Handle with care

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.

A wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) (20120625_00415)

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.

Close-up of a wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) showing the distinctive cog-like armor on its back (20120625_00441)

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).

Dorsal view of an adult wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) as it dries (20120625_00457)

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.

A wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) climbing the outside of a storage shed (20121012_04627)

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.

An adult wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) (20121012_04667)

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.

Close-up of a wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) showing its head and proboscis (20121012_04647)

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.

A wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) trying to climb onto the camera lens (20121012_04663)

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.

Close-up of a wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) (20121012_04664)

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.

7 thoughts on “Handle with care”

  1. I remember trying to photograph my first wheel bug as it crawled robotically along the deck railing. I got the camera aimed, and with one eye closed, I was fiddling with the focus when I looked through the camera and realized that the bug was no longer where it had been. “Oh god oh god if it’s not there where is it????” Just on the far edge of the rail, as it turned out, but I was afraid to move, in case it was ON ME. I would have hated to accidentally squish it and provoke its wrath.

    1. That’s so funny, Joy! I think every nature photographer has had similar experiences–taking an eye off the subject long enough for the subject to vanish, then having to wonder if it hitched a ride on us somewhere. And your description is so apt: you definitely don’t want to provoke a wheel bug’s wrath!

  2. Jason,
    Good story and excellent images, as always. I think, however, that the assassin bug’s extensible mouthparts are more appropriately called a stylus (c.f., proboscis). Please correctly me if I’m wrong.

    1. Thanks, Scott!

      As for the mouthparts question, I don’t have a good answer. After some investigation, several notable entomologists (e.g., Alex Wild) call it a proboscis on this species. An almost equal number–including several guide and reference books–call it a beak (for all assassin bugs). And a few people call it a stylus.

      I know technically ‘proboscis’ applies to all similar appendages, from a fly’s mouth to an elephant’s trunk, so in a general sense it’s accurate here as well. But based on what I found, I’m left wondering if ‘beak’ is the more appropriate term and ‘stylus’ is perhaps a descriptive word used by only a few…

      Well, I guess that means I need to investigate further–and even ask some people who would know better than I.

  3. We used to see those on the outside of Farid and Jayne Ann’s apartment off Ferndale, in the evening after the outdoor lights turned on. They and the geckoes would party down on the varied critters that came to the lights. Finding one in my BED in my Uptown apartment was a little much.

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