A Bug by Any Other Name

All over the upcountry this morning the warm, south-facing sides of houses are covered with boxelder bugs. Have you seen them? They’re orange and black and about a half-inch long.

I make this prognostication because it’s true at my house. The boxelder bugs are swarming, so they’re probably swarming elsewhere. I’ve noticed them in other years, but this time it’s looking a little like a bad horror film-“The Invasion of the Boxelder Bugs.”

What’s worse, this army of candy corn insects doesn’t stay on the deck to soak up the late November sun. The swarm seems intent on finding its way inside-into the cracks and crannies of our cypress siding, under doors with loose seals. A few have been successful. I see them crawling across the floor, bound for some far territory.

Yesterday one sat atop my computer monitor and checked out a letter I was writing about it to a friend out west.

My natural history is a little thin when it comes to insects, so this morning I decided to do some detective work on the boxelder bugs.

The internet is good for recipes, but to ID a local insect, bird, fish, or mammal, there’s nothing like seeing pictures in a field guide and reading thumbnail accounts of life histories.

First of all, I was a little worried calling my invaders bugs. Are boxelder bugs “true bugs” or just called bugs because that’s what people tend to call any insect that crosses paths with them?

I know this much about insects: entomologists (scientists who study insects ) have a single group they call “true bugs,” and to make things complex, it does include the boxelder bug but doesn’t include the ladybug.

The field guide to insects tells me a true bug has wings that fold flat over its back and a beak for sucking. A ladybug (actually a beetle) doesn’t have either of these. My autumn visitors are true bugs.

So why might they be swarming on my sunny back wall?

It’s all part of the great boxelder bug cycle.

During the spring and summer they’re dispersed out in the woods sucking the juices out of maple and, yes, boxelder trees. But once the weather starts to cool, the females look for lodging.

On our deck we’re hosting a single-sex gathering, an end of the season party for female boxelder bug looking for some place warm to overwinter. If we’re lucky they’ll stay in the siding. If we’re not, they’ll find a way inside the warm house and crawl like explorers through the rooms all winter.

My field guide doesn’t tell me how to get rid of boxelder bugs. I have to go to the internet for that. Soap and water will do it. A good coat will finish off a swarm.

I’m not queasy about insects, and I’m not prone to exterminate. So far I’ve spent way too much time scooping up individual bugs and pitching them back out on the deck where I’m sure they turn around and find the same crack to visit again.

It will have to get a lot worse though before I soap them down and sweep the whole slimy mass off the deck into the herb garden.

What is it about my willingness to tolerate this mixing of classes of animals (humans and insects) the way I do? Isn’t a house a place that should always remain insect free? Shouldn’t my protective territorial instinct rage against the boxelder bugs swarming on my deck?

Do what you want with your own swarm. I plan to simply observe the party and walk the deck with a caulk gun and some weather stripping.

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