AUSTIN, Texas (KXAN) – Now for some news you’ll wish you didn’t know. A creepy, skin-crawling insect is getting some extra attention this summer: the Texas Toe-Biter.
The insect, considered a giant water bug and part of the Belostomatidae family, can be found in creeks and ponds not just in Texas, but throughout North America and in other parts of the world.
Giant water bugs are said to be part of the “true bug” order thanks to their piercing-sucking mouthparts, something all true bugs have, according to the National Park Service. Measuring about 1.5 inches long, the bugs live in freshwater ponds, marshes and pools. The fierce predators will latch onto their prey with their front legs before injecting their favorite meals with a venomous saliva, then sucking out the slurry-like mixture it creates.
The bugs are known to eat other insects, tadpoles and even small fish.
KXAN’s Rich Segal spoke with Wizzie Brown, an entomologist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Office, about the critters. Why they’re so scary and whether they’re actually dangerous. You can read that transcript, edited for clarity, below.
WIZZIE BROWN: These are fairly large insects. The larger species can get anywhere from two to four inches, but that’s in the adult stage. So they can be rather alarming if people see them.
They’re a brown color, kind of oval shape. And they have swimming hind legs, and then their front legs are going to be capable of pinching. Their front legs are actually used for grabbing onto their prey.
I think what everyone is so disturbed by other than their size, I guess, is that they have this very short mouth part. It’s not like a beak, it’s more kind of like a sharp straw. And they can use that to stab into things. That’s how they feed. So it’s normal that they do that. But they also will use that to get away from people, if people decide to pick them up.
RICH SEGAL: Are they dangerous?
BROWN: I’m going to say no. If you get bitten by one it is going to hurt. So I’m not gonna say that it will be a pleasant experience. They don’t suck blood. They don’t vector disease. They don’t do anything like that. So it’s more of a sharp immediate pain and maybe some swelling and stuff like that afterwards.
SEGAL: Are they found in the water? Or are they found on land too?
BROWN: Yes. Both, they can be both.
They’re typically in ponds or lakes or slow-moving streams. Sometimes if people’s swimming pool chemicals aren’t balanced properly, they can get into swimming pools.
But they are also capable of being on land. The adults have wings, and they’re capable of flying. And so that’s actually how the adults will move to new locations. So if there’s not food in the pond that they’re in, they’ll emerge out of the pond and fly someplace else. Or if they’re looking for mates, then they can fly to a new water source.
SEGAL: It’s possible then that we can find them here in Central Texas in the Austin and surrounding areas that we serve?
BROWN: Oh, definitely. And we have multiple species in Texas. We have I think 10 species or so in Texas.
SEGAL: Have you ever heard of someone who did get stung by one of them?
BROWN: I actually have been bitten by them.
SEGAL: What happened to you?
BROWN: It just hurt. I dropped it and what – I was trying to collect them for my insect collection when I was in graduate school. When I picked one up in my hand because I didn’t have a jar handy. And so it bit me and I dropped it. And then after a few choice words, I finally got it again.
If you allow it to bite you, they do have enzymes in the saliva that they’re injecting into you. So when they’re feeding, that helps to break down the muscle tissue of whatever they’re feeding on. And that allows them to then slurp up the juices but if they’re doing that with a person, it’s still the same enzyme so it’s going to hurt but it’s not going to, you know, you’re not going to have your hand dissolve or something though it is a nuisance that creates a little discomfort.
SEGAL: Did it last long?
BROWN: I’m gonna say like a day-ish round in there, I mean, but also it’s gonna depend on people’s personal reactions and how they deal with stuff.