BELLY UP TO THE GRAVEL BAR FOR TOAD BUGS
By Arthur V. Evans
One of my favorite haunts for insect photography is a small and unassuming gravel bar located just downstream from the dam that keeps the Swift Creek Lake within its banks in Pocahontas State Park, Virginia.
Gravel bars are tough places to live. Their surfaces can reach blistering temperatures or be completely inundated by flooding waters. Still, they support insects adapted to live under such harsh conditions that are seldom found anywhere else.
Many larger species spend their days hiding under stones and their nights foraging for food and mates. Some smaller species spend their entire lives comfortably wedged between the narrow, wet spaces between pebbles and coarse grains of sand. And still others are just passing through.
Not long ago, with a rushing stream at my back, I slowly knelt down on thankfully padded knees to recalibrate my focus on this universe wrought small. It took me of bit of time and patience to get my head out of the hustle and bustle of modern-day life, shake off the city with its noise and congestion, and begin to really see and appreciate the tiny inhabitants of this rocky shoal.
Bit by bit I took in my surroundings. Suddenly, a bit of movement drew my eyes toward a small embankment. I kept staring at the spot as I inched toward it, hoping to see whatever it was moving again. But it didn’t. Then it did, and I zeroed in on the spot. Just as the short, warty bug with bulging eyes came into focus, it jumped away. It was a toad bug, Gelastocoris oculatus.
It was as if I had just seen an old friend. I can still remember my very first encounter with this species along the edges of Little Rock Creek that meandered slowly out of the San Gabriel Mountains to the southern fringes of the Mojave Desert in Southern California. This species of toad bug is widely distributed throughout southern Canada and most of the United States.
The rough bodies of toad bugs are usually dull and mottled with brown and black. The base colors range from almost entirely yellowish, reddish-yellow, grayish-black, to nearly black. As a result, toad bugs are masters of the disappearing act.
Their front legs resemble those of a praying mantis, only shorter and chunkier. And like praying mantises, toad bugs are voracious predators and use these legs to capture small insects.
In Virginia, both larvae and adults live gregariously in a variety of habitats along the muddy, sandy, or gravelly margins of ponds, streams, and rivers. Overwintering adults appear in spring to feed and mate.
From May through September each female lays a dozen or so white eggs at a time in the sand, probably 200 or more in their lifetime. The eggs hatch in about two weeks; another two or three months are required before the larvae reach adulthood.
The toad bug eventually abandoned the gravel bar and disappeared into some low herbaceous growth nearby. I turned to find a small coppery ground beetle with bulging eyes, bright green legs, and patches of purple on its back running across the gravel, but this is a story for another time.
© 2010, A.V. Evans