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Exploring the Western NY Wilds: Boxelder bugs – coming to a home near you

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By Bob Confer

We’ve been blessed with a long stretch of warm weather that is completely unusual for October and November. But, a sense of normalcy arrives next week with the extended forecast showing temperatures in the 30s and 40s with a chance of some flakes.

The warmth didn’t stop Mother Nature from doing what she needs to do to survive the coming winter. Gray squirrels are building their caches, woodchucks are putting on fat, and boxelder bugs are trying to get into people’s homes.

Boxelder bugs are very common insects in Western New York. Like their name indicates, they eat boxelders, which are a type of maple tree.

Boxelders are unusual in that they don’t have the large single leaves like the maple of the Canadian flag. Instead, boxelders have numerous leaflets which cause them to look almost like an ash tree. The giveaway that it’s a maple is the seed; It’s carried and spread in the same way that other maples are – with fruits that are affectionately known as “helicopters” or “whirlybirds”.

Boxelder bugs use their tubelike mouth to pierce the seeds of boxelders and other maples. They do little damage to the plants or their populations as made evident by how quickly boxelder trees can take over disturbed soils, hedgerows, and pastures, especially in Allegany County’s valleys and lower elevations.

Boxelder bugs are approximately a half-inch long with a black or dark brown body. The edges of their wings are red as are their wing veins.

Like stink bugs and assassin bugs, they are one of the true bugs. Too often the word “bug” is used on insects that really aren’t bugs (like beetles). They come from a family of bugs called rhopalidae, which is the scentless plant bug family. Unlike the stink bugs which they resemble, they lack scent glands, so they won’t stink up the place when squashed, although they still have a slightly disturbing smell when stepped on. It’s just nothing on the scale of a stink bug, which can be nauseating.

On sunny, warmer days (50 degrees plus) in late-October and November you will notice groups of these insects, ranging from a few to a few dozen, collecting on the outside of your garage or house. They are doing that to keep warm in the short-term (by huddling and soaking in the rays) and the long-term (they are really trying to get into your house to survive the winter). They have a special affinity for white houses and will hide under the siding or find the smallest holes possible to enter the home.

These insects are not pests in the exact sense of the word – they don’t damage plants, they don’t bite people or pets, and they don’t spread disease. But, they are pests in every sense of the word – there is nothing so bothersome in the fall as these bugs collecting on your window sills and even making it into your homes. A bug is a bug and are unwelcome guests in any home.

Various insect control agencies suggest that you eliminate them manually from your home (picking them up or vacuuming them). To prevent them from getting in, they suggest caulking or sealing or putting on weather strips. Some folks even go so far as to suggest removing boxelder trees from your yard (which is overkill). Likewise, insecticides are a little over-the-top for this insect and a waste of money.

One natural treatment that is suggested by some is spreading diatomaceous earth outside, and even inside, your home (use food-grade so it’s safe for family and pets). It’s not a pretty death for insects when you think about it, though. The diatoms get into an insect’s joints and give it so many cuts it dies over time. Diatomaceous earth also eats away at exoskeletons and causes insects to dry up.

My advice? Do what you can to keep them outdoors and vacuum any of the (hopefully) very few stragglers that get into your home. Do not cut down your boxelder trees — they are attractive shade trees when they mature and the enjoyment you get from them far outweighs the couple of weeks of annoyance you might get from boxelder bugs.

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