A Plague of Elders

By Kim Johnson

We bought our house a little over a year ago and the real estate agent assured us that the bugs were “seasonal.” We were so thrilled with the house and the property that we happily overlooked the approximately ten million bugs congregating on the south side of the house and garage. This was after all, the country. One would expect bugs, animals, wildlife in general.

We moved in, we were happy. The bugs were happy too. They seemed harmless enough. They milled about and congregated in the sunshine. They didn’t attack us, have stingers or malicious intent. Occasionally one would inadvertently fly onto us while trying to get somewhere else. They weren’t in a hurry, these bugs, and they seemed more annoyed than anything else when we rerouted them with a flicking motion of the thumb and forefinger. I actually pictured them frowning, resenting us the entire distance they were flicked.
The bugs appeared first in September. By October the ten million or so that had been congregating on the south side of the house decided, with the onset of cooler weather, that they would be more comfortable inside our home. They each brought a friend with them, increasing their numbers to twenty million.

With the arrival of so many bugs in the house I decided to take some action. I was done with passive observation. Not being one to be left in the dark, certainly not with so many bugs about, I did my research. As with all good research it began and ended with a Google search… and approximately 19 hours, 14 diet cokes, 37 instant messages, two reboots, and 15 attempts to update Adobe Acrobat Reader, I found my bug: The Box Elder. There were numerous websites devoted to this insect. Despite the diversity of available information every bit of research I read had essentially the following to say:

“On warm days during winter and early spring, box elder bugs sometimes appear on light painted surfaces outdoors on the south and west sides of the house, resting in the sun [what kind of an insect spends time resting?!]. The population of these bugs may number in the thousands. [read millions here] There is no real use in exterminating them as they are not harmful and do no damage; they are more of a nuisance than anything else”.

The picture from the Clemson University Entomology Department was decidedly sinister. It portrayed the bug as a red eyed demon. I wasn’t picking up any negative feelings as I looked around my office at the 50 or so bugs milling about. Box Elder Bugs aren’t capable of being sinister. They simply hang out. They are the squatters of the insect world. They have the forethought to spend time resting. According to the website they are never on the defense and they do no physical damage. If you come at them with a Kleenex they just wait patiently for death.

The website also mentioned that they were susceptible to drowning. In my experience the only way to drown them is to actually hold them under the water for a long period of time. They frequently climb back out of the kitchen sink even if you run the water for 15 minutes. They survive other types of liquid immersion as well, milk, coffee ... okay not hot coffee, but who is going to waste that on a bug?

My husband was more action oriented than myself. He would never take the time to submerge insects in water, standing around while they patiently died. The vacuum cleaner was his answer. He pointed out that I would never have devised such a plan as I did not know where the vacuum cleaner was or how to operate it. I said nothing but took my cue from the insects and milled about, observing him. He proceeded to suck up 100 or so Box Elders in a very reasonable amount of time using the wand attachment. The wand attachment, he explained, was what you used to clean things such as crevices and hard to reach places, like under the couch. He shut the vacuum off, disassembled the wand, wound the cord up neatly and put the whole contraption back in the closet. 25 minutes later 100 or so Box Elder bugs crawled out of the vacuum and underneath the closet door to rejoin us in the living room.

December rolled around and the bugs seemed to be fewer, or maybe they were just less active. There was, after all, less daylight and little or no sunshine with which to congregate. This wasn’t to say we didn’t find Box Elders on our windowsills, in the sink and floating in the coffee (patiently waiting to die in cold coffee and already deceased in hot). They were in the shower, an occasional shoe and one night at 3 o’clock in the morning on my face. That was the last straw, they may not cause damage according to the Clemson University Entomology department, but as far as I am concerned a bug crawling on your face in the middle of the night is psychologically damaging. I did some more research. In the spring, I’m getting guinea hens.

The guinea hen has been compared to a wild chicken and is often referred to as the “farmer’s friend.” The guinea hen diet is 90 percent insect (this is very high when you consider the chicken diet is only 10-15 percent insect). The guinea hens can fly so they can better escape predators and wandering “invisibly fenced” neighborhood dogs. Guineas also eat very little garden material so they won’t be as inclined to take out rosebushes and salad greens as chickens might. The guinea hen loves to eat Box Elder Bugs. At least that is what the website says. You can order the hens through a feed store and come spring that is what I intend to do. Stay tuned, I’ll keep you posted.
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