Reflections in Nature: Shy wheel bug not often seen

Recently, I talked to Patricia Bower, of Warrensville, who wanted information about wheel bugs; however, I had never heard of a wheel bug and needed to do some research. It did not take long before I realized that I had seen a picture of wheel bugs before.

Back in May, our daughter, Holly, who lives in Lancaster County, sent me a picture of insects that had hatched out on a tree limb in the family’s backyard. The newly hatched insects in the picture had bright red abdomens and appeared to be spiders. After looking through several entomology books, I was unable to tell Holly the name of the insects.

In doing research on wheel bugs, I realized that the insects on my daughter’s tree were the newly hatched nymphs of the wheel bug.

Wheel bugs are fairly common in Pennsylvania; however, due to their shyness and blending into the background, the bugs are very seldom seen. They are one of our largest true bugs.

The common name of wheel bug comes from the spiny wheel-like ridges on its back. The crest contains eight to 12 spikes and appears as a wheel.

The wheel bug. which is the only insect with such a crest, will surely be remembered once identified. No one has found an explanation for the bizarre wheel.

Their scientific name is Arilus cristatus, in the order of Hemiptera, which includes stinkbugs, water striders and bed bugs. Although the term bug is used for many different insects, the wheel bug is a true bug, while lightning bugs, ladybugs and June bugs actually are beetles.

The wheel bug is a predator of other insects, especially the Japanese beetles and hairy caterpillars. The wheel bug uses its front feet to pin its victim to the ground and then plunges its beak into the victim.

Enzymes, which are injected into the victim, cause paralysis, allowing the victim’s body fluids to be drained. While wheel bugs prey on other insects that are considered harmful, they are beneficial insects in a garden but definitely not to be handled.

The bite of the wheel bug is painful, with some saying that it is 10 times worse than a hornet’s sting, and could take weeks to heal.

Actually, the wheel bug does not bite but rather pierces the skin with its beak. The infected area will redden and become warm to the touch. The sensation will last several minutes.

If you are bitten, cleanse the wound with soap and water. An old home remedy used to relieve the pain was to crush a leaf of plantain and place over the infected area.

Although the wheel bug is not at the top of the food chain, some spiders, praying mantises and birds do feed upon them.

Along with their painful bite when disturbed, the wheel bug also extends a pair of bright red scent sacs from its anus that release an odor. The scent is not as powerful as that of the stink bug but is strong enough to be detected. Both the bite and odor are warnings to birds to leave them alone.

The wheel bug also shows some cannibalistic behavior and has been known to prey on one another. The female has been known to feed upon the male after mating occurs. Also, the nymphs have preyed on one another after hatching.

Mating occurs in the fall. After being mated, the female will lay from 40 to 200 brown cylindrical eggs on a tree limb. The egg mass, which resembles a honeycomb, is cemented together with a gummy substance, giving protection from the weather, parasites and predators.

After laying the eggs, the female dies. The eggs will winter over and, in the spring, the newly hatched nymphs will disperse and begin hunting for prey. At this time, the nymphs are able to deliver a painful bite and should be avoided.

The nymphs go through five molts throughout the summer and metamorphose into adults by summer’s end.

Although wheel bugs can fly, their flight is compared to that of the grasshopper. The bugs also produce a loud buzzing sound.

Our world is filled with insects, being more numerous than all other living creatures combined. With all of the fascinating facts we have learned about animals, their abilities do not compare with those of the insect world.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.