The website "Garden Adventures" runs a weekly creature feature that I learned about from Toni's Signature Gardens blog, so I just had to add a plug for my own candidate for Little Shop of Horrors. The picture below was taken last weekend while I was on my Bluebird Trail, cleaning out the boxes for winter. Near one of the nestboxes, sitting on the top rail of an iron fence and presumably soaking up the sunshine to warm it and start the day, was this 1.5 inch long monster with an iridescent back and a central ridge of spikes. Since I'm not one to collect insects, nor to touch them without provocation, I hoped that the picture would suffice for an entomologist to identify it.
This spiked creature was subsequently identified for me by a KSU Entomologist as a Wheel Bug, Arilus cristatus, the only member of its genus and a formidable predator of soft-bellied insects, particularly caterpillars and pests such as Japanese beetles. It is considered a beneficial insect, although it has also been noted to feed on other beneficials such as honey bees and lady beetles. The larger females kill and eat the male after copulation, similar to the fabled Black Widow spider. One of the largest terrestial North American bugs, it pierces its prey with a sharp beak and injects saliva to dissolve the soft tissues from the inside-out, first immobilizing and then killing the victim in less than 30 seconds. My reticence to touch it was wise as I've learned it can inflict a very painful bite on people, described as being worse than a hornet's sting, and it will create a wound that may take months to heal and often leaves a scar. For such a vicious bug, one web site noted that in captivity, it quickly becomes accustomed to being handled, but I, for one, am not contemplating keeping one as a pet.
Do you ever wonder, with such a killer bite, why this bug needs all the scary appendages, the ridged back spine and the spikes on top and in the middle? This thing is right out of the movie Aliens, only needing a wee Sigorney Weaver to make it fit the part. Does an insect predator really need to advertise that it is a predator? Isn't that counterproductive to obtaining dinner? I would have predicted that it would make more sense for predators to look like lambs and lambs to look scary, but I guess it doesn't work that way in the bug world.