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Wheel Bug – Hanging out with Arilus cristatus

This past summer the mosquitos were brutal. A photographer standing still has no defense. I almost stepped on a four-foot long rat snake at one point. I was looking down at my camera. He was as surprised as I but we both went on our way a little shaken but unscathed. Bees and wasps are constantly warning me off their territory with strafing runs. But perhaps the most memorable moment of this summer was my meeting with the ferocious wheel bug, Arilus cristatus. He was hanging out on a patch of Verbena bonariensis I was photographing.

Arilus cristatus, wheel bug, is an apex predator of the insect world.

Wheel bugs are generally considered extremely beneficial in the garden. They feed on a large number of insects that damage crops and ornamental plants. Wheel bugs eat aphids, stink bugs, young locust leafminers, and various species of caterpillars that defoliate forest and shade trees. Whatever you do, don’t hurt a wheel bug if you come upon it.

The presence of Arilus cristatus in an area can be an indicator of a healthy ecosystem.

Wheel bug nymph – Arilus cristatus – He watched every move I made.

Don’t handle wheel bugs.

Wheel bugs have a bite reportedly worse than a bee sting. Both nymphs and adult Arilus cristatus can be ornery and aggressive if provoked. The key is don’t provoke them. No poking, prodding, chasing. I photographed this guy for maybe 20 minutes and while he kept an eye on me with what can best be described as casual indifference, he seemed neither threatened nor inclined to attack. Wheel bugs are not aggressive towards human beings. Like most animals, they will only attack us in self-defense.

Perhaps because his gigantic proboscis-like beak looked humongous through the camera lens I had an inclination this was not an insect to trifle with. As a general rule, I’m not prone to handling anything wild anyway, except perhaps my friends and children, who are all without exception incorrigible.

By the way, female wheel bugs sometimes kill and eat males after copulation, so there’s that.

Wheel bug, Arilus cristatus, is native to North America.

It is one of the largest terrestrial true bugs on the continent. It is part of the Reduviidae family, which includes assassin bugs. By the way, the Latin term reduvia means ‘remnant’ or ‘hangnail’.  There are four species of Arilus, with cristatus being the only one found in the United States.

They live a year and then lay eggs, which overwinter waiting until spring to hatch. The peak time for spotting adults is mid-summer.

More information:
Wheel bug Featured Creature – University of Florida Entomology & Nematology
Wheel Bugs are the Most Terrifying Thing Ever (But Don’t Hurt Them) – Outside Magazine, Earl Swift

Native Distribution:
I did not find a definitive map of the range of Arilus cristatus. The map below was created from multiple resources online, most of which provide a verbal description of the natural range of wheel bugs.

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