Tales of the Brown Horde

Some Sage (Bug) Observations

Gwen Berry

It’s like something out of a Hitchcock movie. On a warm autumn afternoon, you turn the corner of your house, and suddenly you’re confronted by hundreds of crawling insects. Yaaaaaa! They blanket your wall, seeking to infiltrate your home. Some fly up as you approach. You brush them out of  your hair and clothes,  but you know you won’t find them all and they’ll ride into your house with you. One by one the whole persistent mass will find the weak spots in your home’s defenses. They’ll be inside before winter. 

Then, all is quiet, you don’t see them anymore. You breathe a sigh of relief. 

Until spring. Until one day, one warm spring day, you’ll see a few on your windows. Now you know you haven’t escaped the horde after all. They’ve  been silently waiting, hidden in holes and crevices, waiting to emerge en masse to blacken your windows and drop from lamps into your food, and they smell terrible! Once again they’re massing for movement—this time on the inside trying to get out so they can mate and come back even stronger. They are the brown menace known locally as SAGE BUGS.

Or grass bugs, or grey bugs. Entomologists call them “Over-Wintering True Bugs,” of the Hemiptera order of insects/suborder Heteroptera/infraorder Cimicomorpha/superfamily Miroidea/family Miridae/possibly of the genera Irbisia or Ahryssa—which clearly explains why entomologists also call them Plant Bugs. 

Entomologists have a lot to say about them. They love bugs!  Take these items, for example:

  • Many Hemipterous true bugs over-winter as adults in shelters. Duh!
  • Although many insects are referred to as “bugs,” only the insects in the order Hemiptera are “True Bugs.” I guess the others are just faux bugs or wanna-bees. . .
  • The Miridae are the most species rich family-level grouping of true bugs, with approximately 10,000 described species recognized as of 2000. I’ll skip the family reunion, thanks.
  • True Bugs undergo incomplete metamorphosis, with their young looking much like adults, but without wings. This is probably important…

What makes a bug a True Bug? First, the wings. If it’s a True Bug, the outer pair of its two sets of wings have leathery sections at the base and thin, membranous ends. Plus, there’s almost always an obvious triangular structure at their base. You can easily see these features on our beloved Sage Bugs. (Use a magnifying glass if you’re old enough to remember the Viet Nam war.)

Second, True Bugs have little piercing-and-sucking mouthparts, which work like a straw. The clever design of the proboscis allows it to be conveniently folded under the body of the bug when not in use. While most True Bugs use their drinking straws to suck the juice out of plants, a few use them on other animals, including (uncommonly) mammals. Think bed bug. Fortunately for us, Sage Bugs are strictly of the plant juice persuasion. 

If you went looking for True Bugs you’d find them everywhere, with an amazing range of appearances and life habits. The ranks of True Bugs are filled with sage bugs, stink bugs, assassin bugs, cicadas, aphids,  planthoppers, leafhoppers, shield bugs, bed bugs, giant water bugs, and lots of other unusual insects. There are tiny ground-dwelling True Bugs less than 1mm (1/32 inch) long and huge 110 mm (4 3/8 inch) water bugs!  

Sage Bugs are one variety of Plant Bugs, which are one variety of True Bugs. Plant Bugs are special because they only have one pair of bug eyes, the faceted kind; while many bugs have two. A couple of closed wing cells also set them apart. And Plant Bugs are small, less than 1 cm (3/8 inch). The University of Kentucky Entomology Department adds, significantly, “. . . plant bugs are able to secrete foul-smelling, foul-tasting fluids from pores on the sides of their bodies.” No kidding!  “These secretions help to protect plant bugs from predators. Plus, many species are camouflaged with brown, green, and gray markings. Even with these defenses, plant bugs are often eaten by birds, spiders, assassin bugs, and other predators.” This is good to know. Think of Sage Bug population numbers if the predators were more fastidious. Heroic local birds have actually been seen gorging on them. 

And, finally, WSU offers these observations: “[Sage Bugs] seek layered places such as shingles, newspapers, firewood, folded fabric, etc. They are social and like to be together. Individual grass bugs emerge on warm, sunny, winter days to seek water droplets or house plants to obtain moisture. They do not feed while hibernating, but live off of their body fat.” Bugs have body fat?

All this information may make Sage Bugs marginally more interesting as individuals, but it still doesn’t tell us what to do when they’re mobbing our homes. Local wisdom says you can put a pan of water on the ground below the wall where they are massing and bunches of them will dive in and drown (knock them off and they fall straight down). A suggestion gleaned from an online forum is to spray them with a solution of detergent and water. It’s supposed to kill them. Bug spray works, too. One technique is to set off a bug bomb in your house after they’ve all come inside in the fall, and then again in six weeks. Should result in a bug-free home next spring. But the experts at WSU Entomology warn, “They are easy to kill with products labeled for use in dwellings. However their little smelly bodies are still there! Our WSU suggestion? Vacuum them up in your home! Change vacuum bags because they stink after being filled with bugs.” Experienced bug-snuffers insist you should seal up the bags or burn them. They’re taking no chances! Sage advice.

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