Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Little Bugs with a Big Bite: Minute Pirate Bugs

Sometimes it seems the tiniest of insects is the biggest nuisance. Mosquitoes come to mind, as well as black flies, and "no-see-ums" or "punkies" (biting midges in the family Ceratopogonidae). One other insect often responsible for surprisingly painful bites is the aptly-named "minute pirate bug." There are about 90 species in the family Anthocoridae found in North America, in 22 genera, but only a few cause us grief.

Insidious Flower Bug biting me in Colorado

The Insidious Flower Bug, Orius insidiosus is, appropriately, the species most likely to get under your skin. Well, on your arm, hand, or neck, where it will likely probe you painfully. At only 2-2.5 millimeters, it is possible to overlook it entirely when trying to pinpoint the source of your irritation. In the right light, however, the little bug appears bright white and black.

Despite dispensing unprovoked bites, Orius insidiosus is actually a highly beneficial bug. It is a predator of many crop pests like very young caterpillars of the corn earworm, plus insect eggs, aphids, whiteflies, thrips, and mites. Consequently, this minute pirate bug is reared commercially and sold to farmers as a biocontrol agent.

It takes only twenty days, on average, for O. insidiosus to go from egg to adult. Females lay two eggs per day, and about thirty during their lifetime. Each ovum is deposited in foliage such that the top of the capsule protrudes above the leaf surface. In about four or five days, the first instar nymph emerges from the egg. During the next two or three weeks, the nymph goes through a total of four more instars before transforming into a fully-winged adult bug. The adults live an additional three or four weeks.

Insidious Flower Bug biting me in Kansas

Adult Insidious Flower Bugs overwinter in leaf litter and probably other debris on the ground. Several generations can be produced annually over the insect's wide geographic range. It occurs east of the Rocky Mountains, plus parts of California, and has been introduced to British Columbia. Because it is available commercially, it has likely spread elsewhere, too.

Adult Anthocoris musculus, Colorado

Another species I have found commonly here in Colorado Springs is Anthocoris musculus. It is a real giant by pirate bug standards, measuring 3.4-4.0 millimeters as an adult. I have found it associated with cottonwood trees, and it is well-known from willows and other deciduous trees and shrubs as well as herbaceous plants.

Nymph of Anthocoris musculus, Colorado

It is potentially an important predator in orchards, and has been observed eating red mites and "eye spotted bud moth" in Nova Scotia (Kelton, 1978). This species ranges throughout most of North America including Alaska and northern Canada.

The next time the pirate bug bites, simply utter "Ar-r-r-r!" and remember their beneficial qualities. After all, they are probably keeping your garden free of other tiny pests.

Adult A. musculus feeding on unknown object, Colorado

Sources: "Minute Pirate Bug aka. Orious insidiosus," Evergreen Growers Supply.
Gibb, Tim. 2006. "Have a thick skin when it comes to Insidious Flower Bugs," Purdue Plant & Pest Diagnostic Laboratory, Purdue University Extension
Hull, L.A. and R.L. Horsburgh. "Minute Pirate Bug, Orius insidiosus (Say)," Mid-Atlantic Orchard Monitoring Guide.
Kelton, Leonard K. 1978. The Anthocoridae of Canada and Alaska. Ottawa: Canada Department of Agriculture. Publication 1639. 106 pp. (PDF).
Slater, J.A. and R.M. Baranowski. 1978. How to Know the True Bugs. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers. 256 pp.


  1. May I ask if you've ever heard of bird mites invading homes and biting humans?

    1. Yes, I have definitely heard of bird mites invading homes when their normal hosts (birds) leave a nest built on or in a human dwelling. Mites, however, are entirely different than the *insects* discussed in this post.

  2. I have a tiny winged hemipterid that is biting me, but it doesn't look like the photos here. It is light brown, has a sort of darker brown delta on its thorax, and faint gold and brown striping on its otherwise clear wings. It's tiny, but its bite is very itchy. I'm in East Kansas. Can you help? I'd upload a photo but these comment boxes don't seem to permit it.

    1. Please try the "Forum" tab at the top of the page. There is an option to upload images with your questions. I'm still betting it is a type of minute pirate bug, but we'll see. Thanks.

  3. It appears that the picture of the one biting you in Kansas left a little blemish on your skin, as did one that bit me before. My "scar" went away in a few days. Are these insects actually feeding on us? Can they use as sustenance?

    1. I think it bit me on a freckle....Excellent question. I think a good number of true bugs are just constantly probing to see if the object they are on *is* potential food. That said, I am no expert on this particular group of true bugs.

  4. Hi I live in Ireland and a tiny beetle bit me on the wrist in the garden - it looked like the minute pirate beetle - but is it possible that they live in Ireland?