If you were to ask two common groups of forest visitors, say a group of tourists and a group of insect enthusiasts, what was the most beautiful insect they had seen in Thailand? We are willing to bet that the majority would say a lantern bug.
Whether you have seen a lantern bug in the wild of the forests, in an orchard or whether you have only seen one in a photograph, there is no denying that lantern bugs are one of Thailand's most beautiful and exotic looking insects.
The lantern bugs are so named, incorrectly, because of a head prominence of some species (i.e. Pyrops) resembling a Pinocchio like "nose" that was thought to emit light in the past. Of course this is not true, it does not emit light, but it is the story of how they gained their common name.
So what exactly is a lantern bug? Lantern bugs are known by a number of common names: lanternflies, lantern bugs, and lanthorn flies, and are planthoppers. A planthopper is any insect in the infraorder Fulgoromorpha. The Fulgoromorpha infraorder consists of 20 families at present, and one of these families is Fulgoridae. Lantern bugs belong to this family, the family Fulgoridae.
The family Fulgoridae is quite a large group of insects, mainly found in tropical countries, and currently believed to contain over 140 genera worldwide. The family has undergone little indepth study in the past and there is serious academic uncertainty over the complete taxa due to the past taxa being based largely upon physical characteristics, namely head morphology, and further study is currently ongoing to restructure the taxa based on DNA analysis.
Lantern bugs are typically arboreal, most often associated with a specific host tropical tree and/or vine and this is where you will find them when in the forest. They are generally quite large compared to many other insects and some species can be as long as 75 mm in length. Look on the trunks of larger trees and you increase your chances of sighting one. Certain species use particular fruiting trees as their host, such as Pyrops candelaria and the Dimocarpus longantree, and can often be sighted in longan orchards in the north of Thailand. You will have to look closely though, because even though they are relatively large they tend not to move unless disturbed and despite their bright colours they can be quite difficult to spot when still.
When you do spot one your heart will lift, whether a species with a head extension or not, they are all fascinating to view up close and have an inherent beauty in colour and form.
Thailand's official species list currently notes 20 species of lantern bugs recorded in Thailand but, as with all arthropods, its more likely that there are many more waiting to be sighted and added to the list of Thailand's known species. So get out there and get looking, it may just be you who finds an unrecorded species.
The photographs in this article have been kindly provided by Les Day at Samui Butterflies and Paul Thompson.