During the late summer, small, obscure insects known as pirate bugs make their presence known in a very convincing manner by biting with an impact that is out of proportion with their size. Their name describes their small size and their habits.
Pirate bugs are about 1/5 of an inch long, oval to triangular in shape, somewhat flattened and black with whitish markings on the back. They are beneficial as predators, feeding on small insects and the eggs of other insects. One pirate bug, the insidious flower bug, is an important predator of corn earworm eggs in corn fields.
Pirate bugs are present all summer in fields, woodlands, gardens and landscapes. They quietly go about their business as a natural control of insect pests without anyone taking notice. In the late summer, however, they migrate from fields and woodlands and begin the disagreeable behavior of biting humans. Their bite is surprisingly painful for such a small insect as they probe their short blunt beak into the skin. They do not feed on blood or inject a venom or saliva.
People differ in their response to pirate bug bites. Bites on some swell up like a mosquito bite, some turn red and for others there is no reaction at all.
Control of minute pirate bugs is not practical, in part, because their presence and abundance is temporary and variable from year to year. Further, widespread control is not desirable because of the beneficial role they have in the environment. Wearing dark clothing on very warm days when pirate bugs are abundant may help. Repellents are generally not effective though you may want to try them to see for yourself if they work or not for you.
This article originally appeared in the October 10, 1997 issue, p. 145.