Thank Goodness For Boxelder Bugs

I finally broke down and bought a close-up flash system for my camera.  Until now, I’ve just relied on natural light to illuminate the flowers, insects, and prairies I photograph.  However, during the last couple years, I’ve been weakening, and looking at recent images from people like Clay Bolt and Piotr Naskrecki finally pushed me over the edge.  After considerable wandering about in the world of internet photography websites and equipment reviews, I am now the owner of a Nikon R1 Wireless Close-up Speedlight Kit. (Say THAT five times fast!)

Here’s my next problem:  Now that I’ve got a flash system to help me get better close-up insect photos, where am I supposed to find an insect to photograph during the middle of February in Nebraska??

Enter the friendly neighborhood boxelder bug…

Boxelder bug - photographed in my kitchen.

A boxelder bug captured on my front porch and photographed in my kitchen.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been seeing boxelder bugs around their house this winter.  It seems there are always a couple of them nearby - soaking up some sun by the window or reading over my shoulder at by the desk.  Sure enough, as soon as I got the new flash assembly hooked up and ready to test, I was able to find one boxelder bug in the kitchen and another out on the front porch.  (You can tell which is which in the photos because the bug from outside is covered in dust.)

The other boxelder bug - less dusty - that I found in my kitchen.

The other boxelder bug – less dusty – that I found in my kitchen.

Boxelder bugs are considered by many people to be pests, but that’s not a completely fair characterization.  Sure, they suck the juices out of leaves and the developing seeds of boxelder and maple trees, but they don’t siphon enough out to actually hurt the trees.  Yes, they can congregate in large numbers on the sunny sides of houses, but they’re not doing any actual damage there.  Also, while they are happy to spend the winter in cozy crevices around your house, they don’t eat anything during that time, and can make themselves available on short notice should you have the urge to try some wintertime insect photography in your kitchen.

As the photo shoot went on, the boxelder bugs and I got more creative in our portrait compositions.

As the photo shoot went on, the boxelder bugs and I got more creative in our portrait compositions.  (Also, this one didn’t want to hold still.)

The species of boxelder bug in my neighborhood is the Eastern Boxelder Bug (Boisea trivittata), which is found throughout most of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, as well as in some western states, parts of southern Canada, and even Central America.  Boxelder bugs are “true bugs”, meaning they are members of the taxonomic order Hemiptera, along with other bugs such as stink bugs, plant bugs, cicadas, and many other insects that have piercing/sucking mouth parts.  Like many other true bugs, boxelder bugs also have a characteristic triangle between the tops of their wings (as opposed to beetles, in the order Coloeptera, which have hardened forewings that form a hard shell on their back when they’re not flying.)

They're even cuter from the front, aren't they?

They’re even cuter from the front, aren’t they?

One of the endearing qualities of boxelder bugs is that they can release bad-smelling/tasting chemicals to discourage predators.  Like many other insects with similar capabilities (monarch butterflies and long-horned milkweed beetles, for example), they have bright orange or red markings to warn predators off.  That defense mechanism may be why boxelder bugs feel comfortable hanging around – often in large crowds - in plain sight, while most other insects work hard to stay hidden.   

Last shot.

Last shot.  Note the small eyes behind each of the main eyes.  Those smaller eyes are ocelli, or simple eyes, that (we think) can discriminate only between light and dark.  Their function is still a topic of debate among entomologists.

I understand that many of you won’t ever become fans of boxelder bugs.  I guess I can live with that, and – with the exception of those you squish – so can the boxelder bugs.  Personally, I like them.  As with every other insect species I know of, they have an fascinating life story, and they’re just trying to make their way through life like the rest of us. 

Plus, they make very accomodating photo subjects in the dead of winter.

Photography notes for those of you who care…  These photos were all taken with the “standard” set-up of the R1 system, with two speedlight flashes, mounted at “9 and 3″ at the front of my Nikon 105mm macro lens.  I had an 8mm extension tube on for all but the second photo shown here.  The bugs were photographed walking around on the white plastic (acrylic?) diffuser that came with the flash system.  All these shots were hand-held at 1/250 sec exposures.  I’m looking forward to using this flash system outside, so I can capture images of insects, flowers, and other small things when the available natural light isn’t quite as good as I might want.  We’ll see how that goes.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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21 Responses to Thank Goodness For Boxelder Bugs

  1. smccann27 says:

    It is great when there are insect models close at hand in the winter! This one is particularly striking. Congrats on the new flash!

  2. Mike Henry says:

    Chris: Neat Pictures. When I was a kid, boxelder bugs were usually called “democrat bugs”. Here in Kansas, that was possibly a term of denigration. Personally I think being called “democrats” is one of their most endearing qualities. I’m sure many people know that the boxelder tree also has streaks of red in its wood which makes it highly desirable.

  3. Pat Halderman says:

    I am a huge fan of Boxelder Bugs, thanks for the great photos!

  4. Marcella says:

    First I would like to say I found this very interesting but do these insects bite,,,,,Next here {Manitoba} we have a similar insect but all blacka{looks the same} can you tell me anything about these?

  5. melmannphoto says:

    Nice detail and good color balance. And you got good depth of field in spite of being so close – not bad for hand held. Can’t wait to see your field shots when the spring wind is blowing!!

  6. timupham says:

    Perhaps you can write something on the American dung beetle, because they remove the feces of plains bison, pronghorn antelope, and wapiti. Who digs up their larvae and eats them? In Africa, it is the bat-eared fox.

  7. As a Nikon owner, this post gives me hope for better insect photos without having to go out and spend a lot an unaffordable Canon set-up.
    I had some quality time watching these as a completely unwired kid (those were the days), during summers spent in northern New Mexico. One thing I learned is they eat a lot besides plant juice. Carrion (including of their own species), the moisture from cake crumbs, animal dung and much more were also on the menu. I suspect they also drink up honeydew voided by aphids onto low vegetation or leaf litter.
    And if anyone asks, though distasteful, they are neither poisonous nor venomous.

  8. Stephanie says:

    I think the warmish day made for extra box elder bug activity in my kitchen tonight. What a good coincidence to be able to greet them up close through your photos. And congratulations on the new equipment!

  9. art says:

    To immobilize your bugs for photographing, try a shot of automobile starting fluid (ether) on a cotton ball placed in a small glass jar.Remove bug as soon as it stops moving and it will probably recover. Protozoan can be stopped with chloral hydrate, but it is hard to get without a prescription.

  10. Teresa Lombard - Lincoln Nebraska says:

    Hey Chris – if you run out of subjects let me know – I got lots. Oh, and they are keeping company with ladybugs in almost equal numbers on my windowsills (asian ladybugs? They’ve got white-heads rather than the black ones I remember from childhood) .

  11. Angela Anderson says:

    Hi Chris,
    I like them too. they are nice to look at amongst the plants in my house. I am enjoying your blog.

  12. Natalie Goergen says:

    I see them in UNL’s Entomology building all the time. How appropriate!

  13. Chris Carattini says:

    Great pictures and I learned something new today about a bug I have always taken for granted- thanks for teaching me something new Chris and other bug commentators!

  14. Ardath says:

    I have had bunches of these pretty little insects hanging around the back of my porch here in south-central Kansas every sunny day for the last few months at least, but not ever knowing a great deal about Hemipterans (or sadly, insects in general) I didn’t know what they were. So I’m pretty thrilled to read this week’s post and learn a little about them and their life history!

    I do wonder, though — is it uniformly true that they don’t eat anything in winter? Last week I saw 8-10 of them out on the flagstones gathered around another, definitely much deader boxelder bug, and I wondered at the time whether they were cannibalizing it. But my lunch break was over and I had to go back to work and leave them be, so their activities remained shrouded in mystery (to me, anyway).

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Ardath,

      Thanks – I think it’s very likely you were seeing cannibalization. See James Trager’s comment above about their varied diet. I’m glad to have been able to give you a little insight into this great little species.

  15. I’m glad I am finding some time for blog reading. I see boxelder bugs in the summer, but not in the winter. I enjoyed your photos and information.

  16. Tiffany says:

    Great post, I was happy to learn more about these bugs! I observed scads of these all year in southern Saskatchewan while growing up. [Ardath, I'd agree with your potential cannibalization viewing.]
    I’m new to your blog and want to throw a compliment your way: you did a great job balancing education (about a few different topics) with good humour and interest. I WANTED to read this post, which is a great feeling distinct from sometimes slogging through other conservation/ecology blogs. I’m thrilling that you’re putting this material out there, and I’ll be back to read more!

  17. Cat says:

    Love this article – my son is doing a report on insects. Your article and picts are the best we found about this bug. Every other one is so negative and not so informative (other than to tell us how to get rid of them). My son and I agree that the boxelder is quite cute from the front (although, honestly, he’s in Kindergarten and thinks most bugs are pretty cute!). You’ve just gained yourself some new fans!! Thanks!!

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