The secrets of displayNgā mea huna ā ngā āhua

Beautiful displays help bugs attract mates, while crafty camouflage helps them avoid predators – and then there’s some downright devious deception!

Double-drummer cicada

Secret: Seductive sound

Looking good is one thing, but male cicadas attract females by belting out a song from their tymbals.

The double drummer’s song is 120 decibels – louder than a chainsaw, and maybe the loudest song in the insect world. You humans say it sounds like high-pitched bagpipes.

Double drummer cicada, 2016. Te Papa

Priam’s blue birdwing butterfly

Secret: Dazzling display

A male Priam’s blue birdwing butterfly shows off his gorgeous wings as he dances round a female. If she’s impressed (and who wouldn’t be?), she’ll agree to mate.

The female’s duller colours help her hide from predators. When males and females of a species look different, you call it sexual dimorphism.

Secret: Cannibalism

These bugs are hungry caterpillars before they transform into butterflies. They eat non-stop, and if they run out of leaves, they start eating each other.

Priam's blue birdwing, 2016. Te Papa

New Zealand giant stick insect

Secret: Twiggy camouflage

What’s long and sticky? The New Zealand giant stick insect! When it stays still, it’s so well camouflaged that predators rarely notice it. It can grow as long as a toothbrush.

Secret: Males optional

Some populations of New Zealand stick insects are entirely female. These single ladies don’t need their eggs to be fertilised in order to reproduce. The word for that? Parthenogenesis.

Giant stick insect, 2016. Te Papa

Air commodore butterfly

Secret: Two looks in one

An air commodore butterfly can go from colourful to camouflaged with one lift of its wings. Its brown undersides make it look like a dead leaf, not a tasty bug. A cunning way to avoid predators.

Secret: Mud-loving males

Think butterflies hang out on flowers all day? Think again. A male air commodore can’t resist the salty, nutritious water in a good mud puddle. When he mates, he gives the female some of those nutrients to help their eggs survive.

Air commodore butterfly, topside (below), underside (above), 2016. Te Papa

Owl butterfly

Secret: Deceptive eyes

When an owl butterfly displays the undersides of its wings, it doesn’t look like a meal to small birds any more – it resembles a predator. Its spotted wings look just like owl eyes.

Secret: Night flyer

Most butterflies are active during the day, but owl butterflies fly at dusk. The scientist who named them probably knew that – he called them Caligo, Latin for darkness.

Owl butterfly, 2016. Te Papa

Narrow-bordered bee hawk-moth

Secret: Fuzzy mimic

If you think this is a bumblebee, you’ve been fooled. The narrow-bordered bee hawk-moth fools predators too – those that know bees have a nasty sting. They’ll avoid it, even though it’s harmless. Sneaky.

Narrow-bordered bee hawk-moth, 2016. Te Papa

Heliconid butterfly

Secret: Warning colours

‘Don’t eat me. I taste awful.’ That’s what the Heliconid butterfly’s bold colours announce. And it does taste bad. Any predator that tries one is unlikely to make the same mistake twice.

Secret: Diverse looks

You might think it’s easy to identify a butterfly just by looking at its wings. But a Heliconid species in one part of the world can look very different from the same species elsewhere. On top of that, there are different species that look the same. Confused? No one said the bug world was simple…

Heliconid butterfly, 2016. Te Papa

Royal jewel butterfly

Secret: Colour from light

Butterfly wing scales are usually coloured with pigment. But to appear shimmery blue, purple, or white, they have to be able to reflect light.

Nanostructures in the wings of the male royal jewel butterfly reflect blue light to attract mates.

Secret: Sacrificial scales

The tiny scales on a butterfly’s wings can be rubbed off. Losing too many is deadly, but losing a few can save the butterfly’s life. If it gets stuck in a spider’s web, it can pull itself free by leaving some scales behind.

Royal jewel butterfly, 2016. Te Papa