Boxelder Bugs: Accessible Ambassadors for Nature

Conservation success relies upon people feeling connected to nature.  As a result, conservation groups spend a lot of time trying to show the public how much their health and prosperity depend upon natural services and processes (clean air and water, storm surge protection, pollination, etc.).  They also try to find easy ways for people to interact with nature where they live.  The latter can be particularly difficult, especially as we become a more and more urban society.  Programs that promote and install trees, pollinator gardens, rain gardens and other tidbits of nature within our concrete jungles can all help bring nature to people.  However, I think we’re missing an easy answer that could very well be staring at you right now: the friendly neighborhood boxelder bug.

I photographed this boxelder bug on my sidewalk last week, just a few feet from where my wife first spotted it crawling on a blooming daffodil.  It was in a sheltered area on the sunny side of our house; probably warming up on a pleasant spring day.  Boxelder bugs keep their long straw-like mouth parts tucked beneath them except when they poke them into plants and seeds to feed.

Chances are, if you’re in the United States, and you look carefully through whatever building you’re in right now, you’ll find at least one boxelder bug hanging around.  If it’s a sunny day, you might be able to go outside and find some warming themselves on the south side of that same building.  Boxelder bugs make themselves easily available to us, but we have largely failed to take them up on their obvious offer of friendship.

Boxelder bugs are harmless.  They don’t bite people and they don’t cause any significant injury to plants, including the boxelder, maple, and ash trees they like to feed on.  Boxelder bugs are sometimes characterized as nuisances because they can accumulate in large numbers, especially on the sunny outside walls of buildings, or even indoors, near windows or other warm places.  And yes, large numbers of insects can create large amounts of insect poop, and that can sometimes cause some discoloration of walls or curtains.  Fair enough, but most of us put up with a lot more from kids, dogs, and/or cats without calling in exterminators.

Boxelder bugs are often seen on trees, especially maple, boxelder, and ash, where they feed on the seeds – but don’t appear to cause any problems for these trees or any other plants they feed on.  They like to overwinter in piles of plant material (landscaping mulch, compost piles, etc.) or make their ways through tiny cracks and crevices into warm buildings.

Most often, boxelder bugs get noticed during the winter when a few of them warm up enough to come wandering out of their hiding places into the living spaces of humans.  This is a perfect example of how these bugs can be ambassadors for nature.  They are quite literally little representatives of nature that present themselves to us, in a completely nonthreatening way, right in our homes.  If we can spread the word about the harmlessness of boxelder bugs, maybe we can turn these surprise appearances into positive interactions.  If we can point them toward information about the fascinating lives of boxelder bugs and other creatures, we might even start a cascade of exploration.

You’re skeptical?  Well, people are already taking an interest in boxelder bugs without our encouragement.  How do I know?  Back in February 2013, I wrote a short blog post about how glad I was to find boxelder bugs in my house because I was looking for something to photograph during the middle of the winter.  Though the post was mostly about new camera gear, I also threw in a few natural history facts about boxelder bugs, as is my wont.

The boxelder bug (Boisea trivitatta) is a true bug, and has the characteristic triangle shape on its back, straw-like mouth, and incomplete wing coverings (among other things). The “trivitatta” portion of its name refers to the three stripes behind its head.  The are categorized as “scentless plant bugs” but can release a bad tasting (and smelly) compound when attacked in order to fend off predators.  They don’t use that defense against humans, however, or at least I’ve not experienced that with the hundreds I’ve picked up to examine over the years.

Five years later, that post on boxelder bugs continues to attract a surprising number of readers.  In fact, during the last couple of years, the post has been viewed between 1000 and 5000 times every month!   It has become, by far, the most viewed post I’ve ever written, surpassing many posts I’d have predicted to have more lasting interest and value.  It has been viewed five times as frequently as “What’s the Best Time to Burn?” and almost ten times as often as “The Conservation Value of Backyard Prairies”.  I was just looking for an excuse to try out a new flash system for my camera and ended up writing the most popular thing I’ve ever written.  It’s an odd world, to be sure.

People seem to stumble onto my boxelder bug post because they are looking for information on the little insects that have shown up in their houses, and a fair number of those people appear to be looking for something beyond just how to kill them.  The comments section is full of people thanking me for providing positive information on boxelder bugs and telling me about how they are making friends with the boxelder bug(s) in their home.  This is energy that needs to be harnessed and used for good!

If people become comfortable with boxelder bugs, they might also become comfortable with other invertebrates around them, including ants, millipedes, and even (gasp) spiders.  Looking at these little creatures with interest and empathy, instead of fear or disgust, might lead them to look around for other animals to learn about.  Once they’ve gotten a pretty good inventory of what they can find in their homes and neighborhoods, they might start to wander further, and to expand upon their species of interest.  Before you know it, they’ll be amateur naturalists and conservation supporters.

Pigeons are another example of an animal living among us that is easy to observe and has plenty of fascinating stories to learn about.  Don’t believe me?  Do a Google search for “pigeon trivia”.

Boxelder bugs aren’t the only potential accessible ambassador for nature.  They happen to be handy (and cute) but there are plenty of other animals hanging around too, including both invertebrates and larger animals.  We naturalists tend to be snobbish about species like pigeons and house sparrows, but imagine what could happen if a young kid started following one of those birds around to see where it lives?  That curiosity, once satisfied, would very likely lead them to look around for other species to learn about.

If we’re going to build a constituency for nature in an urban world, it makes sense to focus more on urban and suburban nature.  Boxelder bugs, pigeons, and many other animals are right there, waiting to be noticed and learned about.  It’s important to show people what nature looks like out in the great wide open spaces, but we should probably spend more time talking about the nature living right outside, or even inside, our homes.

Who could look deeply into the four red eyes of a boxelder bug and not come away deeply moved?  (Did you notice the two smaller eyes behind the bigger ones?  I’m telling you – there’s a lot more to these little critters than you might think at first.)

Photo of the Week – October 17, 2014

Who could be mad at these big beautiful brown eyes?

A differential grasshopper (that's its name, not its demeanor) on stiff goldenrod.
A differential grasshopper (that’s its name, not its demeanor) on stiff goldenrod.

As it turns out, lots of people can.

The differential grasshopper is one of a long list of native North American species, headlined by white-tailed deer and raccoons, that have adapted very well to today’s agricultural landscapes.  Whether you call these species adaptable generalists or pests probably depends upon whether or not they’re eating your sweet corn.  Regardless, you have to admire (or at least recognize) the traits that allowed them to thrive under changing habitat conditions that have pushed many other native species to the brink of extinction.

The olive-greenish color and the strong herringbone pattern on its back leg helps distinguish the differential grasshopper from other species.
The olive-greenish color and the strong herringbone pattern on its back leg helps distinguish the adult differential grasshopper from other species.
Peek-a-boo!
Peek-a-boo!  Isn’t she cute?

Before Europeans took over the continent, differential grasshoppers lived mainly in low grasslands, feeding on a wide variety of grasses and wildflowers – but, purportedly, with a particular affinity for giant ragweed.  When the landscape began changing to one dominated by rowcrops, alfalfa, and short-grazed grasslands, it basically created heaven on earth for differential grasshoppers.  Today, they are abundant enough that they can be found almost anywhere across the landscape (at least in Nebraska).  Apparently, they can move as much as 10 miles a day to find food.

One of 108 grasshopper species recognized as native to Nebraska, the differential grasshopper is one of only a small handful that actually cause any economic damage to crops.  All of those grasshopper species – pests or not – are important food sources for birds and many other wildlife species.  In years when differential grasshopper populations are particularly high, they can cause more problems for farmers and gardeners, but also provide even more food for wildlife.

"Don't hate me because I'm beautiful."
“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”

It’s ironic that many traits we admire in people (resilient, adaptable, successful) become indicators of pest-ness when we’re talking about wildlife.  Really, we should give differential grasshoppers some kind of award for their ability to take lemons and make lemonade (that’s just a metaphor, kids).  Hooray for differential grasshoppers!

Unless, of course, they’re eating your sweet corn.

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 my 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.