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Explosion of Box Elder bugs driving us buggy

A Box Elder bug crawls along wall finding warmth for winter. The bug is also called Maple Bug DemocrBug as

A Box Elder bug crawls along a wall finding warmth for the winter. The bug is also called a Maple Bug and a Democrat Bug as it appears during election time. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 26, 2012 1:25AM

Mother Nature likes a good practical joke and the Box Elder bug invasion is just one of them.

Harmless to humans, clothing, wood and food, they nonetheless drive some people just a little buggy.

“Some people get freaked out about them, but they’re completely harmless,” said Shane Jones, biology teacher at the College of Lake County. He lives in Wisconsin next to a state park, and a maintenance building there “is absolutely coated with them. They are sweeping them into piles,” he said.

“I’m fine with them. They’re not aesthetically pleasing, but they don’t cause any problems,” said Jones.

Whether it’s a home or office, these dapperly-colored bugs, black or brown with orange or red stripes on the back, can accidently just fly right into you or constantly catch your attention in your peripheral vision.

Wham. A rolled up newspaper is very effective.

Hope you are not worried about stains, because that is about the only damage these bugs can do. When you smash them, they leave a dark red stain that’s nearly impossible to get out. If you have too many of them, their excrement can also stain curtains, carpet, sofas or chairs.

Avoid stains by using tissues to pick them up and throw them away.

Jones said they mass on the south side of buildings for the warmth. They seek out crevices like the Asian Lady Beetle to stay warm, and sometimes they get into a house seeking out the “warmth of an appliance or some other warm thing,” he said.

“This year there has just been an incredible explosion of them,” said Michelle Resetar-McDowell, technical supervisor for her family owned business, Pest Control Services Inc., of Antioch.

“It’s a true bug,” she said, explaining the insect has a piercing mouth for sucking sap from leaves or seeds on the female or male Box Elder tree. They also feed on maple trees.

She always tells customers to caulk everything (windows and doors). “That’s the best way keep insects out and use less chemical,” she says. Her business has been busy, with one home having so many that every time the people walked in they brought in half a dozen on themselves.

All the experts agreed, using a vacuum is the best weapon to avoid stains or stink from smashed bugs. She believes a better-than-average egg hatch caused by spring rains not coming at the right time to wash the eggs off the trees helped this year’s boom. Jones said the mild winter left more of the insects alive and able to drop their eggs on the trees. Then the drought prolonged their lives.

“There is a fungus that can infect the bugs and kill them, but fungi do better when it’s wet,” he said, so there was less of a die off during the summer leading to the population boom.

Resetar-McDowell said that if there aren’t at least 10 a day inside a home, “it’s not a problem.” Otherwise, she has special chemicals not available to the general public she can use outside. She also has one that coats a house so spider webs can’t stick, she said, noting spider populations were up also this year because of the drought.

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