Heteroptera (True bugs - Order: Hemiptera)

Back to the main True bugs page.

A photograph of an adult Green Shieldbug (_Palomena prasina_).

The Green Shieldbug (Palomena prasina) is one of the commonest shieldbugs in the UK.

The Heteroptera include both land bugs and water bugs. Most of the land (or terrestrial) bugs are found in the tropics, although many are found in Britain, especially in southern Britain.

Land bugs

There are half a dozen species of bark bugs (Aradidae) in Britain. These harmless tiny insects feed on fungi and usually live under loose bark or in leaf litter. They are dark reddish brown in colour. They are also known as flat bugs, and their bodies look roughened due to bumps and dimples.

Another clearly recognisable group is the shieldbugs. These are so named because of their shapes and fall into different taxonomic groups. One of these is the Acanthosomatidae, an example of which is the Hawthorn Shieldbug (Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale) whose adults overwinter and feed on hawthorn in the spring.

Another type of shieldbug is the stinkbug. These are in the family Pentatomidae and they have glands in their thoraxes which produce very powerful defensive smells - which have been known to cause symptoms such as nausea and headaches in humans. Like the other shieldbugs they have a shield-like shape and many of them have a triangular scutellum (part of the insect thorax).

The Pied Shieldbug Sehirus bicolor is an example of the Cydnidae family - it is a burrowing bug found on low growing plants and among roots, where the adults also hibernate. There are nine British species of burrowing bugs.

The squash bugs (Coreidae) also have the shieldbug 'jizz' about them. They are so-called because some of them feed on squash plants. The commonest British species of squash bug is probably Coreus marginatus, which feeds on sorrels and docks.

The Lygaeidae is a large group of bugs, commonly known as ground bugs or seed bugs. They live close to the ground among low-growing plants or in leaf litter or under stones. They tend to be pale yellow, black or brown in colour. They have strong, toothed or spiny front legs that help them grasp seeds, which is their food.

Stilt bugs (Berytidae) have long slender legs and long, thin antennae and are usually found on legumes and among weeds and tall grasses, as well as around the margins of ponds. They move only slowly and often 'freeze' when disturbed.

The assassin bugs (Reduviidae) are not plant feeders - as their name suggests, they are predators on other invertebrates. They can give painful jabs with their beaks if handled. Only half a dozen assassin bugs occur in Britain, one of which is the Heath Assassin Bug, Coranus subapterus, which can make a loud noise by rubbing its beak on part of its body.

There are a dozen British species of damsel bugs (Nabidae) which, like the assassin bugs, are carnivorous.

The family Tingidae consists of the lace bugs, because of the delicate sculpturing of their wings. Many of these live in moss, although one of the commonest British species lives on thistle.

Bed bugs (Cimicidae) are chestnut brown blood-suckers and are up to 6 mm in length. The bed bug species that lives on man is Cimex lectularis; it also infests zoo animals. These insects mainly feed at night, hiding during the day in clothing. Although annoying, the bed bug doesn't seem to carry disease.

A photograph of a Bed bug (_Cimex lectularis_)

The Bed bug - Cimex lectularis

The Miridae or plant bugs family is the largest family of heteropteran bugs, and the 200 or so British species make up two thirds of the heteropterans found in this country. The species are diverse, with a wide variety of coloration and markings. They are mostly herbivorous, eating seeds, fruit, leaves and sucking plant juices.

These insects are found in a wide range of habitats, from mountain tops to the sea shore. Most of them are capsid bugs or leaf bugs, but some are scavengers or eat aphids and other small, soft bodied prey.

The Saldidae is a family of predatory shore bugs. They are usually found at the water's edge around ponds, bogs and marshes. There are over 20 British species.

Also associated with water are the Amphibicorisae, or pond skaters and other surface-living water bugs. These insects are regarded as land bugs but they are specialised to live on the water surface, having fine, water-repellent hairs underneath them. They are predatory insects, finding their food by sight and by detecting vibrations in the surface film of water.

A photograph of a pond skater

A pond skater (Gerris lacustris) sucks the fluid from an aphid unfortunate enough to fall onto the water surface

Aside from pond skaters (family Gerridae) this specialised group of land bugs also includes the water measurers (Hydrometridae) and water crickets (Veliidae). The pond skaters are the most advanced, rowing themselves across the water surface with their long middle legs and steering with their hind legs, which tail behind like a rudder.

Water bugs

The true water bugs belong to the Cryptocerata, a word derived from the Greek and meaning 'hidden horns'. Their antennae are hidden in a furrow underneath the head. This is a protective measure because all these bugs live under water. Most are predatory, and can give a painful bite if handled.

Among the water bugs are the water scorpions (Nepidae) which are rather like brownish, underwater stick insects. They have a very long breathing siphon at the end of their abdomens.

Another way that bugs can live under water is by bubble-breathing. Saucer bugs (Naucoridae) for example are found creeping along the bottom of ponds; they breathe by capturing bubbles of air at the water surface and using the bubbles as an air supply when under water.

The presence of one family of water bugs, the back-swimmers (Notonectidae) can be detected by female mosquitoes. When these predators are present, mosquitoes will not lay their eggs in the water. They swim on their backs in response to light - in a bottom-lit, covered tank they will swim the right way up. They are bubble-breathers too.

A photograph of the Backswimmer, _Notonecta glauca_

A ferocious predator in freshwater ponds, the Back-swimmer, Notonecta glauca.

A family of water bugs similar to the back-swimmers is the water boatmen (Corixidae). (In fact the back-swimmers used to be known as greater water boatmen). These tend to be brownish in colour but swim on their fronts not their backs. At least one species is commonly attracted to lights at night, and is often caught in some numbers by moth recorders. The water boatmen differ from the other water bugs in that they are mostly herbivorous, feeding on algae and plant debris at the bottom of ponds.

Essential reading from the Amateur Entomologists' Society

Back to the True bugs, or view the other suborders: Auchenorrhyncha, Coleorrhyncha or Sternorrhyncha.

A to Z of insects