And he would know. (Related: "Worst Places to Get Stung? Ask This Guy.")


Sex, deceit, and fighting. Who’d have guessed these ethereal bugs live with such drama?

“Sex is fun for them,” says Katy Prudic, an entomologist at the University of Arizona who studies butterflies. But in the process, “they get angry and aggressive and territorial,” with males beating each other up until their wings are in tatters over access to females. (See "Butterfly Thieves Steal From 'Badass' Ants—A First.")

Males “will tackle females while they’re still maybe cold in the morning and … mate with them," Prudic says.

Females will also solicit sex from males in order to get nutrient-filled sperm packets—but not actually use the sperm.

In other words, butterflies go on dates just for dinner.

Africanized Honeybees

Africanized honeybees, dubbed killer bees, are smaller and have less venom than European bees. But these hybrid bees, which have spread into the U.S., acquired their fearsome reputation thanks to their aggression in defending their colonies, which they do in huge numbers.

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This curly-hair tarantula would rather not bite you—and even if it did, the sting is more mild than bee venom.

Schmidt points out that we can also learn from Africanized honeybees because they're resistant to some illnesses, such as colony collapse disorder, that have plagued other U.S. honeybees.


Tarantulas can bite you, but they'd rather pass.

The hairy spiders prefer "to save their venom to liquefy their food,” says Maggitt, a graduate research assistant at the University of Georgia.

World's Largest Spider The goliath birdeater tarantula of South America is arguably the biggest spider in the world. Watch as one hapless mouse wanders into a spider's deadly trap, and see the unusual adaptations that make the goliath one of nature's deadliest ambushers.

Even if the arachnids did bite you, the amount of venom is equal to that of a bee sting, notes Sage Thompson, of the University of Florida’s Biosecurity Research and Extension Lab, who also championed the vinegaroon.

Tarantulas are delicate, Thompson adds. If you drop them from higher than two feet, as nervous people sometimes do, their exoskeleton can fatally crack.


Don’t be fooled by their pudgy cuteness, says Julie Peterson, an entomologist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. They can be cold-blooded killers.

Corn earworms, for instance, cannibalize and prey on each other.

When you find a wiggly caterpillar in your ear of sweet corn, “that’s the champion” that's eaten its competitors, she says.

House Centipedes

“Just creepy, right? Too many legs,” Prudic says. But these fast predators, found throughout Europe, Asia, and North America, are actually helpful for the environment: “They eat cockroaches.”

Speaking of these reviled insects, some of them are actually stellar parents: Father cockroaches eat bird poop and bring it back for their babies.

Call them what you want, but they're anything but deadbeat dads.

Weird Animal Question of the Week answers your questions every Saturday. If you have a question about the weird and wild animal world, tweet me, leave me a note or photo in the comments below, or find me on Facebook.

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