A BOUNTY OF BOXELDER BUGS
By Arthur V. Evans
A neighbor recently sought my advice about tiny, scarlet insects scurrying across his deck and up his walls, some of which were no larger than bits of coarsely ground pepper. Some had apparently found their way into his home and congregated in the well-lit windows on the south side of the house. A quick inspection of his home and property confirmed my suspicions; the tiny invaders were boxelder bugs.
For the past few weeks, I had noticed congregations of both adults and nymphs sunning themselves along back fences alleys and in trees growing along roadsides. I assured my neighbor that they posed no threat to property or pets, and that only in large numbers might they cause some damage to some plants.
Adult boxelder bugs are flat, dark-gray insects with three red lines behind the head and may reach ½ inch in length. The thickened portions of their wings are bordered with red, while the membranous tips are blackish. They are strong fliers, flashing their bright red abdomens as they spread their wings and take to the air. Young nymphs are mostly red, but later stages appear darker as their wing pads grow larger. Both adults and nymphs have long, thin antennae.
Hibernating adults leave their winter hideaway with the advent of warm weather in late March or early April. Soon the females begin laying their dark reddish eggs in the crevices of bark on box elder trees and other nearby objects. The eggs hatch in two or three weeks, just as succulent new box elder leaves are beginning to appear. The nymphs eat and grow, shedding their external skeleton five times before becoming a fully winged adult. Up to two generations of boxelder bugs are produced annually.
Both adults and nymphs prefer to feed on the seed-bearing female box elder trees, sucking sap from the new leaves, tender twigs, and developing seeds. They will also attack ash, maple, plum, cherry, apple, and peach trees, as well as grapevines and strawberries. Damage from their feeding activities may cause blotchy yellow patches or brown spots on fruit and leaves. Severe infestations of boxelder bugs can result in misshapen leaves and fruit, but mature and healthy plants seldom suffer any serious harm.
In the late spring and early fall, flying or crawling boxelder bugs converge on stone piles, tree holes, and other protected places, sometimes by the hundreds. They may invade buildings, crowding into cracks and crevices in walls, door and window casings, and around foundations. They do not bite, nor do they damage buildings, furnishings, clothing, or food. However, they will soil curtains and walls with their waste and will definitely leave a stain if crushed.
The best way to keep unwanted boxelder bugs, as well as other insects and spiders, out of your home is by improving security. Replace screens and door sweeps. Repair thresholds and secure pet doors. Apply screens to vents and other openings. Caulk and seal all possible entry sites near doors, windows, crawl spaces, light fixtures, utility pipes or wires, weather boarding, and in areas along the foundation.
For boxelder bugs already in the house, vacuuming, sweeping, or picking them up are the most effective methods for dispatching them. They do not feed on household structures or reproduce indoors, so there is no need to use chemical controls inside the home. Aerosol sprays designed to kill ants and cockroaches are generally ineffective against boxelder bugs.
Removing leaf litter and other debris that serve as egg-laying sites near the base of female (seed-producing) box elder trees will reduce large populations of boxelder bugs outdoors. Eliminate other hiding places, such as piles of boards, rocks, leaves, grass, and other debris close to the house. Clear leaves and grass away from the house, especially on the south and west sides of the structure. Since boxelder bugs prefer to feed and lay their eggs on female box elder trees, plant male box elder trees instead. Male trees, propagated from cuttings taken from other male trees, are purchased from the nursery. These measures will significantly reduce the numbers of boxelder bugs looking to get inside your warm and cozy home.
As with many other insects labeled as “pests,” a little knowledge of their habits can help to reduce costly and sometimes unnecessary reliance upon pesticides, while at the same time raising our levels of tolerance and wonder. To me, this year’s appearance of boxelder bugs is just another marvelous pulse in the seasonal cycle of life. I am not the only one who feels this way. Just ask the folks in Minneota, Minnesota. They celebrate these little creatures each year with Boxelder Bug Days, a fall festival featuring bug races, bug poetry, plays, and other activities. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!
© 2010, A.V. Evans