Beware the toe-biting water bugs this summer
Ah, the joys of summer – lemonade, fireflies, S’mores. As for the not-so-joyful list, mosquitoes aren’t the only entry. What about toe-biting water bugs? They may sound like a ghost story to tell around a beach bonfire, but they’re real. And they’re here in full force this summer, at least in Georgia. according to ag extension experts there. The uptick (pardon the pun) comes from lots of wet weather. There are some workarounds for toe-biting water bugs, though. Here’s where to find them, how to avoid them and what to do if they injure your toes.
Water bugs that bite your toes?
There’s no way to soften the news or make these bugs more appealing. Call them “toe-biters” or “giant water bugs” if you like, but they’ll still be huge. Only a dedicated entomologist or maybe a two-year-old could find these “real bugs” appealing. They’re huge, for a start, maybe a couple of inches long. And these giant things, these Latin name Belostomatidae, will bite you. When they do bite you, it will hurt, like a wasp sting. And you may not be expecting it. “When people encounter these and get bitten by them, it’s when they’re in a creek or the shallows of a lake, something like that. It gets you right on the toe,” University of Georgia Agriculture Extension Agent Courtney Brissey told WSB-TV Atlanta.
Brissey, who clearly fears no bug, made sure to add that these giant water bugs aren’t really wasp-ish. “Their mouthparts aren’t actually chewing mouthparts,” he added. “It’s a beak. So it’s like a straw that they actually stick you with, kind of like a needle.” That’s not much comfort. Nor is the fact that while these toe-biters proliferate in marshes and wetlands, they don’t necessarily object to residing in swimming pools. And if that pool or lakeside retreat also has a light source, like a street lamp? So much the better, these beaky bugs say while flexing their collapsible forelegs.
Toes aren’t their only prey
If you like quirks of nature, honestly, the Belostomatidae have some pretty interesting traits. (As long as you don’t have to get too close to one, or dangle your toes in front of it.) They are part of a family with the catchy name of “freshwater hemipteran insects,” with 170 species scattered in various bodies of freshwater across the globe. One of their coolest oddities is that the female lays eggs on the male’s wings, and he carries the whole squad until they hatch. Meantime, she’s off laying eggs on other males. (You might tear up at this responsible dad keeping eggs moist, sunned, and safe from predators, but be forewarned – it looks a little grubby in photos.)
The giant water bugs also have this odd move of literally blowing foul discharge out of their little bug butts if caught by surprise. This means sneaky enemies don’t have the advantage for long. And like possums, they might play dead. Just as their unsuspecting foe is swimming away or getting ready to dine on toe-biter, the giant insect springs back to life and goes on the attack. Usually, though, Belostomatidae are on the offensive end of a predator-prey relationship. Crustaceans and other insects are on their regular diet. They’re also aggressive and will hunt and eat baby turtles, small fish, and water snakes, with the whole process happening underwater.
Here’s how that works, according to Ranger Ana Beatriz on the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area Facebook page: “This insect pierces its victim with its sharp beak and injects a powerful toxin. The toxin paralyzes the prey and liquefies their meal from the inside before they suck out the contents. This bug can catch and eat an animal 50 times its size.” Note, though, that even the tiniest humans are way more than 50 times the size of a toe-biting water bug. And in Asia, where they sometimes grow to as long as four inches, water bugs themselves are on the menu as a delicacy. Still, there are times you’ve got to be on the lookout for these insects.
Beware the Belostomatidae
There’s no protecting your eyes from seeing these creepy bugs, but there are ways to avoid them and thus protect your toes. Don’t pick one up, for example. If they get addled, they might hurt you with their giant pinchers. In shallow water, keep an eye out for giant bugs with flat, oval bodies and very short antennae. Since giant water bugs don’t consider humans as food, you’re trying to keep from startling one into biting you, versus actively trying to keep it from attacking. And if you see a bug that matches the description, stay away even if it looks dead. Because, you’ll recall, playing dead is just part of the toe-biter’s strategy.
If you do meet the business end of that “beak,” limit the time the toe-biter has to keep injecting you with toxin and the pain won’t be as bad. This isn’t like rattlesnake venom, where it threatens human life. It just hurts like heck. And a very few people do have symptoms like cramping, fever or trouble breathing after a giant water bug bite. If that happens, speed off to the nearest ER, without pausing to get ice or take aspirin.
Last, make sure you don’t have a heart attack as a result of a giant aquatic bug. No, they don’t injure your pulmonary system or anything like that. But they are occasionally drawn to porch lights on sweltering summer nights, just like moths. The sight of a winged toe-biter flying up to a light source during mating season is a frightening spectacle indeed.