Sweet Shenanigans: Wheel Bugs

Sheri Sweet

This is another “Sweet Shenanigans.”

One day last October I stepped out onto our porch and noticed a dead bug. As I swung back to kick it off, I remembered our grandson was collecting bugs for fourth grade science.  So, I got a piece of paper and scooped up the bug.  Then I took a GOOD look at it.  It looked like some prehistoric creature! I put it in a plastic bag for Eli and set it aside.  Then I got curious about what it was as I’d never seen this thing before.  I hauled out my bug books and hunted through two of them with no luck!  Hmmm.  Sounds like something rare! So, I went to the trusty internet.  Uhh – how do I search for it if I don’t know what it is??  I thought about it, and feeling rather foolish, I searched for “bug with cog wheel on back”.  Imagine my shock when all this information started pouring out at me!!  A WHEEL BUG!!!  How unique! 

A Wheel Bug is in a group called Assassin Bugs.  Order – Hemiptera; scientific name – Arilus cristatus; family – Reduviidae.  They are about one inch long and range from blackish brown to orange or a mixture.  These bugs have a cog-wheel type of crest on the back of the head and body.  The female is larger than the male. This is a good bug/bad bug.  They are considered beneficial insects in gardens and wooded areas.  They eat cabbage worms, caterpillars, Japanese beetles, etc. And they are also considered pollinators. They like to be in or around homes because of the carbon dioxide we emit when we breathe.  They can be found on the underside of leaves on garden plants.  They can be found under rocks, under cool, dark areas, beneath mulch. 

Most varieties won’t bite humans; however, species in the SW United States are most likely to bite.  AND their bite is described as ten times worse than a wasp or hornet sting with the pain lasting for several weeks up to several months. 

NOTE! We have discovered since this blog originally posted that wheel bugs don’t transmit Chaga’s Disease, just kissing bugs (Eastern Bloodsucking Conenose Triatoma sanguisuga). However, in case you run into a kissing bug, here’s the information on the disease:

Kissing bug, photo by Sue Ann Kendall

Along with the very painful bites, they can also transmit Chaga’s Disease and or Trypanosoma Cruzi.  This is rare in the southern states but will probably become more common.  If untreated, it can later cause serious heart and digestive problems.  The ACUTE phase includes fever, fatigue, rash, body aches, eyelid swelling, headaches, loss of appetite, nausea, diarrhea or vomiting, swollen glands, enlargement of liver or spleen.  The CHRONIC phase causes irregular heartbeat, heart failure, sudden cardiac arrest, difficulty swallowing from enlarged esophagus, stomach pain or constipation due to enlarged colon.  The acute phase may have no symptoms until it becomes chronic OR there may never be symptoms!!

These bugs are considered uncommon in the US.  Hence the reason I didn’t find them in my bug books.  I asked the TPW biologist if she knew what a Wheel Bug was.  She gave me a funny look and said yes.  I told her my story about finding one.  And her reply was “you mean they are already up here?”  These bugs are common in South and Central America and Mexico.  You can draw your own conclusions about this.  I recently presented a little program about this bug to the Lexington Garden Club.  A man there who lives out west from Lexington said they are all over their property. 

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