I was really hoping that wheel bugs would just be bugs shaped like wheels, but unfortunately that’s not the case. They do, however, look pretty cool, so I can’t begrudge them too much. Wheel bugs are also members of the family Reduviiae, commonly known as assassin bugs. If I had to be an insect, I’d definitely want to be an assassin bug.
Wheel bugs can be found throughout southeastern North America, commonly found in Florida, Texas, and can be seen as far south as Guatemala. They prefer to hang around in leafy areas where they are well hidden, as any good assassin would.
These guys are quite big for insects, reaching up to 3.8 cm in length. Adults are grey, with long legs, big eyes, and prominent antennae. The most notable feature of the wheel bug is the large, wheel-shaped protrusion on its back. Nymphs of the species are more startling looking, at least in colour. They are black with a bright-red marking, and look a bit like spiders (which is probably why I find them more terrifying than the adults.
Mating in wheel bugs occurs in the fall, and can be fairly violent. Some female wheel bugs eat their mating partners after mating, which doesn’t sound pleasant at all. The female then lays 40-200 eggs before dying herself. The eggs stay dormant over winter and hatch in the spring into the creepy looking nymphs. After five stages of moulting, the nymphs will reach adulthood.
Both adult and nymph wheel bugs are vicious critters. Nymphs often eat each other, as well as preying on small insects. Adults feed on caterpillars and beetles, and are highly appreciated in gardening communities as they consume common pest species. When hunting, wheel bugs ambush their prey, and then pierce the prey’s body with their beaks. This allows the wheel bugs to inject saliva into the poor victim, whose insides then dissolve in a most unpleasant way.
Wheel bugs aren’t only dangerous to caterpillars — both nymph and adult bites can be harmful to humans. The bites won’t kill you, but they will hurt. A lot. The bite of a wheel bug is often considered to more painful than that of a bee or wasp. The bites can take months to heal, and a scar may develop at the bite site. So even though they are usually well hidden and shy of people, it’d be best not to try and handle these guys.
Cover image by Ryan Kaldari, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons