At any time, it is estimated that there are some 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive. Eeeek. Its no wonder that some bugs, at large, can freak folks out. Especially kids.
“They are so different from us,” explained Dr. Bruce Giebink, Entomologist, "When you take a look at them, close up, they truly look like creatures from outer space."
And Dr. Bruce should know. Known as Dr. Bruce the “Bug” Guy, he has built a successful business creating education shows for kids that include hands-on, live bugs.
He said that a lot of it is the fear of the unknown. “A lot of times, they surprise people,” he said, “They can cause a startle response. A lot of people really do not know a whole lot about insects. And, they may not be very good at identifying them, so they kind of put a blanket over all bugs. Since a few of them can hurt you, they are over cautious when they don’t know about something.”
Dr. Bruce put on his bug presentation for my son, Hayden’s birthday one year. Being that the room was full of young boys, you could feel the excitement in the air. Boys and bugs. Nothing better, right? They ooed and aahed over the hissing cockroaches, and got a close up look at a scorpion. But they all recoiled in horror when Dr. Bruce brought out sweet “Rosie”. Well, in their defense Rosie is a big Tarantula. Their eyes watched warily as her hairy legs slowly moved up Dr. Bruce’s arm. But in time, Rosie won them over, and by the end of the program, most boys had no problem holding her right in their palms. However, when one of his large Praying Mantises flew out of his hand and landed on my son’s head, all cool-headedness was forgotten, and chaos ensued. Don’t worry, though. Remarkably, the Praying Mantis made it back into his cage un hurt.
So what’s the deal with bugs? What seem to be the “scariest” bug, that really shouldn’t’ be scary at all? Dr. Bruce rates them on their scale of size, scariness, and your likelihood to encounter them right in your backyard:
#1 – InfraorderAnisoptera- (aka: The Dragon Fly)
The Dragon Fly: Dr. Bruce said he would put the dragon fly has number one on his list as a creepy looking bug that’s misunderstood. Dragonflies are a large insect, and especially here in Minnesota, they’re around a lot. If you look at them close up, they look intimidating. And if you pick them up, they’ll thrash around. And they do nip you, although Dr. Bruce said they seldom break the skin. Even if they did, they don’t have any venom or anything that’s harmful. “More than anything, it startles you,” explained Dr. Bruce, “they don’t attack people. Their territorial, and if you walk in their territory, they will buzz you.” He said the next time you see a dragonfly buzzing around the yard, keep in mind that it’s a very beneficial insect, which most scary-looking predators are, he pointed out. They eat a lot of flying insects, including mosquitoes, and biting gnats. If you live around water, ponds and streams and rivers, where the water quality is good, you are going to have your share of dragonflies.
#2 - Euborellia annulipes (aka: The Ear Whig) You might not know the name, but if you live in Minnesota, you see them. They are a fearsome looking but that is around a half inch to 3 quarters of an inch long. But the kicker is they have scary looking pinchers on the tip of their abdomen. “You would think, just because of the name, that they have something to do with your ears,” laughed Dr. Bruce,” in old times, folks believed they would crawl in people’s ears and cause lots of problems. Not true.” Dr. Bruce explained that 10 to 12 years ago, they were not common west of Michigan. But with Minnesota’s higher humidity levels lately, and more humid hot summers, it has been favoring the ear whig. They have been expanding steadily westward. Do they bite? Well, they can pinch, according to Dr. Bruce. “It’s not anything that amounts to much. It’s a defensive maneuver. They’ll pinch you if they need to protect their life.”
#3 – Tabanidae and Chrysops (aka: Horse Flies and Deer flies)
Everyone has had their battles with number three on Dr. Bruce’s list, especially around mid summer in Minnesota. If you’re around a swampy area, on a hot summer day near the edge of the woods, they will downright drive you crazy. “They can be extremely annoying,” admitted Dr. Bruce, “and they have no finesse. Their mouthpart is like a little dagger, and they don’t wiggle it in, like a mosquito, they jam it in. And they like to land right on your head. Some kids might think they have a dangerous bite, but they don’t. All kids have different comfort levels with it comes to bugs.” He further explained that horse flies and deer flies aren’t shy about the fact that they’re after a meal. And if there’s not a deer or other blood source around, people will do just fine.
#4 – Dolomedes Tenebrosus (aka: Fishing Spider: known as nursery web spiders: they do not build webs)
While spiders as a whole might be number one on most people’s list, Dr. Bruce wanted to hone in on a specific spider that loves Minnesota...and its boats. Nothing says Minnesota more than the name “fishing spider” right? Fishing Spiders are one of Minnesota’s largest spiders. They have fairly long legs, and a number of them have a striped pattern on them. They can vary quite a bit in color, ranging from a light grey to black. Dr. Bruce said most Minnesotan’s are sharing their boats with these little creatures. “You’re bound to find them in and around water, quite often right when you hop into your boat,” he said. How big? Well, the body isn’t that big, but when you factor in the leg length, they can be around 3 inches long. And they can move fast. “Some kids may think they’re a brown recluse spider, and they may think they are common here, but they are very very rare. But then again, any spider that has fangs that are sharp enough to bite and long enough to penetrate can give you a bite. We have such individual variation in our immune system on how we react. Some don’t react at all, while some puff up quite a bit.”
While we all know deep down that most bugs are harmless, there’s always a few that aren’t.
“There’s only a handful of bad ones that kind of spoil it for all the rest,” said Dr. Bruce, explaining you want to minimize your exposure to these. Dr. Bruce said to keep an eye out for this “bad” bug come spring time, even though he says their not a true insect but still in under the bug category. And Minnesotan’s know all kinds of them: Arachnids in the order Ixodida (aka: The Wood Tick and the Deer Tick).
Dr. Bruce said last year they weren’t quite as bad, but a few years ago they started showing up as early as late March and early April. He said the Wood Tick (or American Dog Tick) is the bigger ones, around the size of your little finger nail. And they’re the ones that Fido likes to pick up in the backyard. The really concerning one is the smaller of the two, the Deer Tick, especially the little nymphs. “They’re really small, and the nymphs are basically the immature stages of the deer tick. And the deer tick is not big to start with.” Still send the kids outdoors, but take some precautions. If your wading through the woods, try to stay on the path where the grass is short. And try tucking in your pants into your socks. “You’ll look like a dork,” he laughs, “and if you wear light pants or khakis you can see them better and flick them off before they get to you.” He also added that DEET is a very effective repellant, but it is not recommend that you spray DEET directly on your child’s skin. He recommended spraying it only on clothing, especially pants.
Mainly, Dr. Bruce said to remember that most of the time bugs get a bad rap. “I want to educate kids and adults alike,” he said, “as a society its kind of us against the bugs. If people learn to tolerate and co-exist, I think a lot of creatures in the natural word, insects included, would enjoy the outdoors more.”
All I know is, regardless of his praying mantis moment at his birthday party, my son likes to buy Praying Mantis pods every spring, and plant them in our flowers pots by the front door. Go figure.