Nature Nearby: It came from the dark, wet woods
By Fred Seitz
My dog requires me to walk him outside multiple times 365 days a year (he’s a purebred spoiled mutt). Of course, our mid-July torrential storms afforded us no exceptions. When we returned from one of our short and muddy excursions, I was happy to sit down. At that point, I noticed a large brown spot on one of my shoes. I stooped to wipe off what I believed was a spot of mud or a dead leaf.
To my surprise, the spot quickly moved off my shoe and quickly scurried under my chair. Amused (and a bit irritated), I got up, moved the chair and watched the scurrier dash across the room and under a bookshelf. I attempted to spot the spot under the chair, but to no avail.
Fairly unconcerned, I resumed my normal activities and somewhat forgot about the incident — until a few days later, when I observed the spot clinging to my bare foot with painful pinchers. My calm, collected response was to jump up (in the manner of an Irish jig), swat the beast off my foot with my shoe, and then squash it with the same shoe.
While a squashed bug (or for that matter, most any squashed creature) is not that easy to identify, I thought it might be a roach or a giant water bug, based on the size (probably over an inch long) and formerly rapid movement of the spot. Further reflection upon the squashed bug’s behavior, including his decisions to turn my shoe into his house and chomp on my toes, led me to further conclude that the villain was probably a giant water bug.
Giant water bugs are in the family Belostomatidae and are one of the largest insects found in the U.S., as they often reach 2 to 3 inches in length. They are brown and have flattened oval bodies. There are around 170 species of giant water bugs found worldwide in freshwater habitats.
Some giant water bug aliases include toe-biters (perhaps my attacker was self-actualizing its inner persona), alligator ticks or alligator fleas. One of their more positive nicknames is electric-light bugs, as most adult species can fly and are attracted by lights at night.
Giant water bugs like to hang out in vegetation along the edges of lakes and wetlands, especially when they’re hunting. When not biting the toes of humans, they will devour tadpoles, snails and small fish. Some feed on small crustaceans. Their hunting repertoire can include attacking creatures many times larger than themselves, including small turtles. (Fortunately, I seem to have exceeded his appetite at the time.) They grasp their victims with pincer-like front appendages and then inject them with a powerful toxin. This toxin both paralyzes the victim and liquifies its insides, allowing the water bug to suck up and ingest its meal. (Yum.)
Despite being somewhat alarming and a bit gruesome, giant water bugs have some fascinating and unique adaptations.
They have a rather progressive parenting style in that the male giant water bug is greatly involved with its young. Some species’ females lay the eggs on the backs of males, who carry them around until they hatch. The females of other species lay their eggs above water on vegetation, which males then guard.
Giant water bugs breathe using snorkel-like tubes on the tip of their abdomen, which can reach above water and collect oxygen to store as a bubble of air beneath their wings when they dive under water. Spiracles, or holes, under their abdomen slowly absorb the air from the bubble into their bodies.
When a giant water bug gets into an altercation with one of its predators, like a larger reptile or amphibian, the water bug may feign death, prompting the predator or combatant to leave the water bug — who can live to annoy and bite again.
Giant water bugs are fried and eaten in some Asian cultures. However, if animals or humans eat the American species that likely attacked me, they may end up with indigestion or a bad taste in their mouth.
So if you wander in our swamp or by the little rivlets by the park, take care lest you later find a mystery spot on your foot.