Thursday, April 8, 2010

Toe-Biter, Part II

I took a look through some of my photos in hopes of finding some that show a little more beak detail.  Hopefully these extra shots give a bit more insight into the anatomy of a giant water bug.

I have come across this insect three times in the last two years.  The first time was on my back deck.  At that time I had only read about them and seen pictures in books, but when I saw it on my railing I had a pretty good idea of what it was.  I carefully took some photos - even moved it around a bit with a pencil to try and get a better shot.  My second encounter was with one that was swimming with me in my pool while I was vacuuming it.  In my panic to get out, I dumped the vacuum and jumped out of the pool so fast it would have made your head spin.  I ended up fishing the water bug out of the pool with a net and flung it over the neighbour's fence (sorry neighbour!)  No pictures were taken that day.  My last experience was with a dead one that I found on the way home from school.  At least I think it was dead.  Through my readings I have discovered that these insects can feign death when handled, but can suddenly stab with their peircing beak at a moment's notice.  I am pretty sure that is was dead, as it seemed fairly crispy and dry.  Perhaps I got lucky.  I did manage to get some good close ups of that one, and you should be able to see the rest of its beak folded up underneath it.  To get a better look at the photos, you should be able to click on the pictures for an enlarged view. 

I look better bigger.  You should click me.....

Click on picture to make it bigger. 

October 27th Update:  

Chris Fitzpatrick sent in this photo of a toe-biter he found on its back in a parking lot.  Although I wouldn't want to get bit by one, I'm glad to hear that this one lived to see another day.  Thanks Chris!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Giant Water Bug... aka the Toe-Biter

I received an email this morning from a friend up the street who had found this insect near North Bay, Ontario, and was unsure as to what it was.  I love identifying insects for friends and family!  As luck would have it, I knew right away what this fascinating creature was.  A Giant Water Bug! 

This insect falls into the true bug category.  So what is a true bug?  Without getting too technical, a true bug is from the Hemiptera order of insects.  True bugs have a specific wing structure which puts them into this classification of insect.  The term Hemiptera actually means "half wing"".  In this case, half of their front wings are thick and leathery, while the other half are membranous.  Another important criteria for the true bug designation, is the presence of piercing, sucking mouthparts.  These critters cannot chew!  Instead, true bugs pierce their food with their beak-like mouths, pumps saliva into the food source to partly digest it, and then sucks it up like a straw.  The piercing mouthpart of this particular insect cannot be seen in the photos above, as it is tucked underneath its "nose", if you will.

So, the giant water bug has a few other names that it is known by.  One is the toe-biter, and the other is the electric light bug.  The toe-biter name came about as it is often stepped on by unsuspecting victims and the electic light bug name comes from its attraction to electic lights at night. Oh, by the way, these things can fly.  Kind of makes June bugs a little less freaky, huh?!

This insect, which is the largest of the true bugs, can be found in shallow freshwater lakes, streams, ponds and pools.  I found one doing laps in my pool last summer while I was vacuuming it out.  I didn't stick around to play with it, as these critters can have a powerful bite!  Just so you know, I am scared of PLENTY of bugs!  I just find that the more I learn about them, the less there is to fear. 
Juicy Tidbits
  • These common brown insects range in size from 1 to 2 3/8 inch
  • They have flattened hind legs that are used for swimming.  
  • Their strong forelegs are used for grasping prey while the insect thrusts its piercing beak into it. 
  • There are two tail-like breathing tubes at the rear end of the toe-biter that help it to breath while underwater. When it needs air, it will raise its abdomen to the surface of the water and extend the breathing tubes.
  • Eats other insects, tadpoles, small fishes, salamanders and careless people's toes.  (kidding about the last food item!)
  • These critters will feign death if picked up, but can suddenly stab with their beaks!  This is not an insect that I would recommend handling at all!!! 

I have found some excellent websites if you would like to know more about the giant water bug

I also used my trusty National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects & Spiders, page 463 - 464 for information.

Special thanks to Marc, Meaghan, Keith and Dean for finding this insect and sending it my way!!