Wheels Aren’t Just for Cars

by The Bug Lady

No other insect this year has generated as much interest as the unusual “Wheel Bug”. Starting early in the spring, I began getting phone calls describing odd little black bugs with red butts. Even without seeing the strange little insect I knew exactly what they had found. These little red and black bugs are the nymphs of the
wheel bug. The red “butt” is actually their abdomen. They look so different at this stage that they almost seem as if they could be a completely different species.

Most of us call all six-legged creatures’ bugs, but scientists reserve the term bug for a specific order of insects called Hemiptera which are the true bugs. If the insect’s common name ends in the word bug, like Stink Bug, Box-Elder Bug etc. then you know it belongs within this order. Therefore Wheel Bugs belong within this order. The correct term for all other “bugs” is insects. There is a saying that goes “All bugs are insects, but not all insects are bugs”. Now that you are all completely confused, all you need to remember is every single six-legged creature you see is an insect of some type, within this group of six-legged creatures are a group of insects that you can correctly refer to as bugs.

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The phone calls and emails continued coming in all summer from people who have found these odd bugs. They would describe their find, and each time without even seeing the insect I knew exactly what they had found. These insects are unmistakable. About mid-summer they go from the bright red and black to a grayish colored nymph. They still look different from their adult counterpart, but at least the coloring is becoming similar.

Wheel Bugs are very slow growing; it will take them many months to reach adult size. During this growth and development they will consume many insects. They feed on any passing insect that they are fortunate enough to capture, even ones of their own kind. I would consider these insects extremely beneficial to have in your garden. I would not recommend handling them however. They are capable of giving an extremely painful bite. There is a chemical within their saliva that they inject through their beak-like mouth that contains an enzyme. This enzyme dissolves the tissues within the insect prey they feed upon. This allows them to suck up the body fluids much like we sip through a straw. Consider it a Bug Slurpy if you will.

If these bugs should happen to inject you with this enzyme, it could potentially cause an allergic reaction. I used to work with a gentleman who was bitten and ended up in the hospital with his blood pressure elevated and his arm swelling and in pain. He was given an antibiotic and sent home. His bite occurred quite by accident when he opened a door and one of these little guys was present right where he placed his hand. He said the bite hurt terribly for about 10 minutes. I’ve heard it compared to the sting of a hornet. The pain went away and later he had the reaction. This reaction would be extreme, much like the reaction people have to bees or wasps. Not everyone is allergic, but for those of us who are it can be an unforgettable experience.

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Wheel bugs are found throughout most of the United States and are very common to abundant in Missouri. They occur in gardens and weedy areas. It is not uncommon to find them near homes where they will feed on insects that are attracted to backyard gardens and the foundations of our homes. Their cryptic coloring aids them in being able to hide undetected on the foliage of plants or even on the foundation of our houses.

As adults they will take on the trademark gray coloring and that distinguishing “wheel” on their thorax. No other insect has this wheel, which would make it very difficult to mistake them for any other species.

Mating takes place late in the summer or early fall. Males guard the female to keep other males from moving in on his female. This helps insure his genes are carried on. The female will begin laying eggs shortly after mating. She will lay these eggs in clusters up to 140 at a time. The eggs overwinter and hatch the following spring when the weather warms up. The adults will perish when cold weather sets in.

These are truly unusual bugs, and I look forward to their return each spring. It is fascinating to watch them grow from tiny red and black nymphs into the large gray bugs with that odd little “cog” on their shoulders. If you happen upon one of these crazy bugs, go ahead and watch, but be warned….DON’T TOUCH!

Happy Bugging
(The Bug Lady)

If you'd like to read more articles like this one, follow the links below to find The Bug Lady's blogs, which are both very good. MOBugs is a wonderful blog about the insects that can be found in and around Missouri. It has been featured here at Nature Center Magazine in our Nature Site Of The Week. Explore Missouri is an excellent blog about all of the other wildlife around Missouri. It isn't updated as often as MOBugs, but if you leave her some encouraging comments I'm sure that will change.

Now go and visit one or both of her blogs. You'll be very glad you did. And make sure you leave her a nice comment to let her know you were there.

Explore Missouri


  1. Great article- I love your writing style in this. I'm sure we don't have bugs like the wheel bug here in the UK but we still have some fairly interesting creatures! It'll be interesting looking at the type of insects you have in Missouri.

  2. He looks a bit like a squash bug! That's another bug I've seen in my garden which is definitely not good for it! When I first saw his picture my bug intruder alert alarm went off, but he does not have the proboscis type sucking mouth parts of a squash bug... he's a predator! Very nifty.

    I am usually pretty jumpy when it comes to freaky insects in my garden that I don't recognize. But knowledge = power!

  3. Very interesting. I see a lot of insects when I'm out and about. I usually leave them alone if they leave me alone. Guess I'll start paying more attention.


  4. I think many of us see insects and mistake them as harmful to the plants they are found in.

  5. we have something that looks similar here, don't know what it's called, hopefully it's not these.


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