Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 23, 2007

Respect Your Elders

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:19 pm

  If you are looking for a conversation starter next time you are out mixing it up with the populous, just mention Box Elder Bugs.  A simple question-statement like “How about those Box Elder Bugs, eh?”- assuming it is brought up at an appropriate time -is bound to create a fruitful follow up response.  If you are talking to the fellow you just rear-ended with your car or a federal judge, you’d better stick to the matter at hand, but otherwise give it a try. Some people may stare back in a few moments of confused silence before offering “it sure was a shame that they didn’t make it to the series this year.” Others may feign a sudden interest in tying their Velcro shoes or politely back away. I am willing to bet that a majority of locals will respond with a knowing retort like “Oh, those things – they’re all over the side of my house,” or “there sure seems to be a lot of them this year.” 

  Box Elder Bugs are those ½ inch long black & red insects that seem to appear out of thin air when cooler weather arrives (take a look here and see if you don’t recognize one). About the time our northern trees become nude, the “bugs” begin to assemble in huge masses around our living spaces.  They don’t hurt people or harm small pets.  They are neither repulsive nor beautiful. They just kinda hang around and prompt us to wonder where they came from and why they exist. Now that I think of it, many of us have a similar reaction to Paris Hilton.  At least we can show some respect for the bug!

  Being a “true bug,” of the insect family Hemiptera, they truly deserve the “bug” name. While box elder bugs will occasionally feed on ash, silver maple, and even apple sap, they spend most of their time on Box Elder trees. This eliminates any mystery surrounding their name. The Box Elder tree is shrubby member of the maple clan that can be found growing in nearly every ditch and waste lot in the central U.S. (Take a look here at this link if you want to know more about the tree and how to identify it).  Unfortunately, the tree itself is graced with a confusing name. Someone thought that it looked like an Old World Elder tree that possessed yellow wood similar to that of a another tree called Boxwood and cleverly put the two names together (kinda like naming someone after a French hotel).  Distracting name aside, it is important to know that the bug in question prefers blonds -which is a confusing way to say that these insects only feed on female elder trees.

  Over the course of the year, the bugs drink the sap issuing from the tender parts of the growing plant such as leaves, new stems and seed pods. They hatch together and feed together.  By the end of the growing year, the nymphs will have shed five times to reach adulthood.  Shortening daylight hours spark an over whelming collective urge to then gather around the lower portion of the tree trunk.  The primary point of conversation now turns to angst over overwintering plans until somebody finally figures out that they have functional wings. Soon everyone takes off to find a hibernation spot. This is where they enter our sphere of existence.

  At this point, some of you may be thinking that a good way to get rid of the annoying presence of fall Box Elder Bugs is to get rid of all the female Box Elder trees in your yard.  This, in fact, seems like a great idea until you realize that the bugs can fly up to two miles away from their host tree if necessary.  Even if you succeed in wiping out every female Box Elder in the neighborhood, you’ll always be within a few miles of another one.  Besides, do you really want to be responsible for creating a grove of unhappy male trees?  No, the only way to stop the bug is to eliminate our houses.

  The bugs seek out the protective nooks and crannies offered by our human overwintering structures otherwise known as our homes.  Shingles, wall spaces and eaves provide perfect locations to get in out of the weather and pass the frigid season in relative comfort.  Even the most septic of aluminum-sided four bedroom ranches offer innumerable hidden micro sites. Usually, the insects choose a location with a south or west exposure so they can emerge on occasion to bask in the late season sun.  

  So, if you are confronted with a herd of these black and red insects about your house, understand where they are coming from.  Don’t waste time or pesticides on this neutral little bug, but do incorporate them into your daily conversation. Go ahead and shoo away those few that get into your house, but tolerate their existence. They’ll leave next spring and won’t return until next fall. They seek only shelter and ask only that you respect your elders.

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