True Bugs

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True Bugs, Pacific Northwest

Aphids, photo by Bud Logan
Aphids, photo by Bud Logan

The word bug is used to describe any of the insects as well as many other creatures like spiders, ticks or mites, but the only true bugs are those belonging to the order Hemiptera.

Hemiptera means half wing and refers to the characteristics of the fore wings of this order. The fore wings are thick and leathery near the base and membranous near the tip and they fold flat over the insects back, covering the hind wings which are used for flying.

A third feature that helps identify the hemipterans is their piercing and sucking mouthparts which are housed in beak shaped protuberance that starts far forward on the head and is folded underneath it, pointing back between the forelegs. The bug swings it out from its resting place when he prepares to eat. True bugs may be either carnivorous or herbivorous.

Giant Water Bug, True Bugs
Giant Water Bug, Photo By Bud Logan

For defense, most have a special stink gland that secretes a substance with a disagreeable smell to repulse its enemies. Among nymphs, these glands are located on the back of the abdomen while on the adults it is usually located under the thorax. many advertise this capability with bright colors and bold patterns. This is recognized by animals that have had a bad experience with the unpleasant taste before. Some true bugs like the boatman can deliver a nasty and painful bite when handled.

They are widely distributed in most habitats and although most are terrestrial, some are aquatic with legs that are either widespread to distribute their weight over the water surface or with oar-like legs used to propel them over the water. There are many types of true bugs on the coast of BC, just look around when outdoors.

Back Swimmer, True Bugs
Back Swimmer, True Bugs, photo by Bud Logan

Backswimmer bugs, also called boatsman bugs,  are insects of the order Heteroptera that occur worldwide and are named for their ability to swim on their backs, which are shaped like the keel and sides of a boat. They use its long, oar-like legs for propulsion and has an oval-shaped head and an elongated body that usually is less than 15 mm in length.

It is a good example of countershading, as its light-colored back, seen from below, blends into the water surface and sky. The rest of the body is darker and when seen from above, blends with the dark water below.

Because they are lighter than water, it will rise to the surface after releasing its hold on the bottom vegetation. Once at the surface it may either leap out of the water and fly or get a fresh supply of air, which is stored under its wings and around its body, and dive again.

The backswimmer is often seen floating on the water surface, with its legs extended, ready to dart away if disturbed. It preys on insects, small tadpoles, and fishes, sucking their body fluids through its strong beak.

Shield Bugs
Shield Bugs, Photo By Bud Logan
Adult shield bugs are attractive insects, easily recognized by their flat oval or five-sided shield shape. They are often called stink bugs because when threatened, some species produce a pungent liquid from special glands near their hind legs, poke at one and then sniff your hand.

Most shield bugs feed on plant sap and some are pests of economically important crops such as coffee and cotton.

Few gardeners would consider them to be pests, although the noxious liquid they produce can taint the taste of some fruit. Most shield bugs need symbiotic bacteria for the digestion of the sap. They acquire this aid to digestion at an early age, their mother smears her eggs with the bacteria so that the young nymphs ingest them as they feed on the egg case.

Unlike many insects, shield bugs often show parental care, guarding their young against predators. The female will actually sit on the eggs until they hatch. This reduces the chances of an attack from parasitic wasps.

Bean plants damaged by stink bug feeding and egg laying emits an odor that is attractive to parasitism wasps, which then attack the bugs.

Aphids, photo by Bud Logan
Aphids, photo by Bud Logan

Aphids are small green insects that suck juices from plants. They are shaped like pears and can be found on many coastal plants. There are hundreds of different species of these true bugs. Some of them are found on only one type of plant, while others can be found on many types of plants.

Most are less than 0.5 cm long and although most of them are green, they can be gray, black, brown, pink, red, yellow, or lavender. All have two tubes, called cornicles, on the hind end of their bodies. The cornicles secrete substances that help protect them from predators.

They feed in large groups on new growth. Some species such as the woolly aphids are covered with white, waxy filaments which they produce from special glands. You will usually find aphids on leaves, tops or at the base of flowers. They can do a lot of damage to plants that include foliage that is distorted, rolled, yellowed or has stunted growth.  There are beneficial insects that eat them, such as ladybugs and green lacewings and it is very important to not use a broad pesticide spray as this will kill all the insects including the good ones.

Aphids create a honeydew that ants harvest. Ants often farm aphids and protect them from their natural enemies and in turn, harvest the honeydew produced by the aphids. Some types of ants take them down into their nests in winter to keep them alive until next year.

Aphids, photo by Bud Logan
They have strange life cycles. Most aphids overwinter as fertilized eggs glued to branches of plants. The nymphs that hatch from these eggs are wingless females known as stem mothers. Stem mothers reproduce without males and keep their eggs within their bodies until they hatch. All offspring, in turn, are females that soon mature and reproduce in the same way. This pattern continues until the fall brings cooler weather. When the days get shorter and coolers, a hatch occurs which includes both males and females that mate, after mating, the females lay the fertilized eggs which overwinter and eventually hatch into stem mothers the following spring.

Throughout the summer some of the young develop wings and migrate to other plants. This allows them to move about the forest. They are an incredible bug.

Natural enemies play a very important part in controlling aphid populations. Lady beetles, lacewings, damsel bugs, parasitic wasps and birds all feed on them.

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