What’s bugging you? Little-known wheel bug makes startling appearances

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The reclusive wheel bug can be identified by its distinctive spiked half wheel of gear-like cogs on its thorax. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Common Contributor Dehaan The reclusive wheel bug can be identified by its distinctive spiked half wheel of gear-like cogs on its thorax. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Common Contributor Dehaan

Leslie Lovelace, manager at Ivy Corner Garden Center, knows wheel bugs, also called “assassin bugs,” only by their reputation. Co-workers have told her to be careful if she ever sees one with its distinctive spiked half wheel of gear-like cogs high on its thorax.

Rumor (and entomology websites) has it this insect has a painful bite that rivals snakes and shotguns.

Kate Hopkins, who works with summer campers in the Sugar Hollow area of Albemarle County, has seen a few, but says they tend to be “shy.”

Albert Graves, daytime manager at the Brownsville Market, hadn’t ever seen or heard about wheel bugs until a recent news broadcast reported Stephanie Rexrode had spotted one at the Crozet gas station. Rexrode, a West Virginia native and Afton resident, has spent years hunting, fishing and hiking in the woods, yet, she says, “I’d never seen one before. I didn’t know what it was.”

Eric Day, manager of the Insect Identification Lab at Virginia Tech, has often seen wheel bugs. “They are native to Virginia,” he says. “I’ve seen them in traps, in the lab, on my farm.” Day lives in Craig County where he has found wheel bugs on fruit trees, on blackberries and in the garden. But he refuses to sound any threatening alarms for this particular bug.

“They are more defensive than aggressive,” he says. “They are not like yellow jackets.”

He says he did receive a higher number of inquiries about wheel bugs this past year, and says an increase in calls could suggest an increase in the population. During the summer, “We had probably five times the number of calls,” he says.

His website touts wheel bugs in a backyard garden as a good thing. As a top-of-the-food-chain predator, they indicate a garden has a healthy ecosystem.

He does say their bite is purported to be very painful. “Like a sting. And it takes awhile for the bite to clear up,” he says. “But it’s not because of venom or poison. It’s the bug’s digestive enzymes.” The wheel bug injects this enzyme, which allows it to slurp up needed nutrients from its host, most often a juicy caterpillar.

Crozet environmental author Marlene Condon says the wheel bug is one of her favorites. Citing their “otherworldly” appearance, she likes the way they look.

As someone who makes daily tours of her half-acre farm in western Albemarle County, Condon is familiar with wheel bugs. “They are large and obvious,” she said. “Big insects, they measure over an inch long when they reach adulthood,” which typically comes at the end of the summer, she says.

Any adults would be dead now, she says.

“They overwinter as eggs, with nymphs hatching out in the spring. Although wheel bugs are common in eastern North America, you don’t see them a whole lot,” says Condon. “Because they are large insects, they try to stay out of sight if they can manage it so as to avoid being killed by another predator.”

As for the chance wheel bugs decimate the stink bug population, Day wasn’t overly enthused. “Wheel bugs are generalist predators,” he said. “They eat whatever they can capture.”

Condon says what really helps keep the numbers of stink bugs down are spiders.

The naturalist notes that people who visit her house must think it looks haunted because of all the cobwebs. Inside or out, spiderwebs are especially effective for pest control, according to Condon, who adds that she and her husband rarely see a flying insect in the house.