Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Small Milkweed Bug

One insect that can be found at virtually any time of the year is the colorful Small Milkweed Bug, Lygaeus kalmii. Contrary to its common name, this insect feeds on a variety of plants, not just milkweeds. The adult bugs overwinter and often emerge from cracks and crevices on warm winter days. I found one here in Colorado Springs just last week (January 21), in our backyard.

The Smaller Milkweed Bug does not even confine itself to vegetation. It is an opportunistic scavenger on dead insects, and may even prey on the eggs of the Swamp Milkweed Beetle (Labidomera clivicollis), larvae and pupae of the Monarch butterfly, and on other insects trapped by the sticky pollenia in milkweed flowers. I once spotted a pair of adult Small Milkweed Bugs sharing a dead honeybee on a curb in Tucson, Arizona. Adult bugs also feed on the nectar of flowers

These are not large or otherwise imposing insects. Adults measure about 10-11 millimeters in body length. The bright red, black, gray, and white colors warn of the toxic properties of L. kalmii. The bugs, in the nymphal stage, preferentially feed on milkweeds (Asclepias spp.), and so ingest the plant’s defensive chemicals. The bug is not only impervious to the effects of these noxious compounds, but actually sequesters them in special compartments along the edges of its abdomen and thorax.

The chemicals, known as cardiac glycocides, are known to trigger heart arrhythmias and other distressing if not potentially fatal consequences in vertebrate animals. No surprise then that the Small Milkweed Bug is seldom if ever a victim of vertebrate predators; and even spiders and predatory insects tend to avoid them.

Milkweed bugs are in the family Lygaeidae, collectively known as “seed bugs,” and indeed it is the seeds of the host plant that make up the diet of nymphs. Besides milkweed, L. kalmii will feed on the seeds of other plants, especially composites like asters and such. I have also seen them regularly on oleander, a popular landscape plant in Arizona and elsewhere. The Small Milkweed Bug can therefore be considered a “generalist” rather than a specialist or obligate feeder on milkweed.

The range of this species is over virtually the entire U.S. and adjacent southern Canada, but it can be confused with other species of Lygaeus, particularly L. turcicus, the False Milkweed Bug. Note the difference in markings on the head: L. kalmii has a red basal spot or vertical bar on the head, whereas L. turcicus has a Y-shaped marking. The latter species also has few, if any, white markings on the black membrane of the front wing.

Lygaeus turcicus, False Milkweed Bug

Some years tend to be better than others for the Small Milkweed Bug. Here in Colorado Springs, last summer and fall they were everywhere, even outnumbering the usually abundant Eastern Boxelder Bug. It would be interesting to find out what triggers these population booms and busts. Unusually regular, heavy summer rains might have been the reason here last year, providing an abundance of food.

I do like to think of the Small Milkweed Bug as the very definition of persistent, adaptable, hardy, and colorful. What’s not to like about a non-pest bug that can brighten up even an urban vacant lot?

Sources: Berenbaum, May R. 1993. Ninety-nine More Maggots, Mites, and Munchers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 285 pp.
Evans, Arthur V. 2008. National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. 497 pp.
Fox, Charles W. and Roy L. Caldwell. Wheeler, A.G., Jr. 1983. “The Small Milkweed Bug, Lygaeus kalmii (Hemiptera: Lygaeidae): Milkweed Specialist or Opportunist?” J. N.Y. Entomol. Soc. 91(1): 57-62.
Root, Richard B. 1986. “The Life of a Californian Population of the Facultative Milkweed Bug, Lygaeus kalmii (Heteroptera: Lygaeidae),” Proc. Entomol. Soc, Wash. 88(2): 201-214.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Spider Surprise

Hardly a field outing goes by when I am not confronted by some insect or spider I have never seen before, and such was the case on October 25, 2013. I had been on a mission to take more images of Red-shouldered Bugs, Jadera haematoloma, when seeking the answer to a question I had led to an unexpected spider discovery.

My wife and I had encountered the Red-shouldered Bugs earlier, on October 21, while walking the dog on the Rock Island Trail here in Colorado Springs. The insects were all on the ground, clambering no higher than the tip of a yucca leaf blade. Why were they feeding on fallen seeds and not climbing into the trees, I wondered.

I decided to investigate further on the twenty-fifth, looking more carefully on the trunks of the shrub-like ornamental trees. Ok, there’s one bug on the trunk, still pretty close to the ground. What about higher up? Oh, my! I was startled to find a rather large jumping spider ascending the trunk. With a formidable predator like that stalking the “canopy,” I don’t blame any bugs for not venturing off the ground. Further, the leaf litter provides a cozy layer of insulation from the cold autumn weather, and the bugs were taking advantage, no doubt.

The spider really got my attention and I snapped off a couple of images in the dim light of late afternoon. I decided to capture the arachnid and take it home for closer examination and photography under more controlled conditions. I seemed to recall seeing images of this particular species previously, but a thorough search of books and articles failed to produce anything.

The more I looked, the more puzzled I became. So, I posted images in the forum at, where both amateurs and experts help people like me make identifications. One expert was intrigued enough that he solicited the opinion of renowned jumping spider authority G.B. Edwards. The result was a probable state record for Phidippus arizonensis. My specimen is a male, however, and Dr. Edwards suggested the remote possibility that it could be an undescribed species, the female of which has been collected in New Mexico.

Sticking with the more likely scenario, I learned that despite its name, P. arizonensis is not known from Arizona. Records exist for Mexico, New Mexico, Texas, and now apparently Colorado. I have retained the specimen, which is still alive and eating regularly. When it finally expires I will preserve it for the Colorado Spider Survey at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Males of P. arizonensis average a little over 9 millimeters in body length (8.35-10.02). Females are larger (9.02-13.36 millimeters), and dramatically different in appearance. Females have an overall yellowish appearance with spots and stripes on the abdomen. The vaguely metallic blue-black color of this male is pretty typical; and this is the only species in which the fringe of hairs on the front legs is entirely yellow in color.

Historical collection records indicate this species is most often found in the understory of oak woodlands at elevations between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. Colorado Springs is at 6,025 feet; and indeed the natural habitat in which I found this specimen is a sandstone ridge dominated by Gambel’s Oak that is stunted into tall shrubs.

When you are out looking for arthropods, pay attention to your “gut.” If something looks odd, out of place, or otherwise intriguing, there is a good chance it is worth paying closer attention to. Our collective knowledge of the habits, distribution, and abundance of invertebrates in general is pretty weak, and your spotting could be invaluable.

Source: Edwards, G.B. 2004. “Revision of the Jumping Spiders of the Genus Phidippus (Araneae: Salticidae),” Occasional Papers of the Florida State Collection of Arthropods Vol. 11: 1-156.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Ornate Snipe Fly

One tends to think of flies as mostly drab animals, but there are many exceptions to that stereotype. Take for example this week’s subject of “Fly Day Friday,” the Ornate Snipe Fly, Chrysopilus ornatus. This species of the family Rhagionidae is found over most of the northeastern U.S. and adjacent southern Canada.


This fly owes its sparkly appearance to delicate, metallic scales appressed to its exoskeleton. The insect becomes worn quickly as the scales are abraded in the course of everyday living, so fresh specimens truly stand out. The scientific name reflects the fly’s appearance: “Chryso” is a Greek prefix meaning “gold,” while “pilus” is Latin for “hair.” “Ornatus” is Latin for “adorned.”

Females have a more robust abdomen, pointed at the tip; and their eyes are set apart at the top of the head. Males are more slender, with their eyes in contact at the top of the head. Males average about 8 millimeters in body length, females up to 10 millimeters.

These are flies of moist woodlands and forest edges for the most part, though the female depicted here was seen on a leaf in a flowerbed at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) campus on June 10, 2009. Look for them on foliage in the understory of open hardwood habitats, mostly in June, but also in May and July. Try meadows and swamps as well.


Surprisingly little is known about the life history and feeding habits of these flies. Larvae of Chrysopilus in general tend to occur in damp soil that is rich in decaying organic debris; or in rotting wood. It is suspected the maggots are predatory on other invertebrates, at least in part. One source indicates the larvae are indeed predatory, on insects occurring “in clumps of moss and dead wood” (Evans, 2008). A cursory search of the literature does not reveal conclusively what the adult flies eat, if they feed at all.

The distribution of C. ornatus includes New England and southern Ontario, south to Florida and Tennessee, and west to Manitoba and Kansas. Your own observations could shed more light on this and related species of Rhagionidae.

Sources: Eaton, Eric R. and Kenn Kaufman. 2007. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 392 pp.
Evans, Arthur V. 2008. National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America. New York: Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. 497 pp.
McAlpine, J.F., B.V. Petersn, G.E. Shewell, H.J. Teskey, J.R. Vockeroth, and D.M. Wood (eds.). 1981. Manual of Nearctic Diptera Volume 1. Ottawa, Ontario: Agriculture Canada Monograph No. 27. 674 pp.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Wasp Wednesday: Pseudodynerus quadrisectus

The wasp known by the tongue-twisting name of Pseudodynerus quadrisectus is a handsome, conspicuous insect found over much of the eastern U.S. Since it has no common, English name, let’s learn the pronunciation of its Latin name: “Sue-doe-DIN-ner-us kwad-ri-SEK-tus.” There, that was easy.

All joking aside, this is an interesting mason wasp that is frequently confused at first glance with the Four-toothed Mason Wasp, Monobia quadridens. P. quadrisectus is slightly smaller, more slender in overall build, and features more white markings than its cousin. Both wasps utilize pre-existing cavities in wood as nesting sites, including the abandoned nests of the Eastern Carpenter Bee, Xylocopa virginica, in outdoor structural beams.

Females of this solitary species use mud to partition a tunnel into several cells, working from the bottom up. Observations indicate that the wasp cordons off an empty cell at the end of the shaft, using mud as a wall that serves also as the bottom of her first cell. Each cell is provisioned with paralyzed caterpillars, the size and quantity of which has not been adequately documented.

The mother wasp lays a single egg in the cell once it has been fully stocked, then creates another mud partition. This sequence is repeated until the wasp has filled the tunnel to her satisfaction. She closes the entire nest with another mud plug, leaving another empty cell between the last cell plug and the nest closure. This may serve as a decoy so that parasites breaking into the nest find an “empty room” instead of the expected wasp larva or egg.

There are apparently two generations of this species each year; the winter is passed in a dormant, pre-pupal larval stage (Krombein, 1967). Adult wasps are on the wing from around the first of June through the end of August or so. They feed on flower nectar to fuel their flight activity. The images here are of a specimen observed at the Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, Iowa on September 17, 2013.

The literature indicates that Pseudodynerus quadrisectus ranges from Florida north to New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, and northern Ohio; and west to eastern Texas, Kansas, and even Colorado. There are data points for southeast Nebraska, and now southwest Iowa, so perhaps the species is expanding its range or we have only just now recognized its presence in some locations.

The predatory nature of this wasp makes it an ally in the battle against pests in your garden. You can attract them by planting summer- and fall-blooming wildflowers like goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and thoroughwort (Eupatorium spp.); and by providing lodging in the form of holes drilled in wooden blocks and hung under the eaves of your home or shed. Bundles of hollow twigs work well, too. Such “trap nests” are commercially available from a variety of sources, but logs and dead, standing trees are a natural resource for nesting wasps (and solitary bees, too).

Sources: Buck, M., Marshall, S.A., and Cheung, D.K.B. 2008. “Identification Atlas of the Vespidae (Hymenoptera, Aculeata) of the northeastern Nearctic region,” Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification No. 5: 492 pp (PDF version).
Krombein, Karl V. 1967. Trap-Nesting Wasps and Bees: Life Histories, Nests, and Associates. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Press. 570 pp.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Grand Larsony

Four years ago, almost to the day, I shared some of my cartoons on this blog. I promised I would share more, and apologize that it has taken so long to do so.

"I got you a gig at Al's Produce and a world tour with Union Carbide"

I freely admit that when Gary Larson debuted The Far Side, I finally felt that my own strange sense of humor had been validated. He inspired me to take up a pen and pencil myself and see what I could do.

Butterfly fun with "Crazy Proboscis"

There have been many other cartoonists who have capitalized on Larson’s style of single-panel cartoons, and that has eased the pain of Larson’s retirement from the funny papers. Should I ever get syndicated myself, and that would take a lot more work before that happened, I would name my strip “Grand Larsony” because while I haven’t stolen any ideas outright, Mr. Larson deserves full credit for getting me started.

"I swear it's just sex, sex, sex, especially in those pheromone ads!"

So far, I have been scanning old cartoons that I did from about 1987-1989, and touching them up a bit using Paint software on my PC. I welcome suggestions on how to grow beyond this primitive approach, and maybe even initiate new works on the computer instead of on paper.

"#@!$! termites!"

Were I to be doing something other than entomology and writing, this would probably be it. I do enjoy preaching the gospel of arthropod appreciation, but I love making people laugh, too. You can find these cartoons, and more, on my Facebook page under "Photos: Albums: Cartoons."

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Ammophila in Action

Here in Colorado Springs on July 16, 2013 I had the good fortune of encountering an adult female thread-waisted wasp, Ammophila procera, lugging a caterpillar to a burrow she had prepared previously. Even better, I remembered that my camera has the capability to take video.

I was taking pictures of a skipper butterfly when I caught a glimpse of something moving almost under my feet. It was the wasp hauling her prey through the tangled vegetation. Getting images is a challenge because if you are too far away you get little detail, but if you venture too close you disrupt the behavior if you don’t scare the wasp into abandoning its prey altogether. I have done the latter before and felt guilty afterwards.

I was initially intent on getting the still images, when I remembered I could also get video. That was the same moment the wasp took off at a breakneck pace, making it almost impossible to follow her. Her ability to run with such awkward cargo would put a human athlete to shame. Anyway, she eventually paused, propping her limp caterpillar victim in the crotch of a plant while she went off to explore parts unknown.

I patiently waited and, sure enough, she returned. Soon, she resumed her trek, eventually reaching a more open spot. She promptly dropped the caterpillar, removed a large clod or pebble that was blocking her burrow entrance, dove down, turned around, popped back up, grabbed the caterpillar, and in an instant there was no sign of either creature. Without knowing the location of the burrow entrance ahead of time, I did not stand a prayer of recording the action.

A short time passed, presumably while the wasp laid an egg on her victim, and then she appeared at the surface again. She quickly began closing the burrow, permanently, this time, and at last I was able to capture her energetic activities in moving pixels. The location of all this drama was close enough to an airport that the sound of arriving and departing aircraft overwhelmed much of the audio, but I managed to find a portion that was relatively quiet. Listen for the buzz of the wasp’s wing muscles as she works.

Since this encounter I have learned how to recognize when a wasp might have a burrow in a certain spot. If I walk by and startle a wasp, but it does not leave, there is high potential that she has a burrow in the immediate vicinity and I should back off slightly and watch where she goes. I managed to get video of another Ammophila and two Prionyx atratus later that same day I got this video.

You can improve your chances of capturing the behavior of solitary wasps by being observant of their behavior, and putting yourself in the appropriate habitat. Open areas with sandy soil are favored nesting sites for many different species of wasps. They are not aggressive insects, but instead intent on accomplishing the business of providing for their future offspring. Happy wasp-watching!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Celebrity Spiders

I was watching The Tonight Show on Wednesday, December 18, and one of the guests was actress Christina Applegate. I don’t normally pay much mind to celebrities, but when she started talking about a spider that is living outside a window of her home, my ears perked up. She and her daughter have more or less adopted the arachnid and named her “Seymour.”

Ok, obviously, they named the spider before it was determined to be a female. Ms. Applegate has kept a running account of their spider via tweets on Twitter, including the above picture. There has been much chatter on her Twitter page, most of it supportive and helpful. Christina informed The Tonight Show audience that “Seymour” had been identified as a Tropical Orbweaver, Eriophora ravilla, which at first glance it resembles. I remembered that this species does not occur in southern California, though, and took a closer look at the image. Ah, Araneus gemma instead. I tweeted the correction, but never got a response. Gee, Christina can’t be *that* swamped, right?

While she admitted that if a spider that size were found inside her house, “it would be on the bottom of my shoe,” she and her daughter have embraced Seymour as an “outdoor” spider. They even sing to it at bedtime.

We cannot have enough positive stories like this of both parenting and arachnid appreciation. It is encouraging the number of celebrities who share their passion for the eight-legged world.

I had the pleasure of meeting Dominic Monaghan, “Charlie” of Lost fame, when he came through the 25th annual “Bug Fair” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History back in May, 2011. He, too, had been on The Tonight Show, where he had talked about joining an expedition to search for an enormous tarantula species recently re-discovered in a museum collection. I asked if he had gone and he said they hadn’t been able to make it happen. Since, then, Dominic has gone on several expeditions for his BBC America series Wild Things. His “average Joe” approach is refreshing, and he is usually cautious in handling venomous species. He makes a good ambassador for popular entomology, arachnology, and herpetology.

Back on Twitter, Heidi Klum, the supermodel, made headlines by tweeting a photo of herself posing with “Brutus,” a large tarantula, her “new friend for the day.” That one photo op can cause such a sensation should not be dismissed. The American Arachnological Society might do well to find a celebrity spokesperson for arachnids, or even enlist someone from its own ranks, like Dr. Greta Binford.

The point is, we can make a big impact on changing public attitudes towards organisms that are traditionally feared, but we might have to cozy up to the media. Scientists are loathe to speak to journalists since there have been so many misquotes, and information taken out of context, in previous history. We have to keep trying, though, and become the media ourselves through blogs, social media, and other creative outlets. Heck, don’t just read my blog, “re-tweet” it, and more importantly, write your own, too.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Wrinkled Grasshopper

Before I started taking images of insects, I collected them. It is as equally challenging to go after them with a net as it is a camera. One example is the wary Wrinkled Grasshopper, Hippiscus ocelote, common east of the Rocky Mountains and the desert southwest. Well-camouflaged and alert, it is nearly impossible to approach even if you see where it lands.

The Wrinkled Grasshopper tends to favor habitats with dense grass, and unlike other species that may simply land in a bare patch of soil after being startled into flight, this species actively buries itself amid the tangle of grassblades, further concealing itself.

Mind you, this is not a small insect. Adult males measure 28-40 millimeters from nose to the tips of their folded wings. Females are more robust, and can be 39-53 millimeters. They look even larger in the field, especially when they take flight. The leopard-spotted forewings, called tegmen, open to allow the hind pair of wings to expand into colorful flying gear. Normally folded like Japanese fans and hidden under the tegmen, the hind wings are boldly marked with an orange, pink, red, or yellow area at the base, and a dark brown band near the wing margin.

Hippiscus ocelote can be confused with other “leopard-spot” species in places that they overlap, but the Wrinkled Grasshopper occurs as an adult insect from mid-summer through October. Similar species tend to be found in the spring and early summer. Note that in profile the Wrinkled Grasshopper has only one notch in the crest of the pronotum (top of the thorax), and a shallow notch at that. Despite the common name, the pronotum is only sometimes “wrinkled” or rough and “rugose” in appearance, especially in females. The color of the hind tibia (“shin” segment) is yellow.

This is a plains, prairie, pasture, and field species that is only occasionally found in open woodland habitats, even though its geographic range extends to the Atlantic coast and Gulf coast, save for peninsular Florida.

The winter is passed in the egg stage, females depositing “pods” of about 30 eggs each in the soil before the first frost. Still, in the most southerly reaches of its range, adults can persist well into winter. Nymphs and adults feed preferentially on grasses, especially bluegrass and Japanese brome. They sometimes feed on dead animals including their own kind. Most grasshoppers are, in fact, omnivores. It is not an economic pest of agriculture or rangeland.

The Wrinkled Grasshopper was formerly known by the scientific name Hippiscus rugosus, and can be found in older references under that epithet.

Sources: Capinera, J.L., T.S. Sechrist, and Spencer Schell. 1999. Grasshoppers (Acrididae) of Colorado: Identification, Biology, and Management. Colorado State University Experiment Station, Bulletin No. 584S.
Capinera, John L., Ralph D. Scott, and Thomas J. Walker. 2004. Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids, and Crickets of the United States. Ithaca, NY: Comstock Publishing Associates (Cornell University Press). 249 pp.
Helfer, Jacques R. 1972. How to Know the Grasshoppers, Cockroaches, and Their Allies (2nd Edition). Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Company, Publishers. 359 pp.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Kissing Bugs

The holidays may be over, but the last thing you would want to cuddle up to under the mistletoe would be the subject of today’s “True Bug Tuesday.” Assassin bugs in the subfamily Triatominae are known as “kissing bugs.” There is nothing romantic about these vampires, especially considering that they can carry a lethal disease. Eleven species of Triatoma occur north of Mexico, most of them found in the southwest U.S.

Triatoma rubida from Arizona

Villains by Many Names

Like any notorious outlaw, the triatomines have their share of aliases: conenose, blood-sucking conenose, big bedbug, Mexican bedbug, Hualupai tigers (Arizona), vinchuca (in several South American nations), chipo or pito (in Colombia and Venezuela), chirimacho (in Peru), bush chinch (in Belize), and barbeiro or bicudo (Portugese, in Brazil). The name “kissing bug” derives from the fact that triatomines do not like to be confined under blankets and sheets while feeding on human victims, preferring to tap blood from the uncovered face, especially around the mouth.

Life Cycle

Kissing bugs begin life as eggs, dropped singly by an adult female. The nymph that hatches may take its first blood meal only two or three days after emerging from its egg. Blood meals are required for the insect to grow, each nymph passing through five instars (an instar is the interval between molts) before reaching adulthood. The adult insect is sexually mature, and has functional wings in most species. Mature triatomines range from 12-36 millimeters depending on the species.

Triatoma gerstaeckeri from Texas

Host of Last Resort

People are not the normal hosts of triatomine assassin bugs. Here in the U.S., Triatoma is mostly associated with woodrats (aka “packrats,” genus Neotoma), but several species accept blood meals from other vertebrates including opossum and raccoon, and sometimes livestock and pets. The nymphs of kissing bugs dwell mostly in the middens of woodrat nests, in the burrows of other rodents, or sheltered situations where hosts may be encountered regularly. People encounter kissing bugs when the adult insects disperse to find new rodent host populations during late spring, summer, and early fall. At that time, the bugs may be attracted to outdoor lights, and then sneak indoors. Their extremely flat bodies allow them to slip into the thinnest crevices.

Triatoma sanguisuga from Ohio

How to Stalk a Sleeping Human

The process by which a triatomine finds a host is akin to how a shark approaches a victim: with caution, and by relying on a series of different senses. Most pestiferous triatomines live in Mexico, Central, and South America. They dwell in the thatched roofs of rural homes, or in cracks in walls or beams. Hiding by day, they stir at night, usually simply dropping to the floor to begin the hunt. The bug uses its antennae to first detect gases in the breath of a potential target. Homing in on carbon dioxide, it begins its assault. As the insect gets closer, it switches to thermal detection, much like pit vipers. It is suspected that special pits in the antennae not only detect heat, but can determine whether the temperature is appropriate (too hot, too cold, or just right). The bug may even be able to calculate the size of the heat-emitting animal by “triangulating” with its antennae. A warm-blooded creature with the right attributes elicits the feeding response, and when the bug is within a few inches its proboscis extends like a divining rod for blood vessels.

Triatoma gerstaeckeri from Texas

Chagas’ Disease

As if blood loss is not enough of an insult, the victim of a kissing bug bite may contract a deadly disease. In Latin America, several species of triatomines can transmit Chagas’ disease, also known as American trypanosomiasis. The ailment is caused by a parasitic organism called a trypanosome, related to the one responsible for African sleeping sickness. Unlike the tsetse fly vector of sleeping sickness, triatomines do not inject the microbes in the course of biting. Instead, the trypanosomes proliferate in the digestive tract of the bug, and are excreted in the feces. Due to the unrefined bathroom habits of these bugs, they may defecate while feeding, liberating the disease organisms. Victims inoculate themselves by scratching the microbes into the itchy bite wound, or contacting mucous membranes of the eyes or nose. Species of Triatoma in the U.S. are certainly capable of harboring trypanosomes, but they are “potty trained,” going to the bathroom about twenty to thirty minutes after feeding, usually having left their victim by then. Still, isolated cases of Chagas’ disease have been recorded in Texas, California, and Tennessee.

Our smallest species, Triatoma neotomae of south Texas


Bites from kissing bugs are painless while the insect is feeding, but the victim typically experiences itching and swelling the next morning. Most human victims wake up with a fat lip, but some may have an allergic reaction, going into anaphylactic shock with low blood pressure, swollen airways, and rashes being symptoms. This situation requires emergency medical treatment. Repeated bite episodes may make one more vulnerable to anaphylaxis, and also have the potential to become disfiguring. Many rural citizens in Latin America are horribly scarred from constant victimization by triatomines.

Mistaken Identity

Several other true bugs enter homes in North America, and may be misidentified as kissing bugs. Those species include other assassin bugs that are not blood feeders, like the Black Corsair, Melanolestes picipes, and the Masked Hunter, Reduvius personatus. The Western Conifer Seed Bug, Leptoglossus occidentalis, is a completely harmless insect that seeks shelter indoors during late fall and winter. All of these insects can be mostly excluded by sealing cracks and crevices, repairing worn weatherstripping around doors, mending holes in window screens, and taking care to inspect firewood and other material and objects brought indoors from outside.

The big Triatoma recurva of Arizona

Sources: Flores, Graciela. 2005. “In the heat of the night,” Natural History 114(6), July/August, 2005: 32-37.
Schmidt, Justin O., et al. 2011. “Kissing Bugs in the United States,” The Kansas School Naturalist 57(2): 1-16.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Legend of the Christmas Spider

One of my holiday gifts this year was a unique spider ornament, handcrafted from various materials. It came inside a box that explained its significance. “The Legend of the Christmas Spider” it said, followed by this story:

”A long time ago in Germany a mother was busily cleaning for Christmas. The spiders fled upstairs to the attic to escape the broom. When the house became quiet the spiders slowly crept downstairs for a peek. Oh, what a beautiful tree! In their excitement they scurried up the trunk and out along each branch. They were filled with happiness as they climbed amongst the glittering beauty. But, alas! By the time they were through climbing, the tree was completely shrouded in their dusty gray spider webs. When Santa came with the gifts for the children and saw how happy the spiders were he knew how heartbroken the mother would be if she saw the tree covered with the dusty webs. He turned the webs to silver and gold. The tree sparkled and shimmered and was even more beautiful than before. That’s why we have tinsel on our Christmas tree and every tree should have a Christmas Spider in its’ branches.”


Looking online, I find numerous references to the above story, but strangely I find nothing in the two reference books where I would have expected the legend to be recounted. Still, I find folklore like this to be a good sign that spiders are not always the “bad guys,” looked at with disdain, fear, and loathing.

Another thing I find fascinating is that while people may find spiders revolting, those same humans are likely to consider spider webs, especially outdoor orb webs, to be magnificent and beautiful feats of natural engineering. We need to translate that love for webs to spiders themselves, and I think the tide may be turning in this regard.

Next week: Christina Applegate’s spider, “Seymour.”

Sources: Climo, Shirley. 1985. Someone Saw a Spider: Spider Facts and Folktales. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell. 133 pp.
Hillyard, Paul. 1994. The Book of the Spider: From Arachnophobia to the Love of Spiders. New York: Random House. 218 pp.