When you think of fungi, do you think of a delicious dish or odd-ball orbs of various colors that grow in the forest? Well, for many insects, they call the fruiting bodies of fungi – mushrooms - a feast, and a home.
If you are a forager of mushrooms, then the thought of turning the cap over of a perfectly beautiful bolete only to find that a colony of wriggling bugs has reached the sweet meat before you might send you into a rage. Hopefully, this article can impart some insight into the wonderful world of mycophagous insects (“myco” meaning fungi, and phagous means “to feed”) that share the love of Whistler’s fall fungal feast.
The first insect, I’d like to introduce is probably the most common insect you’d find in a mushroom, the springtails, of the subclass collembola. These often send foragers walking away with their tails between their legs. But! Springtails are important decomposers in our local ecosystems that eat decaying organic matter. Using a specialized organ at the end of their antennae, called sensilla they taste what lies before them.
It’s a pleasure to introduce another mycophagous insect, the Family Erotylidae, the Pleasing Fungus Beetles! These small, two to 22-millimeter, brown beetles with clubbed antennae use mature mushrooms during their larval and adult stages. Many genera are specific to a group of fungi. Some prefer feeding on the fungal spores or the hyphae of Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus spp.), while others enjoy munching on mushrooms with mycorrhizal associations with tree roots, which includes the brittlegills (Russula spp.) and death cap mushrooms (Amanita spp.).
Mushroom living is not all fun and games, sometimes it’s war! Some species of Ciidae, minute tree-fungus beetles that live in polypores, or bracket fungi (the mini shelves on tree trunks). Males of some Ciid species have horns, presumed to be for fighting off other males or other beetle types within the tunnels of a polypore. During peaceful times, Ciids find their preferred fungi by “sniffing” out the chemicals emitted by the fungi.
Some insects prefer siphoning up the nutrients of the mycelium itself. Slurp, slurp. The white spaghetti-esc mass you may have seen in our local forests is a fungi’s root-like structure, called mycelium. Mycelium is composed of hyphae, which are thin filamentous strands. Aradid, or Flat Bugs of the Family Aradidae use their mouthpart called a stylet, a thin tube-like apparatus to penetrate the hyphae. The stylet can be longer than the insect's own body! From there the Aradid slurps up the fungi’s cell sap or cytoplasm. Mmmmm nutritious.
So next time you peer under a Dryer’s polypore, or the orange cap of a chanterelle, perhaps a fungivorous insect is staring back at you! You can do just that during Whistler Naturalist’s Fungus Among Us Mushroom Festival on October 14 & 15 featuring talks, walks, forest-to-table lunch, and a mushroom display. Some events are sold out, please check our website for updated information and to buy tickets: whistlernaturalists.ca. No ticket is required for the mushroom display at Legend’s Hotel (Creekside) on Saturday from 2:30 to 4 pm (by donation).
Written by: Chloe Van Loon