Crawlies, Un-creeped: the Truth Behind Your Arthropod Phobias

Here’s a task for you: try to rid your audience of their phobias by taking up-close photos of some of the creepiest bugs in our collection. Some are venomous, some do bite, but as usual, none of them want to hurt humans. Any bite or sting in the world of arthropods is an act of self-protection. Unless, of course, you’re prey…

Let’s start with insects. Take a look at this guy (or girl, rather).bug12

This is a female giant Asian mantis, Hierodula membranacea. With her spiny forelegs used for catching prey and her habit of devouring other bugs alive (not to mention her tiny pupils that look right at you), she seems pretty creepy. And she’s big at about five inches long and flies! But she’s not poisonous, doesn’t bite, and is practically harmless. In Asia, mantises are revered for their patience and hunting prowess, and are kept as pets. Creep factor: 4. Real danger: 0.

Now how about this big beetle?bug10

Size alone might keep you from allowing the Atlas beetle, Chalcosoma atlas, to crawl all over you, but it’s a beautiful and fascinating species. Its elytra or wing sheaths on its abdomen are incredibly strong and have a green iridescence. Its inch-long horns pose no threat to humans, but the beetle does use them to fight other beetles for mates. The front horn is attached to its head and is mobile, while the hind pair are attached to its thorax and remain still. Creep factor: 2.5. Real danger: 0.

Now let’s look at some roaches.


I’ll be honest. These are my great phobia. Madagascar hissing cockroaches, Gromphadorhina portentosa, emit a sound when threatened, but they are harmless. In spite of their creepiness, they are some of the oldest and most vital insects on Earth, acting as a clean-up crew that will eat just about anything, turning waste into nutrients that plants can use. Roach species keep themselves immaculately clean and will not hurt you, and these ones don’t even fly. Cockrell Butterfly Center Director Nancy Greig finds these little guys cute and cuddly, and I’m trying hard to see them through her eyes. One day, Nancy. One day… Creep factor: 6.5 (according to Jason). Real danger: 0.

Check this out.bug13

The white-eyed assassin bug, Platymeris biguttatus, is the first on the list that can harm humans. It injects venomous saliva into its prey, moves quickly, and flies. They stalk other insects, pounce and bite in a flash, then suck the fluids out of their victims. Assassin bugs are true bugs in that they belong to the insect order Hemiptera and are mainly characterized by their mouthparts which are modified for piercing and sucking. Their bite is more painful than a bee sting. Pretty creepy, but what you don’t touch can’t hurt you. I’d say they’re more awesome than scary. Creep factor: 4.5. Real danger: 2.5.

As they say, go big or go home. Take a look at this!


This strange-looking fella is a giant jungle nymph, Heteropteryx dilatata. No lie, it’s big. About eight inches of spiny legs, long antennae and small wings. When you touch its back, it fluffs its wings, emits a noise that sounds like a ratcheting wrench, and arches its abdomen like a scorpion to make itself appear larger. Here’s an example:


While the insect is harmless, this display can be intimidating for those unfamiliar with the species. Creep factor: 4.5. Real danger: 0.

Here’s another big guy.


This female spiny devil, Eurycantha calcarata, is less aggressive than the male of her species, which has pronounced spines on its back legs. When disturbed or seized by a predator, this seven-inch-long insect thrashes its abdomen back and forth, using its spines to injure its enemies. Since our skin is much softer than its exoskeleton, the spiny devil can inflict a nasty puncture wound without biting or stinging. Creep factor: 3.5. Real danger: 1.5.

Now let’s move on to arachnids.bug9

Boom. Burn the house down. If you’re arachnophobic, there’s nothing more frightful than the goliath bird-eater tarantula, Theraphosa blondi. This tarantula, named Birdie, is locally famous for her size — about seven inches across, much larger than the palm of your hand — and her feistiness. Like many tarantulas, when threatened, Birdie scrapes tiny barbed hairs from her abdomen which can irritate and blind the eyes of mammals and other predators. She has venomous fangs, eight legs and two pedipalps for snatching her victims. You wouldn’t want to pick her up. However, she is a beautiful specimen with her mocha-colored fluff, and her athleticism as a predator is remarkable. This girl lives up to her name and can occasionally prey on birds in the wild. And like any spider, she won’t hurt you if you don’t mess with her. Creep factor: 9. Real danger: 4.

While we’re on the subject of tarantulas…


How about this well-fed Costa Rican curly-hair, Brachypelma albopilosum? Unlike the goliath bird-eater, the curly-hair is much more docile, but no less efficient at catching and envenomating her prey. I wouldn’t pick one up in the wild, but our entomologists handle this spider, named Peanut, on a regular basis with very little trouble. Creep factor: 8. Real danger: 2.

Last tarantula, but certainly not least… 


You arachnophobes are probably like, jeez, how many tarantulas does the world need? This Chilean rose-hair tarantula, Grammostola rosea, is more docile than the curly-hair. In the right light, the fur on her cephalothorax glows with a red iridescence, plus she’s cute and cuddly. She still has fangs, though. Always respect the fangs. Creep factor: 7. Real danger: 2.

Now for some little guys.


Size isn’t a factor with this famous creep-tastic black widow spider, Latrodectus mactans, but her bite is potentially deadly to humans. Symptoms of a black widow bite can include localized pain and swelling around the bite, muscle cramps, tremors, abdominal pain and vomiting. If you think you have been bitten by a black widow, seek medical treatment. The red hourglass shape on the underside of her abdomen is an advertisement for danger, but it also allows us to easily identify the spider if a bite does occur. These shiny, black arachnids hide in crevices away from humans, but can occupy places like barns and sheds and can be aggressive around their egg sacs. I’d say the danger here outweighs this spider’s creepiness. But yet again, they are good at what they do, have evolved a powerfully efficient venom, and won’t hurt you if you don’t disturb them. And she’s like a little black pearl with legs. Creep factor: 6.5. Danger: 9.

Let’s look at another small-but-deadly spider.


The brown recluse, Loxosceles reclusa, prefers dark places to hide in, similar to the black widow, and their venom is just as formidable, though they are non-aggressive and only bite when threatened, usually when pressed up against a victim’s skin. Their venom, used to catch their prey, contains enzymes that break down skin, fat, and blood vessels in humans, leading to localized necrotic tissue if left untreated, serious medical conditions and eventually death. If bitten, seek medical attention. You can recognize a brown recluse by the violin shape on its cephalothorax, which is pretty cool if you ask me. For this reason alone, I’d call the brown recluse the classiest and most musical of spiders. Who else garbs themselves in classical instruments? Creep factor: 6. Real danger: 7. 

Finally, and most creepily, look at the adaptations on this guy!


To my eye, whipscorpions, Mastigoproctus giganteus, are about as creepy as it gets. It’s big at around four inches in length, has eight legs and a pair of pinchers, and a whip-like tail in place of a stinger. They are carnivorous, feeding on millipedes, slugs, and even cockroaches (which makes them my friends, of course). While some species of whipscorpions can exude an acidic compound when threatened, which smells like vinegar, they are harmless to humans. Plus, look at how awesome they are! They’re like the Indiana Jones of arachnids! Creep factor: 10. Real danger: 0.

Visit the Cockrell Butterfly Center to see these creepy arthropods in action and learn more about their unique and fascinating adaptations.



Tales from Tanzania: That’s no mint on your pillow

Some hotels leave mints on pillows. But in the African Serengeti, you get assassin bugs.

Assassin bug on a pillow

Not a mint.

Dave and I had been actively searching for invertebrates on our trip to no avail. The guides thought we were weird (crazy) from all of our questions about insects (as well as snakes and lizards). No one goes to Tanzania for the little things — they’re only interested in the big stuff.

So imagine our delight when we came “home” one night and discovered this AWESOME assassin bug on our pillows.


David, with our non-mint, and our pillow.

Assassin bugs are awesome because they have specially adapted mouths, perfect for sucking “the goodie” out of other insects. They pierce through the exoskeleton of their prey and inject saliva into the body. The saliva liquefies the innards of the prey, which can then be sucked right out (like a smoothie!).

An assassin bug with its prey.

Not only are assassin bugs insect-smoothie-enthusiasts, but they’re great at defending themselves. They can spit their saliva into the eyes of those things that might try to eat it (birds) or accidentally disturb it (humans), causing temporary blindness.

Now tell me that’s not awesome.

The life cycle of an assassin bug

DISCLAIMER: We may have totally lied to everyone on the trip — and by, “We may have lied,” I mean, “We totally lied.” Knowing what the assassin bug can do, we decided to tell our fellow travelers that we found it outside our room rather than on the pillow. Why cause a panic? (But don’t tell the others.)

Kwa heri!

Sleep Tight, Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite!!

We’ve all heard that old saying from our parents while tucking us in at night. As a child I thought it was just some silly little rhyme about weird fictional creatures that may bite me in my sleep. Imagine my surprise when I found out that bedbugs really do exist! This silly little rhyme has taken on new meaning to people now, especially since reports of bedbug infestations have been surfacing recently in local, national and even world news. I was recently interviewed by a reporter in conjunction with a story she did on a bedbug infestation in a local apartment complex. I was then interviewed by a local radio station. Since the subject seems to be piquing the interest of Houstonians, and terrifying some of them, I wanted to shed some light on it for you!

Nymphal bedbug
Creative Commons License photo credit: liz.novack

Simply known as bedbugs, insects belonging to the family Cimicidae are small parasites that feed on the blood of mammals and birds. They are related to other insects such as stink bugs, cicadas, and assassin bugs in the order Hemiptera. All of these insects feed using a piercing and sucking mouthpart known as a “beak.” Many of these insects are well-known plant pests which use their beak to penetrate the tissues of plants. Others are predators, and a few suck blood. The common bedbug Cimex lectularius is found worldwide in temperate climates. They are small, about 1/8-1/4 of an inch long, oval to round in shape, flattened laterally unless engorged, and rusty brown in color. A female bedbug can lay around 300 eggs in her lifetime and the eggs take only about a week to hatch, depending on the temperature. Bedbugs prefer to feed on humans because we are very abundant, and well, an easy target! They are also known to feed on rats, mice, rabbits, and chickens. Bedbugs may be small, but they are very tough! They can withstand some temperature extremes and they can live for up to 15 months without food!

Bedbugs used to be quite a problem until about the 1940’s when they were nearly eradicated from heavy pesticide use, including DDT, which they are now resistant to. Their numbers have been slowly rebounding since about the mid 1990’s. This can be blamed on several factors including increased world travel, their growing resistance to many kinds of pesticides and their ability to go unnoticed.  Because of their size and shape, bedbugs can slip into and hide in nearly any sized crack or crevice, making them very difficult to spot during the day. At night, they come out to feed. They find their host by detecting body heat and carbon dioxide emissions, much like mosquitoes do. Once on the host, they penetrate the skin with their beak and inject an anesthetic to make sure they go unnoticed. They then take a small blood meal and withdraw their mouthparts. If they are not disturbed they will move to the side and do this again.

Bedbugs are not a medically significant pest because they don’t spread any type of disease; they are really just a nuisance. They are most common in buildings or complexes in which people come and go often and rooms or residences are close together – such as hotels, cruise ships, jails, hospitals, public housing, apartment buildings, etc. In hotels and other travel destinations, bedbugs can hitchhike on articles of clothing and baggage. In apartment buildings, they can travel easily between units. If an infested apartment becomes vacant, the bugs will seek a new host by traveling to an adjoining apartment. Bedbugs usually end up in residences such as houses because they are transferred unknowingly from one of these other types of places. Now, don’t get all upset and scared thinking if you’ve traveled or visited friends you could definitely have bedbugs. The best way to deal with any kind of pest insects is: Don’t be paranoid! Be preventative and be prepared! Here are some answers to questions you may have about bedbugs:

How do I know if I have bedbugs?

Leaf-footed bug, relative of a bedbug
Creative Commons License photo credit: procristination

This can be a bit tricky, but certainly not impossible! Be aware of your surroundings and what’s going on with your body. You should always inspect your body for insect bites and investigate things that may be making you itch and why. Take your lifestyle and activities into account to rule out other pests. Do you spend a lot of time outside or do you have pets? Don’t mistake mosquito and flea bites for bedbug bites. If you find yourself going to bed unscathed and waking up with itching or irritation, it may be something to look into. Due to the way they feed, bedbugs will sometimes leave 2 or more bites in a row next to each other, but not always. If you see bites like this, it is a telltale sign. Since bedbugs, don’t cause symptoms in everyone, there are other signs to watch for. Inspect your sheets for tiny blood smears and molts (shed skins). For this reason, it is helpful to have white or light colored sheets. Inspect your bedroom, mattress, and even your couch for small crawling bugs. If you find something bring it in to show us, or send a picture. We are ALWAYS happy to help the public by identifying insects!

What should I do if I have bedbugs?

Run For Your Lives
Creative Commons License photo credit: JMazzolaa

First, it is important to get a positive identification. Show the bug(s) to a competent Entomologist. Most pest control operators should know how to identify one, but again, we are a sure thing! If you do have bedbugs, DO NOT try to treat them yourself! Washing your sheets with hot water or even throwing your mattress out will not fix the problem! Bedbugs will more than likely be hiding in other places. Call a reputable pest control company to treat the problem. Scientists are constantly developing new pesticides to combat them and some companies can do hot steam treatments which will eliminate all stages of the bugs. They cannot take heat above about 115 degrees F. These services may be expensive, but they will work.

What can I do to prevent getting bedbugs?
Again, don’t be paranoid! That won’t do you any good and it will just stress you out. You can be preventative by doing certain common sense things that will help protect you against most pest insects. Make sure your house is in good repair, seal up cracks, fill holes, etc. Most pest insects especially bedbugs can come in through and hide in tiny spaces. Keep your house clean and clutter free. Have a squeaky clean disinfected home is good to keep the cockroaches away, but not necessarily bedbugs. All they need is a host, you or your family! However, by eliminating clutter around your home, you’re eliminating harborage and hiding places. This will make it a less attractive environment for them and if they’re there, they will be much easier to treat. Be well prepared and make smart choices when traveling.  If you’re staying in a hotel, do your research. You can find out a lot of information about hotels online. The same thing goes for moving into an apartment. Look for well maintained complexes and do your research!

So what if now I’m totally grossed out and scared of getting bedbugs??
Like I said, bedbugs are nothing to be afraid of. I know something about little creatures coming out at night to feed on us in our sleep is the stuff of nightmares for some, but consider things like lice or mosquitoes that feed on us regardless of when we’re awake or asleep and can transmit harmful pathogens. At any given moment there are trillions, actually an unimaginable number of microorganisms, including bugs, living and feeding on us. As creepy as it may seem, it’s totally natural. If you follow the advice in this blog, you should lead a relatively bedbug free life, and if there’s anything else we can do to put your mind at ease, answer questions, identify critters, we’ll be happy to! Until next time, don’t let the bedbugs bite!