The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – Wheel Bugs

When bad bugs go good!
I encountered this pair of wheel bugs on the screen door. They totally ignored me as I moved around in an attempt to get a decent photo.

A Pair of Wheel Bugs on the Porch Screen

A Pair of Wheel Bugs on the Porch Screen

The wheel bug can be identified by the arched wheel-like structure on its back. As in the photo, they are generally gray in color and the females may grow to a body length of two inches. Males are smaller. There is only one species of wheel bug in North America and they are found from Rhode Island, south and west to Texas.

The Good
Wheel bugs—both juveniles and adults—are voracious predators praying on many soft-bodied insects that attack and damage garden, crop, and orchard plants. In late summer or early fall, the female lays up to 200 eggs on a tree branch or twig. The cluster looks like a miniature beehive. The larvae or juvenile wheel bugs look much like tiny adults and gradually grow to adulthood.

Wheel Bug Egg Case with Red-Bodied Hatchlings--Essentially Miniature Adults

Wheel Bug Egg Case with Red-Bodied Hatchlings–Essentially Miniature Adults

The Bad
They have strong piercing mouth parts and can inflict a painful bite—some say it is much worse than a hornet’s sting and the bite and pain may persist for several weeks. The saliva of the wheel bug includes an enzyme that paralyzes and dissolves its prey’s internal organs, which may account for the longer lasting symptoms of an inflamed bite.

Fortunately, few people are bitten for several reasons. They are more or less solitary in nature—they do not gather in groups, so they are encountered only individually. They usually remain hidden among the leaves of the plants where they hunt. They are not aggressive and usually try to avoid contact. The only time they bite is when they are handled or threatened. They are often found in orchards—that is a good thing because of the harmful insects they eat. However, if you happened to grasp the limb or an apple one is sitting on, you could be bitten.

The Ugly
Well, that is sort of self-explanatory. I believe I have seen adaptations of these as monster aliens in low-budget science fiction movies. Wheel bugs are true “bugs,” belonging to the Order Hemiptera. Stink bugs and bed bugs are more familiar “true bugs.” The term “bug” is often used for any creepy-crawly insect. Insects such as lady bugs and lightning bugs are not “true bugs,” but are beetles.

The Black-and-White Photo is actually more Accurate Color

The Black-and-White Photo is actually more Accurate Color

As a close relative of the stink bug, wheel bugs also emit a strong, but less noticeable odor that probably helps discourage predators such as birds and lizards that eat insects.

For those who must know:
Order: Hemiptera (the true bugs)
Scientific Name: Arilus cristatus
Range: Rhode Island south and west to Texas
Life Cycle: Simple metamorphosis (hatchlings look similar to adults—they just grow up)

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2 Responses to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – Wheel Bugs

  1. So many things that bite and sting…I can’t say I’m particularly attracted to this example, although the entymology is fascinating. You have to ask – when two bugs get together, what do they talk about?

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