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 the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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60 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:


      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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  19. Brandon King says:

    I thought I’d say that these little guys are really nice bugs. There are too many creepy or ugly insects around but these ones I can enjoy. I believe that all forms of life deserve a place on this planet, even pesky mosquitos or cockroaches. When I find an insect in my house rather than kill it I simply put it outside, it is wrong to kill an insect for absolutely no reason. I like boxelder bugs particularly because they are cute, and they are more docile than carpenter ants, they don’t even hurt the environment they inhabit. The only down-side about them is that they are scavengers, they will eat ANYTHING including each other, if they are hungry enough they will even try to eat humans though they don’t like the taste. I’d also like to give a little of my own information after studying them, to answer some people’s curiosities, these insects typically do NOT bite humans, however as I said before they are scavengers, if you pick up a particularly hungry one they may poke you with their sucker, and it will pinch a bit, other than this though they do not hurt humans, and their bite is non-toxic.

    • Emily says:

      I have had one living in my room since August, i nemaed him larry, do u know what i could feed him?

      • Anne and Iain says:

        Emily, We always have a couple of hundred hanging out in our south-facing windows during the winter. We feed them on tea with sugar and milk, the same as we like it. The tea has proved very popular and they come running when they see the spoon. The ladybird beetles (lady bugs) also join the party regularly.

    • Ginger says:

      I do the same thing! (I do not kill bugs, just take them out.) I was glad to hear that there are others that follow this philosophy(;

  20. Kate says:

    My milkweed plants are covered with them. Do they harm monarch butterfly larvae?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Kate, I’ll almost guarantee what’s on your milkweed plants are milkweed bugs, not boxelder bugs. Regardless, they are herbivorous and won’t hurt monarch larvae (and also won’t do serious damage to the plants – they are native insects and they and the plants are pretty well adapted to each other).

  21. Becky Terpening says:

    Are box elder bugs related to the kissing bug that is in the news lately? They look similar and I think some of the news sites are using them.

  22. Emily says:

    I love boxelder bugs and never kill them! I have one that has been hanging around my bedroom since august. I call him Larry! Do u know what i can feed him? I was thinking maybe a grape?

    • Ginger says:

      I have a buddy in my house, too- he seems to like the grapes stems I gave him. Try that with Larry, maybe he will like it too. Good luck!

  23. Do you know why they are all attracted to light bulbs inside the house rather than seeking the sun on the outside? Also, do you know if they attract stink bugs? Generally, I only get stink bugs when there’s multiples of boxelder bugs also in tow.

  24. Jane says:

    Loved reading this blog and am thrilled to know there are like minded people out there! We have boxelder bugs all over the room in which I work, I find them fascinating and amusing and if I do say so myself quite a handsome insect. I observed one today sucking up some dried milk & honey I guess I dripped out of my tea. I guess if they’re eating its a good sign that spring is soon to come! Unfortunately my admiration for insects is not shared here in the work place. I have cringed on numerous occasions when someone just outright smashes them or flicks them across the room, it always seems so unwarranted!

  25. Karen says:

    I love these bugs too.. I have a yellow house and they love midday when sun is shining

  26. Sonja says:

    Thanks to your good picture , I was able to identify the bugs that were all over the building I work in, and they were on the sunny side. I thought it looked simular to ” love bugs” but I’m I’m Chattanooga, not Florida.

  27. Shelby Heck says:

    I have one living in a small terrarium in my house this winter. I worry about it starving though, is there something I should be supplying him/her with? I would like to see the little guy/girl make it through these winter months. I’m a sucker for a bug in need.

  28. Mikecrowes says:

    Thank you for this informative and to me,hysterical captions, of your new found friends.winter can be tedious at times.I know.

  29. Chris-Ann Lauria says:

    We have a couple box elder bugs pets that we winter in the house. They’re very friendly. What can we feed them to keep them alive?

  30. Tator says:

    Thanks for your photography and thoughts on such an interesting subject, the boxelder bug. All things are wonderfully made, Thanks for sharing.

  31. Thanks for posting all these wonderful comments. I have at least a 100 box elder bugs in my house every year during the winter. I just feed them some honey!

  32. Kathy Revenaugh says:

    I loved your commentary on the Boxelder bug. I also am a fan of these cute little insects. I always rescue them when I find them(usually in my kitchen sink on their backs trying to right themselves)and I relocate them to one of my house plants. My family thinks I’m a bit wacky but I am a live and let live kind of person, and I don’t believe in squashing an insect like the cute Boxelder just because it’s A BUG!

  33. Janet Lofstuen says:

    I live in Minnesota, just found a boxelder bug on the bedroom level of our house about a week ago. My husband know after 24 years of marriage never to kill anything that is harmless and clever enough to evade a MN winter. I find him/her in different rooms in the same day. He usually settles in my sewing room, being the sunniest. Our cat just passed recently so this little critters is my little buddy now. I’ve taught my grandkids never to step on bugs just to kill them, trying to teach respect for every critter’s journey. Crazy grandma. Thanks for sharing your pics!

  34. Becky C. says:

    Came across your blog while trying to learn more about these insects which seem to be invading our house. I like them and have no wish to harm them. They seem to gravitate to my bathroom and tub so I put a damp washcloth on the floor. Soon, it was covered with boxelder bugs. They don’t seem to eat anything but the ingestion of water seems to expedite their demise, for some reason. I almost never harm insects, with the exception of mosquitos, ticks and fleas. Hopefully God will forgive me for this!

  35. The Timetraveler says:

    This was a very cool article on the Boxelder bug. We have been totally infested and overwhelmed with them this spring in NY. This has made me very curious about them. I have been collecting them in a gallon sized, clear sided water bottle, and in two days, I have over 50 in there. I can get 25 per day and have been collecting and releasing for a good month! I am having fun watching them and catching them. They always go to the top of the container. I have big ones and smaller ones. I will be trying out the grape stems for them, and keep them safe, for now on, until warmer weather.

  36. Melissa M. says:

    I suddenly have hundreds of these bugs in my house, I gather they are not starving but what do they live on? I don’t mind them and the occasional stink bug, which are just as interesting with their prehistoric look.

  37. Anna ashworth says:

    You are a kindred spirit! I just watched a video on the weather network warning about box elder beetles and offering suggestions for ways to exterminate them. I was alarmed at first that they were milkweed beetles as I am a monarch enthusiast. But now I realize they are separate beetles. I stumbled upon your article and found it refreshing in contrast to the video on the weather network. It is just an insect another one of God’s creatures!

  38. Jessica Pretz says:

    One of my favorite bugs! When I was a kid I called them my “friend bugs” and even brought some in for winter because I didn’t want them to be cold. Good to see others who enjoy these fun little creatures

  39. Minerva says:

    Hey! This is weird, there is one on the screen door in my kitchen! What is it about kitchens with these guys? And why can’t they do some dishes or make me a grilled cheese sandwich while they hang around sucking up the free heat?

  40. Faith says:

    Forgive me for anthropomorphizing, but OMG, totes adorbs!!! You’ve made him (her?) look absolutely adorable. I found this site after performing a catch/release on a highly energetic boxelder in my apartment complex study room in Northern California. Always thought they were kinda cute. My Republican, Nebraskan grandmother called them Democrat bugs; I thought it was her personal nickname for them. but thanks to the other posts here, I’ve learned a cool linguistics lesson!

  41. Lori says:

    I am so happy to know they don’t eat during the winter. I usually have 1 or 2 keeping me company in my office over the winter, wandering across my computer screen and I worried about yhem starving. Good to know that’s not the case!

  42. Ariel says:

    Since you did ask for feedback I will say I love this article. I have a few box elder bugs wintering with me in my house this year. My boyfriend is (sadly) extremely allergic to cats, but seemingly not to box elder bugs. They are the least obtrusive creatures, requiring only to be transported out of an unwise resting place in the middle of the kitchen while I’m cooking or to be unraveled after stumbling into an old abandoned cobweb here or there. I was feeling pretty sheepish about my hostess skills, and found your article while searching for what they eat…which turns out to be nothing during the winter. I really couldn’t ask for a better houseguest! Thank you for your article!

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  44. Dawn says:

    I also love those little bugs! The only tree that grows on our property are box elders so we have plenty. I washed a load of laundry one day and when i opened the lid there was one in the washer the whole time! I don’t know how he survived!

  45. Brooke says:

    I absolutely love box elders, so I enjoyed reading your article! They are a regular winter guest in my Michigan home. I leave little cups of water in all of my windowsills. If you love insects, leave out some water, they will drink it! I use plastic bottle caps and I make sure to position 1 or 2 wooden toothpicks into the water, to provide a way out, if they fall in. Without the toothpick, sometimes they drown. They have a tendency to fall into dish water, so I try to not leave dishes sitting for too long and clean things up as quickly as possible. I find it odd to hear that they do not eat during the winter, but I cannot argue about this because any attempt to feed them (little pieces of fruits, bread crumbs, etc) was a failure. It is fun to photograph them and I have some really good shots, but sadly, no means to share them in this thread. Last year I made it a project in the cold months to keep as many of them alive as possible. Many survived! When it was warm enough to release them back outside, I did so. Soon after, they were having babies like crazy (hundreds!) which provided me with photos of all stages of their life which was super interesting. I am fond of them because I like their color and they are also very friendly insects. They will crawl onto your hand or finger if you allow them to do so. This is another way to give them water, by the way. Just use a fine misting water sprayer and lightly mist them and your hand, and very often you will get the pleasure of watching their proboscis extend and they will drink the water right off of your skin. They have never bitten me, and I feel that they are completely harmless. I have gone so far as to rescue and take them home from grocery stores and even restaurants in the winter, as it seems a lot of people see them as pests. Long live the box elder! :)

  46. Sally Milla says:

    I love my boxelder bug.. he seems to appear our of nowhere and then he’ll be on a chair or in the kitchen on the floor or windowsill. He’s quiet..he’s clean..makes me smile when i see him…

  47. Laurelei says:

    Thank you Chris for posting these pictures. We have a visiting Boxelder Bug, and we have named him Horace. He is visiting for the winter, I didn’t have the heart to put him out in the snow. I protect him from my cats- ( of course, I do, in the back of my mind, realize there might be multiple Horaces) but he is so friendly, I can only assume it is the same feller. And, he is utterly adorable.

  48. Katie VonPretzle says:

    I was just saying the same thing about the box elder bug in my kitchen- he’s just trying to May his way through life. Thank you for writing about this bug. I really like them too. I’ll have to check out more of your posts.

  49. Mark R Ellena says:

    Id like yo say I’m a big fan of BOX elder bugs, I live in an old FARM house and enjoy there company and seeing there activity. There friendly as heck and do no harm in my opinion. My favorite scene of them is completely invading and old dead tree stump with multiple generation. Also to enjoy them sunning on the south side of my barn. All’s a haven for them here. They are simply free to do their thing. I think it’s sad that people feel compelled to kill things for no reason. Like if a BIG FOOT came down on you simply because your there. Thanks


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