Wheel bugs are one of the most distinctive insects in North Carolina; they are easily identifiable by a pronounced (and very odd) projection that arcs up from their backs. Once you see one wheel bug up close, other individuals are easy to identify at a glance.
And “a glance” is truly all you should ever give these creatures. Wheel bugs are “assassin bugs” – members of the insect family Reduviidae – and the common name is not accidental or hyperbole. These insects bite and bite hard. In a classic example of “adding insult to injury”, assassin bugs inject specialized venom into their victims that causes vertebrates tremendous nerve pain (that would be you!).
Luckily for us, humans aren’t on wheel bugs’ menu. They are predators, and prefer to use their sharp, stabbing beaks and venom on insect prey. They are perfectly happy to leave us alone, and we should return the favor. Remember that those stabbing beaks evolved to puncture hard insect exoskeletons – soft-bodied humans pose no challenge to wheel bugs. And if we are so foolish as to handle or harass a wheel bug, we really won’t like their response.
|Common Name||Wheel bug|
|Scientific Name||Arilus cristatus|
|Classification||Class Insecta, Order Hemiptera, Family Reduviidae (“assassin bugs”)|
|Size – imperial (metric)||1.125-1.375 in (28-36 mm)|
|Appearance||Body longer than it is wide; long, thin head tipped with three-segmented beak carried underneath the body at rest; bulging eyes. Light gray to gray body, wings slightly darker than body.|
Thorax is raised into a round, vertical ridge edged with jagged teeth that resembles a cogwheel (thus the common name for this species).
|Habitat||Found throughout North Carolina, usually in vegetation, especially meadows, farm fields, and gardens.|
|Notes||IMPORTANT: DO NOT HANDLE! CAN AND WILL INFLICT PAINFUL BITES.|
For information about assassin bugs and how they live, check out this Now I Wonder post “Assassin Bugs – Truth in Advertising“.
Milne, Lorus, and Milne, Margery. 1980. National Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects and Spiders North America. New York (NY): Chanticleer Press, Inc.
Eaton, Eric R., and Kaufman, Kenn. 2007. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. New York (NY): Mariner Books, HarperCollins