by Rick LoBello, Education Curator
The other day while walking around in the Franklin Mountains I found a desert bug that I have been observing in our desert for decades, from Big Bend National Park to El Paso. The giant agave bug is commonly seen on both century plants and lechuguilla and is easy to identify.
The agave bug is a large species of leaf-footed bug and is found in both the US and Central America. The tarsi, tibiae and tips of the antennae are bright red orange and the leaf-like femora (the thigh of an insect) are well developed and have spines. They look like kissing bugs associated Chagas disease, but they are not. Kissing bugs are much smaller. Chances are if you see an agave bug it will just fly away if you get too close. I have never heard of anyone being bitten by one, but I always say that any animal can bite if given the chance.
How many insects live in our desert?
If there ever was a question about animals in the desert that most people do not know the answer to, a good one would be how many species of insects live in the Chihuahuan Desert? The answer is pretty much a guess since there are so many places where insect biodiversity has never been adequately studied. The scientific study of insects, entomology, is a wide-open field to anyone with the interest. It is also an important science pursuit since insects play a critical role in maintaining the health of our ecosystem. One of the world’s most famous entomologists, E. O. Wilson has said that “if insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” To anyone who wants to kill every insect they see indoors and out, it’s a hard pill to swallow, but scientists are no doubt correct.
Years ago, when I worked in Big Bend National Park, I was fortunate to meet Arnold F. Van Pelt who like E.O. Wilson has spent his entire life studying insects with a focus on ants. In 2002 Van Pelt published a research paper on the insects of Big Bend National Park where he estimated that about 4600 species of insects had been documented in the Park. No one really knows how many species there are all together in the Chihuahuan Desert, but I would guess that the number is probably easily over 10,000 species. Globally, scientists have identified about 925,000 species of insects and some entomologists believe that the total number of species may fall as high as 30 million and as low as 2 million.
How many insects and other invertebrates are you able to identify in your backyard and around home? Wouldn’t it be great if someone in our city were to put together an invertebrate species list for El Paso? If you know any young bug lovers, plant the seed today and perhaps the Zoo can help get something going.
To learn more about the insects and other invertebrates living in our area download the iNaturalist app to your phone or visit https://www.inaturalist.org/. I also recommend two popular field guides that you can purchase online: National Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects and Spiders: North America (National Audubon Society Field Guides) and A Field Guide to Insects: America North of Mexico (Peterson Field Guides).