Wheel Bugs

As I was making my way back from a seminar on skin color genetics yesterday, I noticed a couple of bugs perched on the outer wall of my building. This wouldn't be a blog worthy moment, except that the bugs were huge . . . and in mid coitus. I hurried inside and ran upstairs to grab my camera. I returned -- with both my camera and another grad student -- to find the bugs in the same position as when I left them.


This wasn't exactly a high energy sexual encounter. In fact, the male appeared to be just sitting on the back of the female -- as if he were in the process of pinning her in some kind of slow moving wrestling match. There was no humping, no bumping, no grinding. It was boring, like I imagine married people sex to be.


As we leered at the bugs, they barely moved an antenna in response. I snapped pictures like an entomological peeping Tom, and they didn't mind. Both my co-conspirator and I were amazed by the exotic appearance of these lovebirds bugs. The nifty stegosaurus-esque thoraxes screamed out that these creatures were not native to central Pennsylvania. It turns out that we were wrong, but more on that later.

It also seemed odd that, despite the fact that the smaller male had mounted the larger female (a pretty striking sexual dimorphism, if you ask me), it didn't appear that he had brought his genitals in contact with her's. Or, to use more colloquial terminology, he hadn't put his doodad in her nanner. At least it didn't look like it. Was he really boinking her?

I spotted a lone male standing atop the ashtray/trashcan that's outside the door to our building (this is not the appropriate time for me to opine on biologists who smoke, so I won't -- except for this aside). Maybe he'd attempted to court the female, but failed. Or maybe he was just hanging out. Or maybe he was engaging the same peeping tom-foolery that my friend and I were perpetrating. Whatever the case may be, there he was.


Curious as to what the hell these funny looking critters were (and still under the impression that they were something exotic -- something from far far away), we discussed who we could cajole into helping us identify the buggers. It was past five o'clock, so our options were limited. Also, the Entomology Department was too far away. My partner in crime suggested one of the faculty members in our building who knows a thing or two about creepy crawly things.

She ran upstairs and grabbed a plastic bottle from her lab. When she returned, she delicately directed the lone male into her trap (a feat I'm not sure I would have been able to pull off). Luckily, he didn't struggle much because, as we would soon learn, these guys are capable of delivering quite a bite. We brought our captor up to the bug guy's office only to discover that he had gone home for the day. As we poked around his lab, we came across a new grad student who happened to have been trained as an entomologist. Hooray!!


Our new friend took one look at our prize and said, "That's a wheel bug." We replied, "What's a wheel bug and where is it from?" He told us that they're native to much of the United States. What a bummer -- this whole time we'd thought we had found some exotic creature. Looks sure can be deceiving.

Our newfound bug expert told us that these guys are true bugs. We were even able to identify it down to the genus and species name: Arilus cristatus (described by Linnaeus!). As the bug crawled out of the plastic bottle, he warned us to be careful because these guys bite. Then he calmly pushed it back into the bottle with his fingers. Later we would return him (the bug, not the grad student) to hang out with his wheel bug buddies outside.

We told bug expert that there was a pair of wheel bugs outside doing the nasty. He claimed to have seen them out there the previous day as well -- what stamina! I kept my eyes peeled for them earlier today as I came back from lunch. Both the male and the female were still perched on the wall, only the male was no longer mounting the female. Instead, he was a few inches below her facing downwards toward the ground. I guess there's only so much nookie one wheel bug can handle in a week.

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Nice story RPM, I didn't know you had the natural history 'bug' in you. Here I thought you were all gene and no morph.

We have their little brothers in our backyard, called Assassin Bugs, I think because they are ambush predators. If memory serves me right, the last instar is when they get the 'wheel' look.

True enough. What makes him think that married people have sex?