What is a bubble bug?

The beetle known as the Spanish fly is a type of bubble beetle.

Technically known as the blister beetle, the blister beetle is an insect that produces chemicals that can burn the skin and produce blisters. There are many different species of the insect around the world. They typically feed on vegetative crops and can occur in large groups. The burning chemical, cantharidine, is poisonous to animals and acts as a deterrent to animals that might otherwise eat them.

Scientists classify animals and insects into groups depending on how they are related to each other. Each insect in the bubble is of a particular species; for example, Epicuata vittata. Species groups then fall into genus groups such as Epicuata or Lytta. Collections of all genera, which is the plural of genus, belong to the family Meloidae.

More than 2,500 species of vesicles are included in the Meloidae family. Even though beetles live all over the world, they all contain a chemical called cantharidine. Some insects only produce a poisonous or pungent chemical from specialized glands and release them only in certain situations, such as directly on a potential attacker.

A bubble bug does not deliberately release cantharidine. Instead, it contains the chemical inside its body, coursing through the insect’s tissues and blood. The presence of this vesicular substance is not useful for an individual beetle, faced with a predator that wants to eat it, or in a situation where the beetle is going to be crushed. Over the course of the species’ evolution, however, the nasty and dangerous burning of the chemical teaches animals and humans to avoid it. The species is then less at risk of being eaten.

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Sometimes, however, beetles experience predation or accidental crushing or touching. When the adult is crushed, or a human, for example, touches them in a way that scares the beetle, the cantharidin leaves the body and burns the skin. Normally, adult beetles feed on plants and animals can accidentally eat them while grazing. Only a beetle is capable of killing an animal, and since cantharidine persists in the insect even after death, the beetle does not need to be alive to kill an animal.

Visually, a bubble bug has a cylinder-shaped body and an obvious neck between the body and head. They come in a variety of colors, from dull brown to striped yellow. Often, insects gather in swarms where there is food. Adults are agricultural pests, but immature forms can be useful as pest controllers, as they eat the eggs of grasshoppers and crickets.

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