Ugly bugs compete in 'Wild West' showdown

Tuesday, November 8, 2011
by Evan Lewis

Dung beetleDung beetle

A posse of newcomers is riding into town. These little hombres – contenders in the 2011 Ugly Bug Contest – are rougher and tougher than the average Hollywood outlaw. They suck blood, hatch deadly parasitic larvae and even eat dung. The critters in this gang are squirming to become the most wanted. The one that ropes the most votes will be crowned “ugliest bug,” taking the title away from last year’s winner, the Assassin Bug.

The 2011 competition marks the fourth year of Arizona State University’s involvement with the Ugly Bug Contest. The contest was started in 1997 by Marilee Sellers at Northern Arizona University. In 2008, ASU’s Charles Kazilek (also known as "Dr. Biology") visited Sellers’ lab and saw posters for the contest. He began working with her to bring the contest to the Web.

Each year since, the number of votes has grown. In 2010, some 37,400 bug fans showed support for their favorite creature. Entire schools participated in the selection process.

Voters in this year’s contest have until Dec. 15 to choose the most intriguing, heartwarming or stomach-turning bug.

For 2011, a classic western theme inspired the title “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Bug Contest.” The contestants earn all three parts of this year’s title. The wicked traits of the competitors are often balanced by helpful functions that the bugs serve. For example, the Ichneumon Wasp, which lays parasitic larvae that kill their hosts, is also used to control species that could harm plants. Even the vile-seeming Dung Beetle returns nutrients to the soil as it feeds.

Ichneumon waspIchneumon wasp

The roster of ugly bugs for the 2011 competition also includes the Bed Bug, Damsel Bug, Flea Beetle, Flower Beetle, Green Lacewing, Ladybug, Plant Bug and Seed Beetle. This year’s Ugly Bug video is online at http://askabiologist.asu.edu/video/ubc2011.

The annual contest is part of the “Ask A Biologist” website, a science portal for children developed by Kazilek.

“We want people to have fun with the voting and the video, but closely linked to the playful event is real science. The idea of classifying living things—taxonomy—is a large part of the Ugly Bug Contest. Beyond that, we want people to just take some time to learn about insects, how incredibly amazing they look and what they do,” says Kazilek.

The “Ask A Biologist” website also offers downloadable wallpapers, coloring pages and puzzles. There are biology-related articles and quizzes, experiments and how-to guides.

This year’s contest also features the article “Six-Legged Recipes,” by Mary Liz Jameson, an evolutionary biologist at Wichita State University. The article includes several tasty recipes such as “Bug Bars” and “Spicy Bug Crunch” made of mealworms, and “Chocolate Covered Crispies” and “Yummy Hummers” made with bees. The article details the nutritional value of insects, the environmental benefits of eating insects, and the role that insects play in the cuisines of other countries. There is also a podcast for the article called “Been There Dung That,” a reference to Jameson’s study of dung beetles.

Pictures of each of the 10 Ugly Bug contestants are included on the website, along with information such as the size of the bug, its Latin name and its habitat.

A scanning electron microscope was used to the capture vivid, highly magnified images of each bug in the contest. Along with the colorized versions of the images, the original black and white scans are also available on the site. The microscope images let viewers see details of the bugs that are too small for the unaided eye.

Kazilek is fond of all of the competitors this year, but his favorite bug in the contest is the Ladybug. “They are very beneficial insects that provide a natural pest control for plants. Also, they have cool colors and patterns,” he says. “What's not to love about that?”

Which bug is your favorite? Be sure to cast your vote at: http://askabiologist.asu.edu/activities/ubc

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