Thom Smith | NatureWatch: Giant water bug is one fierce insect

Q: My friend sent me a picture of a large bug she saw today outside BJs. Said it was as long as palm of her hand. What is it?

-Marilyn, Plainfield

A: Sounds frightening! I suppose that it was dead, as a giant water bug, being both a good flyer and able to give a nasty painful, but otherwise harmful bite, would probably not allow itself being handled. It goes by other names, too, like toe biter and electric light bug for its attraction to lights.

When I worked at the Berkshire Museum, the museum staff's reputation for identifying just about everything found in nature was well known. With Miss Palmer and Bartlett Hendricks, there was a steady stream of youngsters, especially, with questions like, "What's this? Is it dangerous? Is it worth anything?"

I was one of them as a pre-teen, who, in my case, wanted to know if what I found in Cheshire was gold and how much was it worth. The person doing most identifications then was Frances Palmer for flowers, ferns, insects and minerals and Bartlett Hendricks, for trees, mammals and especially birds. They were good at both reptiles and amphibians, and other facets of Mother Nature's offerings.

When I replaced Miss Palmer, I was expected to carry on. Fortunately, Miss Palmer's notes provided me with the lists of what she was asked to identify for most of her 40 years tenure, so I had an idea of what might be brought it. The giant water bug was one. Back when the General Electric Company was busy both day and night, night workers would frequently walk into my office, explaining that the large bay doors were often left open throughout the night for the fresh cooler air, and the bright interior lights often attracted moths and other flying insects. Few arthropods other than the toe biter were brought in by the workers for identification or to give the museum, other than black-widow spiders that arrived on pallets received from southern suppliers and the native Luna moths. Butterflies a collector could not put a name to, remained my most difficult identification, but enough of that.

The bug, as mentioned, lies is wait for its meal. Not only will these up to 4-inch bugs capture, digest, then suck the liquefied innards of small fish, polliwogs and larvae, they also will ambush smaller snakes and baby turtles. Like spiders, the bug will seize its prey and inject it with strong, poisonous digestive juices, and after a while suck out its liquefied innards.

I cannot say for sure just why the largest of the true bugs leave the safety of their watery environs, other than to search for deeper water in which to spend the winter below the ice. When they do leave, they are attracted to light as a moth might be. In water, they are known as ambush bugs as they wait motionlessly for prey to come to them — small fish, pollywogs, even snakes and turtles, and the occasional toe. They are found the northern U.S. in slow moving streams, river backwaters and ponds. They are active all year.

As fierce as they can be, the males don't shun parenting. The females lay its eggs on the males back to care for, or simply deposits her eggs on a plant at the top of the water where the male will protect and care for them.


A reader and friend in Windsor reported seeing a sandhill crane along Route 8A in Windsor last weekend. Why the excitement? We would expect to see these cranes "over a 75-mile stretch of Nebraska's Platte River; during spring migration; more than a half-million cranes stage in this area, preparing to continue the long journey north to breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. During migration, they may fly as many as 400 miles in one day." — Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

The first reported sightings of this species in Berkshire County occurred in 2011 at Wild Acres in Pittsfield. In the fall of 1990 one was found in Belchertown and brought to Tufts Animal Clinic for rehabilitation and released in Sheffield in 1991. By 2004, a pair was seen in Sandisfield successfully producing young in 2011.

About the size of the great-blue heron, this steel-gray, red-capped crane mates for life. They nest primarily in Canada and Alaska. This past April, I photographed a pair with two young in Ellenton, Fla., at a gated community. Florida sandhill cranes are a non-migratory species that nests in freshwater ponds and marshes.

Thom Smith welcome readers' questions and comments. Email him at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


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