At any given moment, it’s estimated that 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects are alive and kicking on planet Earth. We don’t blame you if you’re not a fan of them all—but quite a few are actually beautiful, if you look closely enough. (It’s not all murder hornets and cicadas out there!)
From blush-pink mantises to golden beetles, hummingbird-like moths to painterly stink bugs, the world is full of insects that wouldn’t look out of place in an art museum. Here’s everything you need to know about why bugs have evolved this way, plus a look at a few of the most beautiful insects ever discovered.
Why do insects have different colors and patterns?
Bugs have evolved with unique appearances for a few key reasons: camouflage, mating, and protection, explains Akito Y. Kawahara, Ph.D., associate professor and curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida.
By blending into their surroundings, insects like the orchid mantis give predators the slip or become invisible to their prey. Displaying vibrant colors helps bugs like the coastal peacock spider attract mates. And flashier insects like the green milkweed locust, meanwhile, display their colors to warn that they are poisonous or taste bad.
Consider a hairy caterpillar: Those hairs serve a specific purpose, keeping wasps from landing on the caterpillar and appearing unappetizing to birds, Kawahara says. But human beings see them as cute, or at least less freaky than other bugs. “It’s our interpretation, the way human beings perceive what is beautiful and what is gross,” he continues. Other species do the same calculus in a different kind of way.
Another great example of the genius of beautiful insects is the monarch butterfly, Kawahara notes, which feeds on poisonous milkweed as a caterpillar. When it emerges as a full-grown butterfly, its recognizable wings advertise that it tastes nasty—and that it might even kill any predator unlucky enough to eat it. On top of that, other species with similar defenses, including viceroy and queen butterflies, have evolved to look like monarchs, providing extra protection for all three types.
What are the most beautiful insects in the world?
No matter what, remember that all bugs (yes, even that spider hiding in your closet right now!) are worthy of your respect. “We shouldn’t bias ourselves by looking at just the things that are pretty,” Kawahara says. “It’s unfortunate that people don’t think of insects as being awesome, which they really are.”
With so many species to choose from, it’s tough to narrow down the most stunning bugs of the bunch—but here are the ones that really caught our eye:
1. Picasso Bug
What it is: Sphaerocoris annulus
Where it’s from: Tropical Africa
What to know: The aptly named Picasso bug is a stink bug-like insect that uses its distinctive, vibrant markings to warn predators to stay away, per a 2011 study.
2. Orchid Mantis
What it is: Hymenopus coronatus
Where it’s from: Southeast Asia
What to know: Despite their ethereal beauty, the tiny, flower-like orchid mantises are pretty bloodthirsty, using their mimicry to lure in unsuspecting pollinators, which they quickly feast upon.
3. Hummingbird Moth
What it is: Hemaris spp.
Where it’s from: North America, Africa, Europe, and Asia
What to know: No, that’s not a hummingbird—it’s actually a moth! Several species of the day-flying insects are common throughout the world, per the U.S. Forest Service, and they move and feed on nectar much like their avian lookalikes.
4. Cuckoo Wasp
What it is: Chrysis spp.
Where it’s from: Worldwide (except Antarctica)
What to know: Good news: These tiny, iridescent beauties probably can’t sting you—instead, they parasitize other wasps. Their glittering appearance is the result of complex light refraction and a dimpled exoskeleton, and scientists still don’t know why they’re so colorful. (Aside from moths, parasitic wasps like this one are Kawahara’s favorite insects.)
5. Green Milkweed Locust
What it is: Phymateus viridipes
Where it’s from: Southern Africa
What to know: These locusts flash their colorful wings to warn predators—and it’s actually pretty helpful, since they secrete a liquid derived from milkweed plants when threatened.
6. Thorn Bug
What it is: Umbonia crassicornis
Where it’s from: South and Central America, Mexico
What to know: A common pest in southern Florida, the thorn bug has adapted to look strikingly similar to, well, thorns. The insects cling to stems and tree trunks in large clusters, per the University of Florida, making them tough for even humans to spot at first.
7. Rosy Maple Moth
What it is: Dryocampa rubicunda
Where it’s from: North America
What to know: Distinguished by pinks, yellows, and purples straight out of a Starburst wrapper, the rosy maple moth is one of the smallest, with just a two-inch maximum wingspan. Butterflies might be the most beloved winged insects, Kawahara says, but moths are just as interesting.
8. Gray’s Leaf Insect
What it is: Phyllium bioculatum
Where it’s from: Southeast Asia
What to know: Leaves, meet your doppelgängers. These tropical bugs look so much like plants that it’s even tough for us to spot them. The slow-moving herbivores can be green, yellow, orange, or red, and they’re likely unchanged from millions of years ago, per researchers at Virginia Tech.
9. Coastal Peacock Spider
What it is: Maratus speciosus
Where it’s from: Southern Australia
What to know: Like your great-aunt who lives in South Beach, the coastal peacock spider doesn’t believe in dressing down. Made famous by several viral videos, male spiders perform a complex dance routine to court females—and just like their namesake bird, their fabulous colors play a huge role.
10. Golden Tortoise Beetle
What it is: Charidotella sexpunctata
Where it’s from: North and South America
What to know: Found in the vast majority of the United States, the golden tortoise beetle looks like a tiny gold coin with transparent edges. Surprisingly, their brilliant metallic sheen fades when they die, leaving a dull red-yellow color behind.
11. Io Moth Caterpillar
What it is: Automeris io
Where it’s from: North America
What to know: This guy might look as harmless as moss or artificial turf, but the io moth caterpillar packs a painful sting. Its trademark spines can cause welts, itching, and redness (nowhere near as bad as the puss caterpillar, though).
12. Blue Morpho Butterfly
What it is: Morpho menelaus
Where it’s from: South and Central America
What to know: One of the most iridescent creatures anywhere on Earth, the blue morpho butterfly displays a jewel-like hue above and a brown underside below, making them difficult for predators to find and track.
13. Spiny Flower Mantis
What it is: Pseudocreobotra wahlbergii
Where it’s from: Southern and eastern Africa
What to know: The spiny flower mantis clearly likes to show off. With green, pink, yellow, and red variations, the species is cannibalistic and feeds mainly on insects snatched from the air, which are wooed by its swirling patterns. They aren’t always so pretty, though: When they first hatch, they look like black ants.
14. Gooty Sapphire Tarantula
What it is: Poecilotheria metallica
Where it’s from: India and Sri Lanka
What to know: Plain old spiders might be creepy, but cobalt-blue ones are gorgeous. Their blue coloring is likely used to find mates. Unfortunately, sapphire tarantulas are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature due to hunting and loss of habitat.
15. Red Speckled Jewel Beetle
What it is: Chrysochroa buqueti
Where it’s from: Thailand
What to know: Jewel beetles live in every corner of the world, but some of the most spectacular (including this species and its immediate family) call Thailand home. Surprisingly, beetles might actually use vibrant colors as camouflage, not as a warning sign, per a 2017 study.