During a recent walk through Riverwood Park, I noticed some good-sized flying black bugs with red racing marks. I’d seen them before once or twice in Mississauga. At the time, I had vaguely thought they were carrion beetles. Ah, I thought, I guess the salmon have been and gone and the carrion beetles are here to feast.
However when one of the half-inch wonders (12 mm marvels) landed on a tree trunk near me, I realized two things. The red accent markings were different than on a carrion beetle. And it wasn’t a beetle, at all.
So what was it? And what were the dozens of look-alikes flying around nearby?
As is my usual bug identifying practice, I took a few photos, noted a bit on behaviour, temperature, time of day, and nearby plants and habitats, and went on with my walk.
Later that weekend, I started to investigate.
My Petersons First Field Guide confirmed that the critter was not a beetle. In fact, it seemed likely to be a real honest-to-goodness “bug” bug.
A Genuine Bug
Most of us call anything small that’s not a bird, mammal, amphibean, reptile or fish a “bug.” We should call them an insect. A “bug” is actually a select, dare I say elite?, group of only a certain specific type of insects.
Bugs, according to Christopher Leahy (and probably entomologists everywhere): have “wings and [a] shield [that] produce a criss-cross pattern of triangles on the back that is seen in few other insects….Most bugs have fairly long segmented antennae.”
Bingo. I’m looking for a Bug, not a bug.
Now ask me why I didn’t keep turning the pages of my book. Ask! You’re right, because I’m an idiot. And I left the book upstairs in the race downstairs for the doorbell.
Anyway, instead of flipping forward 4 more pages, I flipped on the internet.
First, I used Google to search for Mississauga bugs black red. A dozen hits for pest companies appeared. I clicked through on one to see a photo of some solidly red bugs, and gave up on them.
Next I went to that warehouse of online bug data, BugGuide.Net. For a brief moment I felt a surge of hope looking at a Milkweed Bug, but the markings, though red, were in the wrong places.
I clicked through to the Bugs section and started paging through the images. Did you know there are about a gajillion cicadas in North America? It was fascinating, but not very helpful.
Despairing of ever getting past the cicada pages, I tried Google once more. At random, I selected another pest company web page. And there it was! My black and red bug!
Box Elder Bug
The name confused me for a while. I had never heard of a box elder, but a check of the bugs diet said they also eat Silver Maple and a few other types of tree leaves. That was more like it: I know there are Silver Maples in Mississauga.
I was even more enlightened after a bit more research. A “Box Elder” is what we Canadians call a Manitoba Maple. I knew we have those in Mississauga too.
Relief Turns to Revulsion
When I found out they were not carrion beetles feasting on spawned-out salmon carcasses, I was relieved. I didn’t mind telling the kids we had been swarmed by something that ate maple leaves. (The thought of little bugs bloated on rotten fish hadn’t inspired any discussion at the time we saw them. Which is just as well, as that’s not what they were.)
Then I started researching Box Elder Bugs. Wholly ick, Captain! These bugs can be home invaders par excellence. Post after post complained about hundreds and thousands of box elder bugs moving in, often for months at a time. The little blighters even walk on people’s faces at night! And though they don’t (usually) bite or burrow they poop a nicotine-stain brown faeces all over the walls and ceilings.
People were willing to sell homes to get away from them. They are that bad.
Luckily for my ability to sleep that night, we don’t have any maples on our lot or on the adjacent properties to us. Or do we?
There’s a pesty kind of tree/shrub that self seeds into our yard every year. It can easily grow 6 to 8 feet tall (2 to 3m) in a few months. The stalks, though thumb-wide, snap very easily for bundling for wood chipping.
And I had thought it was called Slippery Maple.
A nasty sneaking suspicion crept into my mind.
Yep. These pesty things are actually trees: baby box elder trees! Guess what I’ll be expurgating from my yard with twice the enthusiasm this weekend? After all, one day soon those swarms of bugs will be coming to a house near me. I’m going to make darn sure they don’t come to mine!