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Some bugs are ‘buggier’ than others

July 1, 1993

Some bugs are ‘buggier’ than others

By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist

To most people any insect is a bug, but to a biologist who is a specialist in insects, an entomologist, True Bugs belong to the order of insects named the Hemiptera, meaning half-winged insects. I have never heard an appropriate explanation why this group should be called True Bugs, but I once asked a professor of mine this question, and he replied, “I guess it’s because they are ‘buggier’ than other bugs,” an explanation I conditionally accepted.

The name Hemiptera refers to the condition of the wings in the majority of these insects. The typical True Bug has two pairs of wings; the fore wings being thickened about half way from the base, hence the descriptive half-wing. The mouthparts of this group are needlelike and adapted for piercing and sucking.

Close to a million different species of insects have been described, far outnumbering all other animal groups combined. About 24,000 different species of True Bugs have been described worldwide with about 4,600 of that total from America north of Mexico. Beetles, of course, are the most numerous of all insects on earth with more than 300,000 known types, including about 30,000 from this hemisphere.

There are numerous families within the order of True Bugs; a few that most of us are familiar with are water boatmen, back swimmers, bedbugs, ambush bugs, stink bugs, squash bugs, chinch bugs, toad bugs, and assassin bugs.

Another large group of insects was formerly combined with the True Bugs, but has been separated from them by classification experts. They include the cicadas, spittle insects, plant lice, aphids, scales, and some others.

Most species of hemipterans are terrestrial, but some are aquatic. Most of the terrestrial forms pierce plant tissues with their stiletto-like mouthparts and feed on the juices of the plant, and some of these are serious economic pests. For example, the well-known, colorful, harlequin bug, a member of the stink bug family, is often very destructive to cabbage and other cruciferous plants, and seed bugs frequently raise havoc with corn and other soft-bodied seeds.

Many of these bugs are predaceous and feed on other insects. These species generally belong to the assassin or ambush bug families. Many of these can give you a painful bite with their strong beak and irritating saliva (note the formidable beak on the wheel bug in the accompanying photo).

Unfortunately for us and other animals, some bugs have acquired the unsavory habit of feeding on blood. Perhaps the most notorious of the blood feeders are the members of the bed bug family. One species has an affinity for human blood and has plagued man since history has been recorded. These devious insects are flattened in shape and do not have wings. They hide in the nooks and crannies of our beds and linens and come out at night to feed. A World War I veteran, who was a friend of my father, once told me a story of his encounter with bed bugs while undergoing basic training in 1917 at Camp Bowie, Texas. It seems the recruits would awaken each morning with spots of blood on their bed linen. The bunks and the sheets were thoroughly fumigated and the legs of each cot were placed in containers of kerosene, but the bites continued. Finally, the mystery was solved when one man could not sleep and observed the sanguineous insects crawling along the ceiling of the barracks and then dropping down onto the bed of an unsuspecting soldier. And this was before the army had airborne troops! In spite of extended investigations over the years, it has never been determined that bed bugs are the transmitters of any known human disease. Some members of the bed bug family, however, prey on birds and it has long been suspected that they may play a role in the perpetuation of bird-harbored viruses in nature.

A member of the assassin bug family is the kissing bug, or Mexican bed bug. This bloodsucker of man and other animals gets its name from the habit of biting a victim around the mouth and is the vector of the protozoan parasite causing Chagas’s disease in man. This debilitating malady is prevalent in Mexico, Central America, and South America, and it has long been suspected that the naturalist Charles Darwin contracted this disease while sleeping on the pampas of Argentina and was afflicted by it for the remainder of his life.

Chagas’s disease is now known to occur in the southwestern United States. In the late 1950s, while serving at the army’s Medical Field Service School at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, my colleague, Major (Dr.) Hugh Keegan, and I found the parasites in kissing bugs living in armadillo burrows. We also demonstrated the infectious agents in the blood of armadillos and obtained transmission to laboratory guinea pigs. Shortly thereafter, Chagas’s disease was diagnosed for the first time in the U.S. in several patients in south Texas.

A frequent pest in the Rock River Valley is the box elder bug that may invade our homes. It resembles a squash bug and is dark in color with red along the sides. This bug is common in the spring and fall, and sometimes has a reddish body fluid. The reddish fluid has led some to believe erroneously that the bug is a bloodsucker. This sometimes pest only feeds on box elder trees and some other plants.

Though the vast majority of this diverse order of insects is harmless to man, it is best not to pick one up with the bare fingers unless you are sure it is a harmless species.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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