The Fulgoridae, commonly referred to as lanternflies, are large, spectacular, colorful insects whose extravagant shapes have given rise to umpteen legends. However, in contrast to what their vernacular name might lead us to believe, they cannot emit light.
Lantern bearers that don’t illuminate
Lanternflies make up a large family of insects (Fulgoridae) belonging to the order of Hemiptera (suborder Homoptera). These are primarily piercing-sucking insects that feed on sap. There would seem to be over 132 genera, making for approximately 865 species described at this point in time. Certain species are deemed to be crop pests, including an Asiatic species recently introduced to the United States.
After reading the accounts and seeing the drawings of the naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian on the light emitted by lanternflies(1705), Swedish naturalist Linnaeus described a number of species with evocative names like laternaria, candelaria and phosphorea (1758). Recent studies prove however that lanternflies are incapable of emitting light!
Eccentric heads and an almost unknown biology
The heads of a number of lanternflies extend into long protrusions, more or less curved and whose true function has yet to be determined. We know that several species have eyelike markings (Fulgora sp.), while others sport spines (Cathedra serrata) that in all likelihood are means of defence against possible predators. Still others take the shape of a small lizard (Odontoptera sp.) or possess long wax filaments (Alarusa sp.). Some risk being mistaken for a piece of bark, in color and in shape (Calyptoproctus sp.), which makes them almost invisible, while others, in contrast, have lively hues to scare away predators (warning coloration).
The biology of these insects is still unknown for most of them. Some are active during the day, while others seem to be nocturnal. They live solitary lives, although occasionally aggregations of a number of individuals can be found. They generally fly low, and are often difficult to capture. They feed on a variety of different host plants.
Of the legends relating to lanternflies, some of them still make the rounds in Latin America, such as the one according to which “the bite of a Fulgora will prove to be fatal.” Another variant is that a person bitten by a Fulgora must enjoy sexual relations within 24 hours or else risk dying. This one as well, of course, is sheer myth. New species are still being described today, and much remains to be discovered about the biology, the ecology, and the behaviors of these fascinating insects.
- Hogue, Charles, 1993 – Latin American Insects and Entomology, Berkeley, University of California Press, 558 pp.
- Porion, T., 1994 – Fulgoridae 1: Illustrated Catalogue of the American Fauna, 72 pp., 14 color plates
- Porion, T. and Bleuzem, P., 2004 – Fulgoridae 1. Supplement 1: New Neotropical Fulgoridae, 22 pp., 4 color plates
- Porion, T. and Nagai, S., 1996 – Fulgoridae 2. Illustrated Catalogue of the Asiatic and Australian Fauna, 80 pp., 20 color plates
- Porion, T. and Nagai, S., 2002 – Fulgoridae 2. Supplement 1: New Fulgoridae from Southeast Asia, 14 pp., 2 color plates
- Porion, T. and Nagai, S., 2004 – Fulgoridae 2. Supplement 2: New Fulgoridae from Southeast Asia, 12 pp., 2 color plates