Last year on a warm June morning, my cousin dashed inside to tell me she’d discovered a “large bug” and wondered if I’d seen it. She’d already become supportive of my nature photography, although she remained aloof when it focused on insects. (Admittedly, she progressed a good deal while hanging around me, even going so far as to handle a few moths, something she wouldn’t have considered before she came to visit. There’s more work to do, yes, but progress is progress.)
When asked what the insect looked like, all she could provide was that—again—it was big. All things are relative, so to a young lass such as herself an imposing critter might appear large whilst being miniscule. Still, I hadn’t seen anything overly impressive during my morning rounds, hence I figured she’d found something new for the day. I grabbed my camera and followed her outside.
She led me to a real treat. Still covered with the powder-like residue of sloughed exoskeleton, this 1.5 inch/38mm newly-emerged adult wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) had left behind childish appearances and taken on the unmistakable shape of North America’s largest assassin bug.
As I snapped photos of the sluggish, not-quite-dry insect, I thanked my cousin for bringing it to my attention. I also told her a little about this true bug, which included a warning that she not try to handle them (something that, she reminded me, she wouldn’t dare try—moths were progress enough for the time being).
Though not prone to bite unless handled roughly or startled into defending itself, wheel bugs nevertheless can inflict a memorably painful bite if provoked. And in the worst case, the wound can take months to heal and can even leave behind a permanent scar.
My cousin took careful note of my warnings even as she sheepishly reiterated that she had already come a long way, thank you very much, and had no intention of delving further into the insect handling arena. At least not yet.
I finished her introduction to this species by telling her they are beneficial insects because they hunt other arthropods, including caterpillars, beetles, flies, and anything else they can catch and kill.
In mid October I found another wheel bug climbing the outside of a storage shed. About the same size as the one from earlier in the year, this one had the advantage of being warm and hardened, so it made for a more challenging photographic subject.
The telltale cog-like armor is unique to adult wheel bugs, thus it makes identifying the species quite simple. Other assassin bugs, also capable of biting, don’t possess this feature. Neither does any other species of insect, I should add.
Speaking of biting, this close-up shows the proboscis, the long, tube-like mouthpart below the insect’s head. They swing this mouthpart out and plunge it into their prey—or the unlucky person who provokes them. Paralytic and digestive enzymes are then injected, after which the wheel bug simply drinks its food—the insides of whatever is caught.
An always funny thing about putting the camera lens so close to some wildlife is that the wildlife take it as an invitation to climb aboard the camera. Here its front legs are searching for a grip on the front lens element. Not the first or last creature to try this, it always gives me a chuckle even as I pull back to keep them from hitching a free ride.
Even as the wheel bug tried to climb on, it held still long enough for one final portrait.
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This begins an intermittent series of posts focused on arthropods that can be dangerous if mishandled. I stress “can be” since many critters can be dangerous if pestered enough, while some can be dangerous simply because they have bad attitudes (e.g., water snakes) and others can be dangerous simply as an automatic act of defense (e.g., venomous caterpillars). As I’ve always said, wildlife shouldn’t be handled unless you know what you’re doing and are aware of the risks, if any.