The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Bountiful Bugs

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

As our garden season winds down you may have experienced the piercing bite of a bug so tiny it easily fades into oblivion among a sea of freckles. These itty bitty bugs pack a punch any boxer would envy.

The minute pirate bugs also known as insidious flower bugs, Orius spp., are less than one eighth of an inch long, oval to triangular in shape, somewhat flattened and black with whitish marks on the back.

Most of the time minute pirate bugs are good guys. They are true generalist predators feeding on many different prey including thrips, aphids, spider mites and many insect eggs. They can consume as many as 30 spider mites per day. They are reportedly important predators of corn earworm eggs in cornfields.

Minute pirate bugs are present all summer in fields, woodlands, gardens and landscapes going unnoticed by us. So why do they suddenly decide to bite something a zillion times bigger than they are after they have spent the summer munching on tiny spider mites? It's probably hunger. This time of year crops are drying up and so is their prey.

Their bite is amazingly painful for something so tiny. When they bite they are actually probing us with their short blunt beak investigate our worthiness as food. They would prefer a juicy aphid. They do not feed on blood or inject venom or saliva.

Everyone seems to react differently to their bites and some people seem to be more apt to be bit. I get bit more often when I am working and sweating (or is it glowing?) in my flower garden. Bites on some people swell like a mosquito bite, some turn into a hard red bump and for others there is no reaction at all. Minute pirate bugs are not quick to fly following biting, so you usually have plenty of time to cuss at what just bit you.

Trying to control minute pirate bugs is really not practical or advisable. Their biting occurs for a very short time. Also since they are beneficial due to their appetite for pests, it is best just to put up with their split personality. They tend to bite on sunny warm days so if possible do outside work during cooler parts of the day. Keep covered with long sleeves and long pants. Repellents have mixed reviews.

Asian Multicolored Ladybugs may also bite this time of year: probably for the same reasons as pirate bugs. The same control and prevention measures would apply to ladybugs.

Hover flies, also known as sweat bees, can also be common this time of year. Unfortunately hover flies share the characteristic bee coloration of black and yellow which means they must endure unnecessary swats and screams from humans. They are flies and not bees. They don't sting and actually can't sting even if they had the urge. Just as their name implies, hover flies often hover around flowers or around people. They are 3/8 to 3/4 of an inch long often with black and yellow stripes. Some people call hover flies sweat bees since the flies enjoy a little tasty drink of sweat periodically.

Hover flies and their relatives syrphid flies are also good guys in the garden. Their young are ravenous predators of bad guys such as aphids, thrips and small caterpillars. The adult hover flies do not eat other insects, but feed on nectar and pollen.

Yellow jackets are also yellow and black and do sting, but they are bigger and more aggressive than hover flies.

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