Thursday, September 13, 2012

BUG OUT! Assassin/Wheel Bugs

Top three most painful experiences of my life?

1. Natural childbirth
2. Injection into space between broken bone
3. Wheel bug bite

It's time to learn about one nasty assassin, my friends. Allow me to introduce you.
Young wheel bug climbing across a flower on my deck. Notice that this immature bug has not yet formed the "wheel" on its back.
Wheel bugs (Arilus cristatus) are grouped with other insects known as assassins. The latin word cristatus means "crested" and these insects are named for the obvious wheel or cog shaped armor on the backs of adults.
Mature wheel bug on my MAILBOX! Note the cog-like "wheel" on its back.
While casually hangin' on my deck on a sunny, spring afternoon, I simply placed my hand around the arm rail of my chair and EXPLETIVE! EXPLETIVE! EXPLETIVE! I experienced an agonizing, electric pain that I pray you, my dear readers, will never know. I had been pierced by a teeny little baby, bright red and black with no visible wheel. Imagine what the bigguns can do...

Nymph Wheel Bug hiding under my banister
I'd seen these insects creeping around for years, but never paid much attention other than noting that they looked a bit like a spider at first glance. Nowadays, I can assure you, I'm always keeping a bulging eye out.


Now I LOVE learning about insects and arachnids, (Catch up if you've missed my previous stories about the praying mantis, painted lady butterflies, stink bugs and pine sawyer beetles) but nothing compares to these bad boys. Wheel bugs are in a whole new league of mean.

Much like the praying mantis, wheel bugs are known to turn cannibal, often after mating. Nymphs will also chow down on each other during vicious outbursts of teenage angst- bug style.
Young nymph wheel bug stalking a fly on my deck this spring
Thought the praying mantis' affinity for decapitation was brutal to the max? Think again. The wheel bug jabs its freakishly massive syringe-like beak into its victim, instantly injecting it with saliva that literally causes its prey's insides to turn to goo! Then, like a kid with a milkshake straw, the wheel bug slurps up all the innards and goes on its way. Yipes. 
So glad I was paying attention before I opened my mailbox.
Never seen a wheel bug? Oh, they're there, all over the United States. These stealthy hunters camouflage themselves to blend in with their environment and try to avoid humans. These nasty mama jamas don't want to come into contact with us, but if you accidentally place your hand into a garden or onto a fence where a wheel bug was scoping out caterpillars, you are at risk for a monster pierce.
I, very carefully, captured the wheel bug on our mailbox. Here she is under the magnifying glass lid.  Here you can see her wings on top of her back.
You'll find nymphs (like this one) in the spring and adults in the fall.
And oh...if the Fates are working against you and you do find yourself in wheel bug agony, I extend my deepest condolences. Check out this resource for more information about the wheel bug, pierce prevention and first aid treatment.

I managed to snag the scary creepster hanging out on my mailbox this September. Because mature wheel bugs do fly, I was very careful (and rather stealthy if I do say so) in my collection. This bug, however, was NOT one I allowed my daughters to handle in the jar. I held the jar throughout all our observations to prevent accidental escape.
Can you see the stinging beak on this bugger?!?
Interestingly, we observed a pungent, foul odor escaping from the collection jar as soon as we had our wheel bug in captivity. I learned that, much like stink bugs, the wheel bug emits one hardcore STANK from its anus when threatened. Ugh. Clearly, you just don't want to mess with these guys.

Underside of the wheel bug I captured...after it released its STINK BOMB
But...don't go squishin' them, for Pete's sake! I know. I know. It's not ideal knowing they're out there, hunting gooey innard Slurpees. I most certainly do not enjoy constantly scanning our deck and property to make sure none of us surprise a wheel bug again.

Please know, however, that these creatures cause no harm to the environment and are actually considered beneficial predators. Try your darndest to observe them from a safe distance, learn about them and leave them to carry on with their disgusting biz. Different strokes for different folks, right?
Yeah. She looks beastly, but she's definitely equipped to assassinate all your garden pests!
Totally fascinating creatures though, don't ya think? The wheel bug may have one brutal bite, but the benefits of their existence most definitely outweigh the risk of an accidental sting.

Wanna learn more? Who can blame you? Here are a few more captivating sites I uncovered in my research. 

Amazing photo of an nymph wheel bug taking a bee as its prey.
For professional images of nymph wheel bugs, check this out.
Here's an awesome article on assassins and their behaviors and some absolutely SLAMMIN' photos.

Any cool stories or experiences with wheel bugs? I'd love to hear them! Always an open forum.
Be on the lookout! So much to see...

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