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Giant water bug

It’s the terror of the public pool! Scourge of shopping center parking lots after dark!

It’s the dreaded giant water bug, one of Florida’s largest examples of an insect representing the Hemiptera order, the true bugs.

If a team of Hollywood special-effects artists set out to design a predatory, largely aquatic insect that was both comical and fearsome, they might end up with something that looked like the members of the family Belostomatidae.

For starters, these bugs sport oversized, glossy black eyes, brown bodies that resemble crushed cigar butts, and the feature that really gets attention, two specialized front legs that function as pincers tipped with hollow, needle-like points for injecting venom. Less visible but arguably worse, the bug’s piercing, sucking mouthparts are huge. Oh, and the adults can fly.

Even the family name sounds like a monster from a late-night rerun.

Can’t you hear the sirens howling? The civil-defense PA system crackling, “Attention, citizens of East Dubuque! BELOSTOMATIDAE is approaching the city!!”

Can’t you see the frightened residents scattering in all directions? Authorities trying in vain to keep order?

In real life, when a giant water bug avails itself of a large, crowded swimming pool, the reaction from bathers may not be much different.

Realistically, though, all the insect wants is a nice, clean habitat. It’s not looking to attack humans.

Florida has eight species of giant water bug, all relatively similar in size and appearance, at least to the casual observer.

In the wild, they dwell in ponds, ditches, lakes — any still or slow-moving body of fresh water probably looks good to these bugs.

They’re able to breathe through two siphons that project from the backs of their abdomens like twin hot-rod exhaust pipes (another detail straight out of a schlocktacular low-budget sci-fi movie).

This feature enables them to lie patiently in wait as ambush predators. Adult Belostomatidae will eat anything they can hold on to, and they will capture tadpoles, minnows and other small vertebrates and invertebrates, even molluscs.

When one of these animals comes close enough, the giant water bug seizes it with those fiendish forelegs, piercing the prey’s body and injecting an enzyme that incapacitates it and begins to liquify the body tissues. To feed, the giant water bug sinks its awful beak into the victim as though it were a juice pouch, drinking the liquefied tissue from the ever-shriveling body.

At mating time, adult giant water bugs make use of their wings and fly from one body of water to another, seeking paramours. Sometimes they’re drawn by high-intensity electric lights, and end up flying madly around the big parking-lot light fixtures at shopping centers.

Incautious as they are, the bugs may end up swooping low or even falling to the parking lot’s surface, where they crawl about in an awkward, almost mechanical fashion.

They sometimes meet their ends under shoppers’ feet, and the tires of shopping carts or shoppers’ cars.

The BugWeek Web Team admits – a downed giant water bug does have a lot of “stomp appeal.”

They’re also just about unstoppable when seeking a meal.

There’s an online video that features several minutes’ worth of well-lit, nicely shot, close-up footage of giant water bugs capturing numerous creatures, including frame-by-frame repeats that show — to rather disturbing effect — how fast these bugs are when they seize prey. Not for the faint of heart.

Another fascinating thing about the Belostomatidae — in parts of East Asia, notably Thailand, giant water bugs are sold as street food.

Yes, you read that correctly.

A skewer of freshly deep-fried giant water bugs tastes quite a bit like shrimp, says one BugWeek Web Team member who’s tried them (and she’d eat them again).

We’ve also seen another online video in which an adventurous gourmet tries out a dehydrated giant water bug packaged in Thailand. He isn’t impressed.

One final, off-the-wall detail — several species of Belostomatidae have a very odd reproductive habit.

The females glue their eggs to males’ backs, apparently to ensure that the eggs have some protection against being eaten before they hatch. The result looks as though dozens of brown balloons have been attached to an otherworldly Thanksgiving Day parade float.

If that doesn’t make you hungry, we don’t know what will!

Read more about giant water bugs in this “Featured Creatures” document from the UF/IFAS entomology department.