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Alberta’s 2023 Autumn Intruders: Not Harmful, Just Annoyingly Everywhere!

Alberta's summer was hotter than a jalapeno's armpit, and it brought along some unexpected guests - the box elder bugs

The past summer in Alberta was unprecedented in many ways, from the record-breaking number of wildfires to the hot and dry conditions. Before that, it was flooding in some areas. 

It wasn’t as bad as the ten plagues of Egypt from biblical times, but it sure seemed like the world had gone crazy. 

When the cooler temperatures arrived in October, Albertans hoped the craziness had ended. But then the invasion began.

The invasion?

It wasn’t biblical frogs or locusts; it was box elder bugs.

These distinctive black and red bugs, also known as maple bugs, suddenly swarmed in homes, particularly in Calgary and Central Alberta. 

While the bugs are not harmful, their sudden surge in the fall raised eyebrows and questions.

What Are These Bugs?

Box elder bugs, native to North America, are about two centimetres long and are easily identified by their distinct black colour with red edges. 

Technically, they’re not beetles, as they lack a mandible. Instead, they have  “mouth-sucking parts” for slurping up plant juices. 

Their primary hangout? 

Box elder and Manitoba maple trees, but they don’t shy away from ash trees either. They don’t eat the trees but rather suck on the trees’ seeds.

But Why Are They Invading Our Homes?

Experts think that the recent dry and hot summers have played a role in the bug’s spiking population. 

Ken Fry, an Alberta entomologist, says that faster incubation rates in hot weather conditions lead to more generations of bugs, and, thus, bigger swarms. 

Adult box elder bug | Garden Tech

The warm weather theory is echoed by Antonia Guidotti of the Royal Ontario Museum, who also notes box elder bugs lack natural predators due to their unappealing taste.

Bite ‘em, and you’re in for a nasty surprise! Their bad taste is a defensive strategy against predators. And when they are threatened, they emit quite a stink. 

“They will release a really smelly compound if they get upset, so you don’t want to disturb them if you can avoid it,” Guidotti told CBC News

As the weather cools, these bugs seek warmth. That’s why they try to get inside homes. 

Marianne Cunningham’s elderly mother’s care home has been swarmed. “Like, they just keep coming up, I don’t know, they’re gross, they’re coming in from somewhere,” said Cunningham.

Penhold resident Janelle Wilson told the Red Deer Advocate that a “shower” of bugs would drop off her front door whenever she slammed it. 

Before entering her house, she would open the door and slam it to get the bugs off and to prevent getting bugs in her hair. 

Cunningham’s care home storm and Janelle Wilson’s “shower” of bugs in Penhold are testaments to their invasion capabilities.

The bugs often congregate on warm, south and west-facing walls and find their way indoors, looking for a cozy spot to overwinter.

Are They Harmful?

Fortunately, these bugs are more of a nuisance than a threat. They don’t damage homes or carry diseases. Nor do they signal the Apocolypse. 

However, they are a nuisance and can be messy if squashed, leaving stinky and potentially staining red guts and emitting an unpleasant smell when threatened.

The consensus among experts like Fry and Guidotti is to avoid squashing them. 

Instead, they recommend humane methods like sweeping them up, vacuuming, or even giving them a chilly farewell in the freezer. 

Pesticides are discouraged both indoors and outdoors, as they could harm beneficial insects and aren’t particularly effective against box elder bugs.

Prevention is Better Than The Cure

Box elder bug infestation at Pikes Studio Pottery in Red Deer | Facebook

Sealing up cracks and checking weatherstripping can prevent these bugs from entering homes. This not only keeps the bugs out but also enhances your home’s insulation.

Despite their sudden prominence, box elder bugs are generally harmless. 

They don’t pose a significant threat to trees or homes and are simply looking for a warm place to spend the winter. 

Their increased numbers could be a temporary phenomenon, influenced by the recent weather patterns. However, if weather patterns hold as predicted for 2024, your fall pumpkin-spiced latte might be shared with another invasion of box elder bugs.

So, as you sip your pumpkin spice latte next fall, remember these little critters are just trying to stay warm – like the rest of us!

Snuggle up. These box elders might be coming again!

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