Back to Nature (Published on - Nov. 16, 2006)
The weird and wonderful
Photo by Rick Tremmel
The fascinating wheel bug appears to have a cog-like wheel emerging from the top of its body.
Scratch, scratch, itch, itch, rub, rub, ouch. Consider that insects outnumber humans by about 1.6 billion to one worldwide. Then it’s no mystery that the odds of coming in contact with an insect or two during our daily maneuvers are a pretty solid bet.

Just think of how many butterflies, dragonflies, houseflies, mosquitoes, love bugs and ants we see each day. And what about the unmentionables, the palmetto bug attempting to scurry under the garage door, the spider nonchalantly spinning a near invisible web upon the brace of the Tiffany lamp or those yucky feelers testing the open air from the hidey-hole, damp darkness of the kitchen sink drainpipe?

“Insects are found in every terrestrial and freshwater eco-system, and are the most numerous and diverse forms of life on Earth …” (The Entomological Society of America).

Humans spend multibillions of dollars in an all-out assault against the insect world, yet barely maintain a peaceful coexistence. 1991 statistics suggest that farmers alone spend approximately $4.1 billion on pesticides annually. We are fighting a loosing battle. We are able to create machines that launch us into space, technology to split atoms, and re-engineer plant cells, but we simply do not have the ability of what appears to be near instantaneous adaptation. We need solutions beyond deadly warfare including companion plantings, natural predators, better monitoring, weather consideration, soil components, environmental compromises and solutions, reduction of broad cast pesticides, stronger crops, household pest management, all the while creating specific solutions for specific problems.

All insects are not created equal in the eyes of humans. There are some insects with better PR than others. What child can resist a giant yellow swallowtail? But how many of us are going to line up to be slathered in honey to attract killer bees? It’s like with everything else, though, we tend to concentrate on the bad bugs while overlooking the billions of beneficial bugs.

One such beneficial insect is the wheel bug, Arilus cristatus L. These insects are not commonly seen, for they are cleverly disguised as tree bark. They appear as mini-armored trucks creeping along the tree trunks sporting a cog-like wheel emerging from the top of the thorax. These “true bugs” are fascinating to watch, but a word of warning – they pack a powerful bite, so keep your distance.

While observing wheel bugs, it seemed that these insects were fairly docile. Upon further research I discovered that scientists reported that the wheel bug, in a lab situation, become accustomed to being handled. I would not personally want to test that theory. Thanks, but no thanks. The bite of the wheel bug can be extremely painful with results lasting up to six months. Nevertheless, this insect is so fascinating and gorgeous I had to take a calculated risk in capturing it for a day for observation.

The wheel bug in captivity moves slowly. Enjoys the warmth of sunshine and seems to like hanging upside down. But upon release, to our surprise, the wheel bug moved with incredible speed. Wheel bugs are beneficial insects acting as predators that feed on caterpillars, moths, and other soft-bodied insects. They help reduce infestations within our gardens. The female lays her eggs that hatch in the spring. The nymphs, however, look very little like their parents dressed in black and bright red coats they are often seen in clusters.

We need insects. Our planet could not survive without insects. It is up to us to find creating sound solutions for coexisting with our fascinating insect world. We can’t live without them so we’ve got to learn to live with them.

Next time you’re bored, take a look around … it is certain you can find an interesting insect nearby of some interest … back to nature.

Karen can be reached at

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