There are few activities that children enjoy more than dressing up and playing pretend.  For children it's just a game, but in the world of insects, this masquerade is often a matter of survival.  Small, defenseless insects serve as food for other animals including birds, bats, moles, shrews, and even insects like mantids, assassin bugs, and hunting wasps.  Surviving an encounter with a predator often depends on deception -- pretending to be someone or something that is not so good to eat.

Mimicry is one type of deception commonly found in the insect world, Like a child with a toy gun, insect mimics are harmless creatures.  They manage to avoid predation only because they look or act like some other unsavory creature.  The viceroy butterfly, for example, is a pleasant tasting insect that predators avoid because its orange and black color pattern resembles the monarch butterfly, a very bad tasting species.  Yellow and black bands on the abdomen of a bee or wasp warn predators of a sting.  Yet many harmless flies and moths also escape predation because they mimic this color pattern.

Other insects deceive predators by blending in with the environment (cryptic coloration).  Like soldiers wearing camouflage, these insects escape detection because they are so difficult to see among the leaves or twigs where they live.  Some insects hide under bits of moss or pieces of bark that they glue onto their backs.  Others resemble leaves, thorns, or dead twigs to escape notice by predators.  Some butterfly larvae look like snakes; others are mistaken for bird droppings.  Cryptic coloration is also used by some insect predators to hide among the leaves or flowers where they lie in wait for prey.

Natural selection is the driving force behind the unique adaptations found among insect copycats.  Whenever a mimic escapes predation and survives to reproduce, it passes on a genetic blueprint for those traits to the next generation.  Over time, this systematic process of preserving some genes and discarding others leads to adaptations that may be surprisingly cunning and intricate.  Mimics are most commonly found in the orders Diptera, Lepidoptera, Orthoptera, and Hemiptera, but other examples also occur in the Coleoptera, Neuroptera, and Psocoptera.



  • Play the M&M Game with your students to demonstrate the importance of cryptic coloration.

  • Hunt for bee and wasp mimics in flower gardens

  • Hunt for cryptically colored orthoptera in a weedy field


Classroom Examples:

Mimicry of Insect Models:
  • Wasps and bees         Example
  • Distasteful insects
  • Ants

  • Cryptic Coloration:
  • Camouflage         Example
  • Disruptive coloration
  • Countershading

  • Mimicry of Other Animals:
  • Snakes
  • Owls and birds

  • Mimicry of Unpalatable Objects:
  • Leaves
  • Thorns
  • Moss and Lichens
  • Sticks and Twigs
  • Excrement

  • Return to ENT 525 HomePage John R. Meyer
    Last Updated:   30 December 2013 Department of Entomology
    NC State University