The Bugs of Autumn

Wheel Bug

Insects and arachnids abound in my yard year-round. Even in January, Black Widow Spiders loiter under rocks, and large Garden Spiders guarding their egg sacs can be unintentionally uncovered when clearing debris from flower beds. Honey bees exploit any winter day with highs above 60 degrees F, frantically seeking pollen from my early bloomers.

The pace — and the quantity — of insect life visibly slows as autumn’s chilly grip tightens. Most of these creatures complete their life cycles in a year. Cold autumn mornings tend to catch these aging bugs snoozing — probably dying — in locations where I don’t see them in summer.

Take the Wheel Bug in the above photo. This is a kind of assassin bug, meaning it preys on any other insect it can pin with its long legs. That long tube extending down from its head is its piercing mouth apparatus. It stabs its victims and sucks their juicy innards dry. Note that I flipped this photo upside down here, so that you might more easily appreciate its structure.

In my yard and garden, Wheel Bugs are welcome. They are largely beneficial, since they eat a lot of stink bugs, caterpillars, and other pest insects that would otherwise devour my flowers and vegetables.

Named for the wheel-looking growth on their backs, I think these critters look like robot bugs; the wheels on their backs make them look mechanically driven to my eye. If you see such a creature in your yard, do NOT pick it up with your bare hands, no matter how slowly it is moving. These insect predators will stab anything within reach, including your fingers. I’ve read that the wounds can induce allergic reactions in some folks, but they hurt like the dickens in all folks, and the wounds take over a month to heal in most.

Here’s another recent visitor I spotted dining on my lantana leaves:

Yellow Bear Caterpillar

Yes, I know it’s not actually yellow. According to my caterpillar bible (Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner), the colors of this caterpillar vary widely, from nearly black, through orange, yellow, and beige. Their diagnostic characteristic are the long hairs — almost three times longer than their bodies — that protrude from their backs. If you click on this photo to enlarge it, you can see them more easily.

The rule of thumb with hairy caterpillars is to assume those hairs will sting, inflicting significant pain and possible allergic reactions if they encounter your skin. Treat all such caterpillars with respect. I was lucky enough to hear Dr. Wagner lecture on caterpillars when he visited the NC Botanical Garden a few years ago. This is a man dedicated to his work. He told the audience that he deliberately pressed hairy caterpillars onto his arm to see if they stung him — I kid you not!

This caterpillar becomes a Virginian Tiger Moth, a fairly nondescript mostly white moth whose larvae eat most any plant they encounter.

Here’s a Green Shield Bug that was dozing in the morning chill on a chair on my deck:

Green Shield Bug

My apologies for the less-than-great photo. The light was uncooperative. This member of the stink bug family spends its days sucking out the life juices from my veggies, flowers, and other plants. In so doing, they often introduce diseases into the plants they prey on. In short, I don’t like these bugs. But when I saw this bright green bug contrasted against the brown of my chair, I thought it might be worthy of a photo, especially since I know it was only there because its days are numbered. It may well have fallen from the tree above as cold nights and a rapidly aging body impede its ability to cling to vegetation.

And finally, I’ll leave you with a dozing Carpenter Bee:

Carpenter Bee slumbers on Pineapple Sage

Carpenter Bees only live one growing season. On chilly autumn mornings, I find them slumbering atop many of my remaining flowers, including the Pineapple Sage, which they seem to especially enjoy. Its not a bad way to go — slumbering among the flowers. Most of the late sleepers will eventually rouse as the sun hits them. Eventually, I do begin to find expired bee bodies on the ground beneath the plants. These bees are very fuzzy looking, especially their heads and yellow backs. I love to gently stroke those parts — a bit like stroking a cat — while they are too cold to argue. I taught my nephew this trick when he was a wee lad. He had been afraid of bees, but knowing that — at the right time of year — they were so docile helped him overcome his fear.

Lots of folks fear or hate insects and spiders, and, to me, that’s a shame. Their presence in your garden and yard — in balanced quantities — indicates you’re maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Doing so means less work for you, as beneficial insects keep the troublesome ones in check. And their behaviors and never-ending diversity serve as endless sources for exploration and entertainment.

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