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A few years ago, this paper carried a column almost every week called Wild Things or something like that. I miss that column. I talked with the writer of that column this afternoon and, lo and behold, he misses writing it. He would spotlight some creature or other that he encountered in the yard or up a tree or crawling on the sidewalk and give us all a good education on its dangers or benefits. Sometimes it was a snake, sometimes it was a bird, and sometimes it was simply something pretty.
In honor of that writer, this week I’m pointing out a bug that I saw yesterday for the first time. I was strolling outside early in the day and paused in the shade of a mature holly tree. As I stood just doing nothing, I noticed a black spot on the smooth bark of the tree. Looking more closely, I realized that the spot was made up of dozens of some insect I couldn’t identify. As I gazed upward, I saw more and more clusters of these bugs. They seemed to be motionless, just hanging out in a gang on the trunk and limbs of that tree.
Well, I called a couple of guys nearby to come take a look and tell me what I was looking at. They didn’t know either, so I had one of them take a couple of pictures and email them to me. I forwarded those pictures to our local expert, Extension Agent Bob Jones. And, as usual, Bob didn’t let me down.
I got a call from Bob this afternoon telling me they were box elder bugs, but he had never seen them on a holly tree before. “There must be a box elder somewhere nearby,” he said. I don’t know about that, but they were certainly enjoying themselves on the holly tree.
Box elder bugs are true bugs, and go pretty much unnoticed most of the year. In the fall, however, they have an annoying tendency to congregate on people’s homes. As temperatures drop, they make their way inside houses and other structures, seeking warmth. But that’s all they’re doing – just getting warm. They cause no damage.
Adult box elder bugs are about ½ inch long. They are flat-backed and elongate. Behind its black head, a box elder bug has three lengthwise red stripes. Each wing is outlined in red on the outer edge, and bears a diagonal red marking as well.
Adult box elder bugs feed on the sap of box elders, as well as other maple varieties and oaks. They use piercing, sucking mouthparts to draw sap from leaves, flowers, and seeds of these host trees.
Ordinary insecticides will rid trees of this bug, but if they invade your home, be careful what you use to kill them. Their decaying bodies may draw other insects such as carpet beetles to feed on them and in turn, they might also feed on clothing and carpets. Your best bet to get rid of live or dead box elder bugs inside is simply to vacuum them up.