Water Bugs—Order Hemiptera - Bob Armstrong`s Nature Alaska
Water Bugs—Order Hemiptera
Skaters, rowers, and monsters
From Aquatic Insects in Alaska (2012) John Hudson, Katherine
Hocker, Robert H. Armstrong
Like water beetles, water bugs are among the most
entertaining pond insects to observe. Whether they’re
skating across the surface (Water Striders) or rowing their
way below (Water Boatmen and Giant Water Bugs), they
are easy to spot and recognize. Once you spot them, you
can watch them go about their lives: hunting, feeding,
Unlike water beetles, water bugs don’t go through
complete metamorphosis. They don’t even go through a
big change in appearance as they mature—unlike beetles,
dragonflies, mayflies, and other aquatic insects in this
book, water bugs look basically the same from hatching to
adults. One family of Alaskan water bugs, the Water Boatmen,
feed on a variety of foods, including detritus, plants,
and other invertebrates. Most Water Boatman use their
piercing/sucking mouthparts to feed on plant juices and
their prey’s body fluids. The other two families—Water
Striders and Giant Water Bugs—are predators. They grasp
their prey, pierce it with their beaks, and suck out the
Giant Water Bugs, though widely distributed in most
of North America, are known in Alaska only from the
southeastern part of the state. These big, scary-looking
monsters of the aquatic world are (if provoked) more than
willing to bite!
Water bugs don’t change to different forms as they
grow and mature. However, their appearance does
change. The youngest nymphs (such as the Water
Strider young at left) have very short abdomens
and no wings. As they grow to adulthood, their
abdomens lengthen and their wings develop (such
as the Water Strider adult below).
Predatory water bugs suck the juices out of their prey. Above: Water
Striders feeding on a moth that has fallen onto the surface of a pond.
Below: Having captured and pierced a Mosquito pupa, a Water
Boatman sucks its body fluids.
Photo by John Davis
Most Alaskan water bugs are smaller than a thumbnail. But Alaska’s Giant Water Bugs can grow to 2.5 inches in
length. That’s about as long as an average-size adult thumb!
Reaching 2.5 inches (65 mm) in length, Lethocerus
americanus, the only species of Giant Water Bug known
from Alaska, may well be the state’s largest aquatic insect.
These hunting insects seize prey with “raptorial” hooktipped front legs. Using a sharp beak under its head, the
bug secretes digestive juices into the victim and then sucks
out the liquefied remains. In the ponds and lakes where
they live, these big predators hang upside down among
plants with their seizing legs ready to grab any small
creature that swims by, including small fish.
Body flattened and shaped like an elongated oval
when viewed from above
Large size and strong looking front legs
In Alaska Giant Water Bugs have been found only
in the extreme southern portion of the state on
Revillagigedo and Wrangell Islands.
On Wrangell Island, parts of Giant Water Bugs have
been found in regurgitated pellets from Western
Adult males carry the eggs on their backs.
Functional Feeding Group: predator
Adult Giant Water Bug (photo by Tom Murray)
Giant Water Bugs
Shortlegged Striders are active predators that skate
about on the surface of ponds, fens, marshes, bogs, and
slow-moving streams. For quicker movements, and to
avoid producing ripples that might alert potential prey,
they release a fluid that suddenly reduces the surface
tension of the water behind them. The rapidly expanding
water surface pushes these little bugs across the water
seemingly without effort (In reality, the fluid requires a lot
of energy to produce). These striders sense movements
and location of potential prey through wave vibrations
on the water surface. Captured prey are stabbed with
piercing mouth parts. Their common name comes from
the fact that they have shorter legs than the Water Striders
Shortlegged Striders are usually wingless; those with
wings use them to fly in search of new habitats.
Dense water-resistant hairs can give the body a silvery
Functional Feeding Group: predators
When extended rearward, hind leg’s first segment (a)
may extend just barely beyond the end of the abdomen;
in Water Striders this segment extends well beyond the
tip of the abdomen
Segment behind the head is wider than the abdomen
Shortlegged Strider adult (photo by Tom Murray)
Water Boatmen live along the edges of rivers, lakes,
and ponds and in slow-moving streams. They are often the
most common aquatic insects seen by the casual observer.
With powerful strokes of their long hair-covered legs they
dart through the water in search of prey. Air for breathing
is stored on the undersides of their bodies, primarily as
a plastron (flattened air chamber). The rowing motion
of the hind legs increases the plastron’s efficiency in
obtaining oxygen. Water Boatmen are less dependent on
atmospheric oxygen than are other water bugs, although
in oxygen-poor habitats they must come to the surface
more frequently to replenish their air supplies.
Triangular beak (a) and short forelegs (b) are unique
among water bugs in Alaska
In water bodies that do not freeze to the bottom,
adults overwinter underwater.
The tiny eggs (about 0.5 mm) appear as a dense crust
on submerged rocks, sticks, or plants.
Water Boatmen, especially the males, can produce
sound by rubbing the bases of their front legs against
the sides of their heads. The clicking sound is used
to attract mates, form aggregations, or establish
Water Boatmen are the largest group of water bugs in
Functional Feeding Groups: piercers-herbivores,
collectors-gatherers, predators (piercers)
Water Striders can literally walk on water. They
accomplish this feat using legs that are covered with thick
layers of microscopic hairs. Tiny air bubbles trapped in
these hairs provide buoyancy, while a pair of claws on
each leg function as tiny oars. With a stroke of the middle
legs, the strider glides across the water surface, steering
with the middle and hind legs. Front legs are used for
grasping their prey, which they first pierce, then suck body
fluids from, using their beak-like mouths. Their primary
foods are insects that fall onto or become trapped on
the water surface. They detect surface waves to find and
home in on struggling prey. Striders also produce waves to
communicate with potential mates. Their habitats include
lakes, ponds, slow-moving streams, and estuaries.
Water Striders mating
Water Strider feeding on a damselfly
When their habitat dries up, adults can fly in search of
a wetter place to live.
Adults overwinter away from water.
They will cannibalize each other under crowded
Functional Feeding Group: predators (piercers,
Juveniles can be confused with Shortlegged Water
Striders but first segment of hind leg (a) extends
beyond tip of abdomen