Thursday, April 2, 2009

Jeezum! What Is The Flipping Deal With All These Fetching Box Elder Bugs?

My recent rant on Winter seems only to have angered her more (and isn’t that just like a stalker? I am telling you, you cannot reason with them!) But I’ve been teased by Spring, and I can’t get Spring-like thoughts out of my mind. I mentioned how lovely the weather was Saturday, and I went on about biking and Meadowlarks and such. But the sign of Spring that everyone in my family noticed was something else.

When I moved to Utah in the mid-nineties, there were 4 things I encountered during my first year that I did not expect. You probably think I’m going to list some things about religion, or the liquor laws or slot canyons some such, but you’re wrong. I knew about all those things long before I moved here. No, the first surprise was thermal inversions, which I’ve already blogged about.

All About Cursing In Utah

The second surprise was the whole, weird Alternative Cursing Lexicon here in Utah. Many people raised in Utah seem just a bit more averse than folks in other parts of the US to swearing or taking the Lord’s name in vain casually. That wasn’t a huge surprise, but what was a surprise was that in place of “regular” cursing”, a whole strange alternative lexicon of “pseudo-curses” has apparently evolved over time. Examples include “Fetch”, “Flip”, “Gol!”, “Jeezum”, “Oh My Heck!”, “Bullcrap”, and “The F-Bomb”, among others*. And native-Utahns will use-and even conjugate- these words just like we- er, pardon me- just like some people use “regular” curse words, such as in “Fetch! I broke my flippin’ derailleur!”

*Awesome Wife’s all-time favorite = “Oh For Tender!”

fry sauce The third surprise was Fry Sauce, which I won’t get into, because if you live in Utah you already know all about it, and if you don’t, it’s not really worth explaining.

Personal Trivia Factoid: Over the past decade I have come to love fry sauce. I am the only non-native Utahn I know who puts fry sauce on burgers.

Box Elder Pic1 But the fourth surprise, and the point of this post, was/is Box Elder Bugs, Boisea rubrolineatus (pic left), which, as everyone in Utah knows, come out of the woodwork the first few warm days of Spring, as well as on scattered, warm “Indian Summer”-like days in the Fall. No really, I mean it- they actually come out of the woodwork, as in the woodwork of your house, as I’ll explain in a moment.

btriv1 Box Elder Bugs occur across North America, coincident with the range of their favorite food source and home, Box Elder Trees. The Box Elder, Acer negundo, is one of Utah’s 3 native Maples, and though Box Elder Bugs favor that tree- specifically female A. negundo (Box Elder trees are dioecious, meaning trees are either male or female)- they’ll also make use of other Maples and even Ash species. There are 2 species of Box Elder Bug, which look (and behave) pretty similar: B. rubrolineatus from the Rockies West (and therefore here in Utah), and B. trivittata (pic right) East of the Rockies.

When I first encountered Box Elder Bugs I was highly disturbed. On the first (in a while) bright warm sunny day, they are everywhere, particularly on or near sunny windowsills, and when I first laid eyes on them, my first thoughts were of Cockroaches. german_cockroachI went to college in Philadelphia, during which time I resided in a succession of dorm rooms and apartments that were invariably roach-infested. My college years are a bit hazy now, but some of my clearest memories are of killing roaches with my bare hand and detonating chemical fog-bombs in my dorm room. So my first thoughts were, “Great. Utah Cockroaches.” But as I’ve learned about Box Elder Bugs I’ve found out that they’re far more benign than my collegiate nemeses.

The first thing worth knowing about Box Elder Bugs is that they are a True Bug. A lot of people- me most of all- throw the term “bug” around pretty loosey-goosey as sort of a catch-all phrase for all kinds of invertebrates, including insects, spiders, scorpions and woodlice. cockroach-mouthparts But to a real entomologist (like this guy- cool blog), the word “bug” has a very certain meaning, specifically an insect of the order Hemiptera, which includes 80,000 species of insects which all have similar characteristic mouthparts. In a True Bug, the mandibles (crush /biting /cutting mouthparts) have joined with the maxillae (steadying/ manipulating/ chewing mouthparts) to form a proboscis, which is a specialized beak-ish structure used to pierce tissues and suck out liquids.

What kinds of tissues and liquids? Usually plant tissues and sap, but not always, as we’ll see in a moment.

There are other defining features as well; Hempiterans often have partially-hardened forewings, as do Box Elder Bugs, which is different from Beetles (order = Coleoptera), which have fully-hardened forewings. But the deal with the mouthparts/proboscis is the key differentiator.

cockroach-mandibles-big In my defense, Cockroaches look at first glance a lot like a True Bug. But to an entomologist the difference is obvious; the mouthparts are all wrong*; Cockroaches have distinct mandibles and maxillae. (diagram right)

*The wings are wrong, too.

In addition to Box Elder Bugs, you’re already familiar with lots of True Bugs. Aphids, Cicadas, Leafhoppers and Stink Bugs (Shield Bugs) are all True Bugs, as are- get ready for it- Bedbugs.

Geeky-But-Cool-Side-Note: The phylogeny, or family tree, or Hemiptera is in flux. Traditionally Hemiptera has been divided into 2 orders, Homoptera, which includes Aphids and Cicadas, and Heteroptera, which includes Box Elder and Stink Bugs. But it now appears that Cicadas are more closely-related to Box Elder and Stink Bugs than they are to Aphids, making Homoptera a paraphyletic grouping. This is exactly the same deal we saw last summer when we looked at Mules Ears and Balsamroots in the Wasatch: recent DNA evidence forcing biologists to reassess groupings of and relationships between different species, and it’s a great example of why now is such an exciting and revolutionary time in biology.

Stink Bug aka Shield Bug Tangent: Stink Bugs- also called Shield Bugs, for their shield-like shape- which are a worldwide group including over 5,500 species, are the second-most common insect we see inside of our house in the warmer months. I’m not sure, but I think the most common species we find indoors here in Utah is this guy, the Consperse Stink Bug, Euschistus conspersus.

Confusingly, there is another group of insects called “Stink Bugs” here in the Intermountain West, which are not actually Stink Bugs, or even True Bugs. darkling beetle2 You’ve undoubtedly seen- and probably run over- these guys if you mtn bike singletrack along the Wasatch. They’re Darkling Beetles, of the genus Eleodes, and are Beetles and therefore not True Bugs. They’re called “Stink Bugs” for their chemical defense: like true Stink Bugs, they spray foul-smelling chemicals from their rear ends when threatened, though they evolved this mechanism completely independently (yet another nice example of convergent evolution, like Vultures, as well as CAM and C4 photosynthesis.) They’re a favorite food of mice, who have figured out how to roll them over in a manner to avoid the spray.

Bedbugs (pic below, left) have put the proboscis architecture to a more dastardly (to us) purpose; they pierce animal tissues and suck blood. Bedbugs, by the way have one of the weirdest and creepiest sex lives/anatomy in the animal world. bedbug1I won’t get into it here, but David Quammen’s book Flight Of The Iguana provides a riveting description. But in contrast to Bedbugs, as well as many of the other invertebrates we’ve looked at, the sex lives of Box Elder Bugs are pretty vanilla. There are no parthenogenetic females (Aphids), no deceptive, mate-stealing triploid-females (Weevils), no “throw-away” chromosomally haploid males (Bees, Ants, Wasps) and no mate-devouring females (Black Widows.) Genetically, Box Elder Bugs reproduce very much like us: gender is chromosomally determined by the male, who provides either an X or Y chromosome, while females are always XX.

water_strider Side Note: Not all Hempiterans use the XY system of sex determination. Many True Bugs, including Water Striders (pic right) and Water Bugs, use what is called the “X0” system, whereby females have 2 “X”’s, males have a single “X”, and there’s no such thing as a “Y”. An interesting corollary of an X0 system is that every male in the species is aneuploid, having an odd number of chromosomes.

molevole1Tangent: There’s actually a mammal that’s been found whose males have no “Y” chromosome, and when I learned of it I thought that it might be a mammalian example of an X0 system, but it turns out to be even weirder. The male Mole Vole, Ellobius lutescens, native to the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains has a single “X” and no “Y” chromosome. But females also have only a single “X”, and the sex determinant seems to be our old friend the SRY gene, which apparently sits on some “X”’s. So all Mole Voles- male and female- have an odd number of chromosomes. This critter is the subject of much interest to biologists because it hints at a possible evolutionary future for us mammals with our strangely shrinking (over the evolutionary time-scale) Y chromosome, but that’s something I’ll have to leave for another post…

bxelder matingAnd speaking of mating, that’ll happen soon enough. When you see Box Elder Bugs scurrying around on that first warm day, what’s going on is this: last Fall, as the weather cooled, they migrated toward any warm spot, in an attempt to conserve energy and remain alive*. They congregated on the sunny, South-facing walls of your house, and when the sun went down, they crawled inside, through cracks and windowsills, trying to stay warm. When Winter set in, they went into hibernation.

*2 quick clarifications here. First, they technically don’t “hibernate”; that’s something specific to mammals. But they go “dormant” in a very hibernation-like way. Second, I read somewhere that only females “hibernate”, but couldn’t confirm that in time for this post.

When bright sunlight again warms the South-facing walls, the bugs wake up and start scrambling. They want to get back outside, eat, mate, and lay eggs. They don’t want to stay indoors; a Box Elder Bug doesn’t lay eggs or reproduce indoors. When you see them scurrying around your windowsill, they are lost; they’re trying to get outside.

Side Note: When I learned this, a light bulb went on for me: We’ve lived in our current home for 7 years. In all that time I have never found a Box Elder Bug in a North-facing room. All the rooms we’ve ever seen/found them in- kitchen, dining room, family room, office, master bedroom- are all South-facing.

hem_boxelder_bug_and_nymph05 When and if they get outside they’ll start eating. Their favorite food is Box Elder seeds, which is why they’re drawn to the female trees. After a couple of weeks of eating and sunning, you’ll see them mating* everywhere, facing away from each other, joined at the rear (pic right). The female then lays her eggs (pic below, left) in crevices of the bark of female A. negundo. The nymphs (pic right, in left of photo), which look like little adults** but with bright red bodies and underdeveloped wings can be found come Summer, often congregating on their favored trees. And speaking of wings, Box Elder Bugs are lousy flyers; ~20 feet is usually the limit of a single flight segment, though a chance wind may catch one and drop it a couple of miles away.

*If, even after reading this post, you feel you simply must squash Box Elder Bugs, at least have the decency not to do so while they’re mating. That’s just wrong.

**Another distinguishing characteristic of all True Bugs is that the form of he young is the same basic structural form as the adults; they don’t undergo any kind of radical metamorphosis, as do moths or butterflies, for example.

box elder eggs Although many True Bugs are serious agricultural or garden pests, Box Elder Bugs really aren’t. In extreme cases they can damage or partially defoliate a female Box Elder or other Maple, but that’s really rare.

And that’s the most important thing to know about Box Elder Bugs; they’re not really pests. They don’t eat garbage, they don’t lay eggs in your cupboards, they don’t come out at night and crawl across your face. They’re just trying to get outside. They don’t bite or spread disease, so when you see one on the window sill, you might consider just picking it up and letting it go outside*.

*Or squash it if you want. They’re not endangered, and I’m not enough of bleeding heart to tell you to spare a bug or anything, but they really don’t do us any harm.

Postscript: I’ll be offline for a few. OC Rick, Clean Colin, Aurora Coryalis and I are responding to the Never-Ending Winter with pure, selfish cowardice: We’re abandoning our families and fleeing down to St. George/Hurricane for a weekend of desert mtn biking and camping.

Post-Postscript: Oh Fetch! This invertebrate-oriented post reminds me- I totally flipping forgot to do the Costa Rican Creepie-Crawlie Bonus Post! Crap. Well, I know it’s late, but I could probably squeeze it in next week sometime, if there’s interest. 3 or more “Yes, Do It” comments and I’ll do it.


WheelDancer said...

I live in MN and owned a south-facing house in a rural setting with hundreds of Box Elder trees and, you guessed it, thousands of Box Elder Bugs. There were spring and fall days that when I came home there were so many of them the house nearly changed color. I never got a picture of the hoard which is a shame but the house and my ownership of a digital camera didn't overlap.

I did learn that a mixture of laundry detergent sprayed on them and the areas they chose to sit cut their numbers way down. I mostly just did this on the garage door since without the deterrent there was such an enormous cloud of them when the door was opened. I don't miss them in my new home.

Christopher Taylor said...

A couple of pedantic corrections (because I had to get my quota in for the day):

Hempiterans often have partially-hardened forewings

The partially-hardened forewings are a particular feature of Heteroptera. Other Hemiptera don't have them.

Another distinguishing characteristic of all True Bugs is that the form of he young is the same basic structural form as the adults; they don’t undergo any kind of radical metamorphosis, as do moths or butterflies, for example.

Well, yes and no. Hemiptera don't have holometabolan larvae like butterflies and beetles, but some of them still have pretty complex developmental changes. Scale insects (which are also Hemiptera) are about the worst. Females hatch out as leggy, mobile nymphs, find a suitable host plant, then moult into a legless blob and never move again. Males hatch out as mobile, leggy nymphs, find a host, moult into a legless blob, then regrow their legs when they reach maturity and become mobile winged fliers.

Brandon said...

Yes do it!

Unknown said...

Yes, please. Do the post.

kel said...

here's your "yes, do it" trifecta. bring on the creepie crawlies!

Dale said...

Yes, do it! (Just in case you needed more than three encouraging comments.)

Kori said...

Forget the bugs (just for a second), let's focus on the fry sauce! I thought it was funny that not only did you reference it directly, you also subtly slipped it into the picture of you and your Mormon friends. My experience with "fry sauce" was actually as a condiment for avocados, of all things. Jeezum, that's one delish condiment! (and I'm from NJ, where we are NOT shy about real curse words).

Okay, now you can get back to the bugs!

WheelDancer said...

Another off-topic comment; I am wondering how you get your posts so nicely formatted. Blogger seems to mash up the text and photos horribly for me any insight you might have would be greatly appreciated! Private reply would be fine if you don't want to bore your other readers...
wheeldancer at thoughtmagic dot com


Watcher said...

OK that’s more than 3 yeses! I’ll do the creepie-crawlie post, probably sometime mid-next-week.

Christopher- thanks for jumping in with the corrections. I really appreciate your help and expertise.

Kel- you finally commented! Yay!

Kori- avocadoes AND fry sauce? 2 of my favorite fatty delights together at the same time? I will have to try it, but fear I may just faint from pleasure!

WheelDancer- I use Microsoft LiveWriter beta, available free here. The Blogger editor will drive you nuts if you try anything but the simplest formatting of photos and graphics, and it’s wildly inconsistent between IE and FireFox. (My pre-August posts were done with the Blogger editor, and you can really see the difference.)

LiveWriter is a cinch, formats easily and nicely. My only nits are a) I have problems embedding videos cleanly (which is why I usually just link to a youtube video), b) The formatting of text in a large font sometimes spreads outside the area you selected (so I typically do my big orange headers as a final step in Blogger) and c) once you change text color from black to something else, you can change it to another color, but never back to black.

BTW your previous home sounds like quite the invertebrate show. I will quit complaining about the relative few I find in/on my house.

Anonymous said...

Watcher - this was really a well-done post. I've got a soft spot for certain hemipterans, not boxelder bugs, but treehoppers.

The bug in the photo that you refer to as the consperse stink bug is actually a leaf-footed bug (family Coreidae) - looks like a species of Leptoglossus. They stink just like stink bugs but are in another group.


Sally said...

I'm sure glad you explained all those funny words in the title for us out-of-staters! You had me boggled.

I used to call these guys (not the box elder bugs, the other ones) shield bugs too, but saw my error in the field one day, as outlined in
this post... or maybe I'm wrong yet again, being no kind of bug authority. One of us ought to straighten us out, W! Your "consperse stink bug" sure looks like my guy.

More authoritatively, you might check out: and on Wikipedia. Or maybe we're both out to lunch on these guys, so to speak?

Sally said...

Now about that fry sauce. Is that the homeblend of ketchup and mayo that we used to call "Russian dressing" in my childhood? Sure looks like it.

Yes, do it. (Redundant at this point, I know.)

Again, this post and any creepy crawly CR one would be good fodder for Honor an Invert Day at Life Photo Meme (yesterday). Or Circus of the Spineless. Just do it!

My word verify is "giseshem"--does that qualify as a Utah curse word? Or something you say when someone sneezes?

Anonymous said...

Just to follow up on the "shield bug" question - shield bugs and stink bugs are actually two different things. They are very closely related and are, thus, very similar in appearance, so it's understandable that they might be confused. The difference is in the scutellum - a plate on the middle of the back between the wing bases. In stink bugs, this plate is small and triangular in shape, while in shield bugs it is very large and covers much of the dorsal surface. Stink bugs are the more commonly encountered of the two.

Assassin bugs are another completely different group within the Hemiptera - the list goes on and on...


Kent Peterson said...

If you're in a poetic mood, check out the book "Boxelder Bug Variations" by Bill Holm. It's wonderful.

Oh and add my "heck yes" to the votes for more bug posts.

Anonymous said...

Another non-native Utahn who loves fry sauce here. Love the blog, I'm learning a lot about PLTs from you. Thanks, Dave

KB said...

I live in a place where I don't think that we have Box Elder Trees (8200' in Colorado) but I think that we have a few of these bugs in our house every fall. Do they eat other deciduous trees?

I agree about the weather - after some spring bike riding, the winter blast of heaps of snow is driving me nuts.

KristenT said...

Yes, do it! The CR posts lack closure without creepy crawlies!!

By the way: congrats on one year, and congrats on a well-written, interesting and smart blog. Love it!!!

Watcher said...

Sally- yes, Fry Sauce is basically Ketchup+mayo, though some "higher-end" places (like Acme Burger in downtown SLC) tart it up a bit with I'm not sure what.

Kent- finally had a few moments to check out BEB Variations. Looks fascinating. I'll add it to my (ever-growing) to-read list. Thanks for the recommendation.

KB- I haven't found mention in descriptions of the BE Bug's diet of anything but Box Elder, Maple and Ash. (Doesn't mean they don't eat other stuff, only that I haven't found mention of it. Ted: do you know?) I don't think there are any Ashes near you. What about Rocky Mtn Maple (Acer glabrum)? You guys have any of that growing streamside near you?

Dave & Kristen- Thanks for the kind words, I really appreciate it. And Dave, it makes me feel good to know there's at least one other non-native convert to fry sauce!

Unknown said...

I'm from and live in Colorado and I have "bugs" like this in my door way. They sure do look a lot like the Chagas bug or the "kissing" bug. Idk?..... Eeeewweww either way.