BugInfo True Bugs (Heteroptera)

True Bugs belong in the insect Order Heteroptera. There are approximately 40,000 described species of true bugs in the world, and over 3,800 in the United States.

Defining the Order

The True Bugs are insects that have two pairs of wings, the front or outer pair of each divided into a leathery basal part and a membranous apical part. These wing covers are held over the back and often partly folded. True bugs have hypodermic-needle-like mouthparts that allow them to extract subsurface fluids from plants and animals. Bugs undergo incomplete metamorphosis, with their young looking much like adults, but without wings.

Effects on mankind

The hypodermic-needle-like mouthparts enable true bugs to extract body fluids from plants and animals, including humans. Plants generally show little effect of true bug feeding, unless the bugs are very abundant. A variety of insects, including caterpillars and cockroaches, often fall prey to assassin bugs. A few true bugs are pests or disease carriers. The notorious bed bug is generally uncommon in current households, but their close relatives often live in the nests of bats and birds. A group of assassin bugs in the tropics, known as Conenose bugs, transmit the serious human Chagas Disease, which sometimes causes death.

Interesting Facts about True Bugs

Some true bugs have been utilized as food for both humans and pets. Certain water bugs are used to give particular flavors to Chinese food, and are even imported into California for this purpose. An examination of commercial "turtle food" may reveal that it is composed largely of small water bugs. Some bugs are capable of producing a foulsmelling chemical from glands in the sides of their bodies, especially the group known as Stink Bugs. This disagreeable odor turns away predators, but has no staining effect to humans. The Common Milkweed Bug has bright orange and black colors, and feeds on milkweed plants. These colors are a warning to vertebrate predators that the bug is poisonous, with milkweed plant toxins. Although sound making in insects is generally restricted to katydids and their relatives, and cicadas, some Assassin Bugs can produce hissing sounds by rasping their feeding tube against the underside of their body.

Aquatic Bugs

Many true bugs are aquatic. Bugs of the Family Notonectidae are known as Water Boatmen, and are capable predators of other insects on the water surface. More familiar is the group of aquatic bugs known as Water Striders, which move on the water surface with their "feet" barely touching the surface. They detect the ripples of other insects on the water and run quickly to capture and kill the prey. Water scorpions are true bugs in the Family Nepidae that have long breathing tubes on their rear ends, which enables them to breathe air while still under water. They can survive in warm ponds or polluted waters low in oxygen.

Selected References

Blatchley, W. S. 1926. Heteroptera or True Bugs of Eastern North America, with Special Refence to the Faunas of Indiana and Florida. 215 pages. Nature Publishing Co., Indianapolis.

Froeschner, R. C. 1960. ACydnidae of the Western Hemipshere.@ Proceedings of the United States National Museum, 111:337-60.

Henry, T. J. & Froeschner, R. C., editors. 1988. Catalog of the Heteroptera, or True Bugs, of Canada and the Continental United States. 958 pages. E. J. Brill, Leiden.

Miller, NC. E. 1956. The Biology of the Heteroptera. 162 pages. Leonard Hill, London.

Polhemus, J. T. 1985. Shore Bugs (Heteroptera Hemiptera; Saldidae). A World Overview and Taxonomic Treatment of Middle American Forms. 252 pages. The Different Drummer, Englewood, Colorado.

Slater, J. A. & Baranowski, R. M. 1978. How to know the True Bugs. 256 pages. Wm. C. Brown, Dubuque, Iowa.

Torre-Bueno, J. R. de la. 1939-1941. AA synopsis of the Hemiptera-Heteroptera of America north of Mexico.@ Entomologica Ameicana , 19:141-304 and 21:41-122.

Van Duzee, E. P. 1917. ACatalogue of the Hemiptera of America north of Mexico, excepting the Aphididae, Coccidae, and Aleyrodidae.@ 902 pages. University of California Publications, Technical Bulletin in Entomology II.

Prepared by the Department of Systematic Biology, Entomology Section,
National Museum of Natural History, in cooperation with Public Inquiry Services, 
Smithsonian Institution

Information Sheet Number 170, 1996