Giant Water Bug

(This column was first published in the November 1, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    The call came from Terry Kaus of Darien.

    "I saw your column about those alien beetles," he said, "and I want to tell you about a giant bug I found on the floor of a building in Akron. It must be another foreign insect because I am sure we don't have anything like it here. I caught it and you can have it if you want it."

    Intrigued, I drove out to Darien the next evening. Kaus brought out a plastic container and released the bug on his kitchen floor. He was unfazed by it but his wife and I shied back. This was indeed a huge, dangerous looking specimen.

    As it slowly crawled about we had a good opportunity to examine it. It was black and its flat shape made it look like a giant cockroach. But this was no cockroach. It was twice as long as the largest cockroach I have ever seen -- and believe me, my college dormitory had big ones. Although I was not about to put a ruler on it, I am certain that it measured over three inches. It didn't have the long antennas of a cockroach either; in fact, I could see none at all. And also unlike the cockroach, this insect had large protruding, hemispherical eyes. When I finally got down to look at the bug closely, those menacing eyes focused on me and it looked ready to pounce. I backed off again.

    Kaus calmly picked up the bug and put it back in its container. Only then did his wife and I breathe normally.

    I took the bug to entomologist Wayne Gall at the Buffalo Museum of Science and he immediately identified it as a giant water bug. This is not a foreign insect but instead a recognized member of our regional biota. In fact, the species was almost certainly here several million years before the first humans populated North America.

    The giant water bug is not common -- thank goodness -- but it does occur here regularly. Normally a pond dweller, it is a strong flier and this one was probably looking for a stream in which to overwinter. So attracted to light that it is sometimes called the electric light bug, it made its way into the building in which Kaus came upon it.

    Another name is toe biter, appropriate because Dr. Gall says that its bite packs a mighty wallop. Barefoot waders beware! It is a fierce predator that attacks frogs, fish and even birds. Ducklings are fair game and Philip Lawrence tells of an attack on a woodpecker. "A flicker uttered cries of distress and fluttered and fell down out of a tree. A very large bug was found attached to its head. Its beak was inserted in the back part of the head and its legs clamped tightly around the bird's beak." This reminded me of an episode when as a child I saw a robin flying with a big bug firmly clamped onto its back. I was left with nightmares.

    A less dismal characteristic of one giant water bug species -- there are several -- is how its young are reared. The female lays her eggs on the back of the male. After what one entomologist calls "something of a zoological record" of mating, he carries a hundred or more. Over the incubation period he will delicately stroke the eggs to maintain fresh water flow around them. Unexpectedly gentle care for such a vicious killer.

    The giant water bug demonstrates that our long time residents can be just as threatening as newcomers to the region, a lesson that applies to our human society as well.-- Gerry Rising