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What is a Water Bug?

Nicole Madison
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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A water bug is a type of aquatic insect. Often people call a common house pest a water bug, but that bug is actually a large type of cockroach. Bugs in this category can belong to several different families, including the Notonectidae, Nepidae and Belostomatidae families. Water bugs are scientifically classified as belonging to the Hemiptera order. Boatmen (Corixade), water scorpions (Nepidae) and backswimmers (Notonectidae) are some of the most well-known waterbugs. Sometimes, however, the name water bug is used to refer to giant water bugs (Belostomatidae) to the exclusion of these other types of bugs.

Giant water bugs outdistance all the other aquatic bugs, coming in at more than 4.5 inches (11 cm) in length. These bugs are strong fliers and have mouth parts capable of piercing and sucking. A bite from one of these bugs can be serious, as they inject enzymes that break up proteins in their victims' bodies. Besides piercing mouths, these bugs have pointed beaks on the bottom portion of their heads; they also have wings that form an x-like pattern, overlapping the back portion of their abdomens. They eat fish, birds and various water animals.

Water boatmen are much smaller than the giant water bug, measuring about 1/2 inch (1.27 cm) long. They have long, hairy legs that are similar to boat oars on the back portions of their bodies and wide, rounded heads fitted with big eyes and rather short antennas. They have flattened bodies that are more long than wide. Their coloring is typically dull and mottled, and they are often confused with backswimmers because they are shaped similarly. This type of water bug swims upside down and has wings that are a lighter shade than its legs; they eat plant material, such as algae.

Water scorpions are a bit larger, coming in at about 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5 cm) long. These water bugs resemble land-based scorpions and have tails that look like whips. Surprisingly, these tails are actually breathing tubes. They have forelegs that resemble pincers, which they use to grab their prey, and they are meat eaters, consuming various pond animals. They do deliver a rather painful bite, but it is not as dangerous as a bite from a land scorpion.

Backswimmers are predators that swim upside down and have long hind legs that they use as oars. Their bodies are shaped like boats, and their abdomens are shaped like broad keels. Their underparts are lighter than their upper bodies, perhaps to help in camouflaging them when they swim. They can deliver painful bites, and they typically eat bloodworms and larvae. This type of water bug also carries an air bubble for breathing when underwater.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a water bug?

A water bug is a term often used to describe various aquatic insects that live on or near water. These can include species from the order Hemiptera, such as the giant water bug, which is known for its size and predatory habits. Water bugs are adapted to their aquatic environments with features like paddle-shaped legs for swimming.

Are water bugs and cockroaches the same thing?

No, water bugs and cockroaches are not the same. While the term "water bug" is sometimes colloquially used to refer to cockroaches, true water bugs belong to a different order of insects. Cockroaches are from the order Blattodea, whereas water bugs like the giant water bug belong to the order Hemiptera.

Can water bugs bite humans?

Yes, some water bugs can bite humans. The giant water bug, for instance, has a powerful beak that it uses to inject digestive enzymes into prey. If handled carelessly, it can deliver a painful bite to humans. However, water bugs are not aggressive towards humans and bites are rare and usually occur only when the insect is provoked.

What do water bugs eat?

Water bugs are typically carnivorous and feed on a variety of aquatic creatures. For example, the giant water bug preys on fish, tadpoles, and even small amphibians and reptiles. They use their front legs to grasp prey and their beak to inject enzymes that liquefy the insides of their catch, which they then suck out.

How do water bugs breathe underwater?

Water bugs have developed different adaptations to breathe underwater. Some species, like the backswimmer, trap air under their wings to breathe while submerged. Others, such as the giant water bug, have a snorkel-like appendage that allows them to draw air from the surface while remaining in the water.

Where can water bugs be found?

Water bugs are found in a variety of freshwater habitats around the world, including ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers. They prefer still or slow-moving waters where they can hunt or scavenge for food. Some species are also found in brackish environments, but most are exclusive to freshwater ecosystems.

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Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a AllThingsNature writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.

Discussion Comments

By Bakersdozen — On May 07, 2011

I love reading about nature topics, particularly when bugs are featured! They are endlessly fascinating to me, and I'd love to have some as pets one day.

Some species of water bugs leave the job of baby care to the male. He carries the eggs on his back, which is kind of neat I think.

By Potterspop — On May 05, 2011

@Valencia - It's a pity that this fear is spoiling your chance to relax with friends. I remember my father telling me that in general waterbugs prefer still water. So you are going to see less of them in rivers or any free flowing water.

As many types of waterbug can't breathe underwater you should be able to see them quite easily on the water's surface.

By Valencia — On May 03, 2011

I've had a phobia about swimming outdoors since I saw pictures of water bugs in science class at grade school!

When I go camping with friends or family I can't join in any water fun, and I know I need to get this into perspective.

Are there any places in particular where waterbugs hang out? Maybe some places are more popular with them?

Nicole Madison

Nicole Madison

Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a AllThingsNature writer, where she focuses on topics like...
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