Despite all its shiny metal and glass, Singapore has a huge amount of green space and an amazing array of wildlife. Here, we take a closer look at some of the creepy-crawlies on the island, and discover a few things we didn’t know about the insects of Singapore.
#1 Singapore insects: Too many critters to count
If they had thumbs, insects would likely give Singapore the thumbs-up. They love this place! Thousands of insect species are found here, including more than 300 different butterflies, 120 dragonflies, 250 grasshoppers and hundreds of ants, moths, beetles and more. New species are added all the time too; a recent biodiversity study on Pulau Ubin revealed the first appearance of the Swamp Tiger Butterfly in Singapore, along with a spider with two sets of red legs that hasn’t been described anywhere else in the world to date.
#2 Lots and lots of legs
While the “centi” prefix in the word centipede means 100, Singapore’s largest centipede, the Scolopendra, only has 42 legs. That’s still 40 or so more than we want crawling over us…
Actually, having read about the giant centipede, as Scolopendra is known, we don’t want it anywhere near us at all. This 15cm nasty is not only a fast runner, but its venom really packs a punch. Aside from easily overpowering cockroaches, lizards and other prey, it’ll even have a crack at something bigger like a mouse.
Centipedes in Singapore do bite humans from time to time, usually on the feet or legs. Fortunately, while there can be some minor medical complications, the result is rarely life-threatening.
#3 Buzz off!
Mosquitoes are a prevalent insect here thanks to the hot, wet climate. And this means that mosquito-borne diseases are also present. Unfortunately, Singapore is home to the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is the principal “vector” for spreading dengue fever. Last year was a record year for dengue cases in Singapore, with the total number of cases in the vicinity of 40,000 – easily surpassing the previous record of around 22,000 cases in 2013.
Mosquitoes spread more than just dengue, too, so do take precautions not to be bitten. Use insect repellent with DEET, wear long-sleeved tops and trousers, and be particularly vigilant when doing activities in the outdoors.
#4 Wretched ’roaches
These little scuttlers love the humidity. The one you’re likely to see most is the Periplaneta americana, or American cockroach. It tends to prefer foraging outside, but will come into buildings for sustenance when required. If you see large numbers of smaller cockroaches in one place, it’s more likely you’re dealing with the German cockroach (Blattella germanica). They tend to love hiding behind appliances and in wall cavities, for example. Less common, but also a happy house-dwelling insect in Singapore, is the Supella longipalpa, or brown-banded cockroach. (Look for the cute stripes across its back!)
Whichever ones you happen to spot, if you have a roach problem you can’t contain, think about calling a pest-control company. Cockroaches can be detrimental to human health due to all the germs and allergens they host.
#5 A favourite butterfly flutters by
Some flora-loving readers will know that the Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid is Singapore’s official national flower (since 1981). But did you know there’s also a national butterfly? Well, of sorts. While it’s not actually officially recognised as a national butterfly, the Common Rose did emerge as the nation’s favourite in a public contest back in 2015, beating the likes of the Painted Jezebel and Common Tree Nymph.
Helping this butterfly win the vote were the red and white patterns on its wings, reminiscent of Singapore’s national flag. The Common Rose spends most of its time in the island’s forests, though you will see it from time to time feeding on flowers in parks and gardens.
#6 Our eight-legged friends
Technically, spiders aren’t insects, but we couldn’t keep them off our list of creepy-crawlies. There are close to 100 different species of spider in Singapore, and the arachnophobes among you won’t be pleased to hear that this includes a few big ones. Both the Singapore Black Tarantula and the Singapore Blue Tarantula can grow to a body size of over 5cm and a leg span of over 20cm. They’re found in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, by the way, in case you’d like to replot your current weekend walking routes.
The Singapore Blue is actually the name of a popular pet tarantula in some parts of the world, though it’s believed that this may be a different variety to our rarely found beast.
#7 Speaking of spiders…
Our favourite Singapore spider? Definitely David Bowie. Yep, that’s its name: Heteropoda davidbowie, or the David Bowie Spider. The title was bestowed in 2008 by Peter Jäger, who was not only a fan of the singer but also thought the spider’s orange hairs gave it a bit of a Ziggy Stardust look. This is a huntsman spider, which means it chases its prey rather than spinning a web; it can also mate for up to eight hours, which definitely makes it a rock star in our books.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, there’s also a horse fly named after Beyonce and a moth named after Donald Trump. Not sure if those are in Singapore, though!
#8 Stingy thingies
Not to stir up a hornet’s nest, but Singapore is home to several species of hornet, wasp and bee – and they can inflict a decent sting. We can count ourselves lucky though, as there’s no sign of the world’s largest hornet here. The Vespa mandarinia, or Asian giant hornet, measures almost 5cm in length and has a 6mm stinger for injecting a heap of potent venom. In Japan, it causes up to 50 deaths a year; yet, though it’s been found as close as Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, Singapore has so far escaped its wrath.
The news isn’t all good: our most common hornet species is the lesser-banded hornet (Vespa affinis), which is still capable of causing a fatal anaphylactic shock.
Of more than 130 bee species in Singapore, the most common is the giant honey bee. But we prefer the sound of another commonly-found specimen: the stingless bee!
#9 Letting nature lie
Fascinated by all the above? You might be tempted to relive your childhood bug-catching days by capturing a specimen or two for further examination. Our suggestion? Don’t! There are plenty of good reasons for this, most of them stemming from general common sense; others are outlined in legislation such as the Parks and Trees Act, in Singapore’s CITES obligations and elsewhere. Don’t forget, too, that for all their icky-looking legs, hairs and pincers, every insect benefits humans in some way.
#10 Head to a museum for more
While nothing beats a first-hand encounter out in the wild, you can see plenty of Singapore’s critters in various museum settings, including in their live state at “Butterflies Up-Close”, an exhibition at the Science Centre Singapore (science.edu.sg), at Sentosa’s Butterfly Park & Insect Kingdom (sentosa.com.sg) and in preserved format at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg).
A shorter version of this article first appeared in the February 2021 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase a copy or subscribe so you never miss an issue.
Keen to read another nature story? Discover more about the plants of Singapore for starters!