I am asked how to tell male and female giant water bugs apart more often than I would have ever imagined. It would seem that there are a limited number of people in the world who can sex water bugs, so I have a rather steady stream of people asking me how to do it. A few weeks ago I started looking around online to see if there was any information about sexing water bugs, but there’s really nothing available. Well, there’s one article that is absolutely and completely wrong (I’m not even going to link to it, but don’t listen to anything the person who wrote the eHow article on the subject says!), so that’s no help at all. It’s high time that this information be made available online!
Sexing belostomatids (aka, giant water bugs) isn’t always trivial. The males and the females have the same coloration, so you can’t use color differences. The females are often a little bigger than the males, but there’s a lot of variation in size in both sexes and it can be difficult to tell whether an individual is “big” or “small” unless you have many other individuals to compare with it. You can sometimes use behaviors to distinguish sexes, especially during the mating season. For example, if a bug is carrying eggs on its back or climbing up a stick to tend to eggs, it’s a male. But… you also can’t be sure you have a female just because one doesn’t have eggs, even during the peak of the mating season. Instead, you need to rely on a structure that varies reliably between the sexes.
Giant water bugs DO bite, but you’re going to have to hold them in place if you want to tell which sex you’ve got. That usually involves picking them up, so if you do choose to sex water bugs yourself, be careful! When I pick up water bugs, I use my middle finger and my thumb and press the bug down onto the bottom of whatever habitat/container they’re in. I then grasp water bugs by the sides of the thorax, as it’s a very rigid part of the body where you can get a firm grip, and use my index finger to support the bug (I apologize that I only have a grainy black and white photo of this…):
You need to hold on tight, especially with the larger species, because they are surprisingly strong and will try to wiggle free. Once you get a good hold on one, you’ll need to flip it over. The part you need to look for is on the bottom of the abdomen:
This structure is called the genital plate, and it conceals the reproductive organs underneath. Don’t worry! You don’t need to go digging around to find internal parts and can use the shape of the genital plate itself. The shape of the plate varies from genus to genus, but there are some general rules. The genital plates of male water bugs are smoothly rounded at the tip (the part closest to the back of the bug) and complete (i.e., have no splits or gaps). For example, the genital plate of males in the genus Abedus look like this:
The arrow points to the continuous and smoothly rounded tip of the genital plate. Here’s a drawing in case the shape is difficult to see in the photo:
See? Rounded at the tip, no splits or gaps. The females are different. In some water bug genera, there are splits, notches, or gaps at the tip of the genital plate, so that the line around the tip of the plate is broken. Many of them have flattened areas at the tip of the genital plate so that they are not completely round. Most have two distinct little tufts of hairs, either at the edges of a notch at the tip of the genital plate or alongside the midline of the genital plate near the tip. For example, here’s a female Abedus:
In this image, the arrow pointing up from the bottom indicates the flattened, slightly notched part of the genital plate while the arrow coming from the side points to the tuft of hair on the right side of the midline. The drawing:
The little tufts of hair can be quite small and the shape of the genital plate only subtly different from the male, but there are definitely two little tufts of hair on either side of the midline, a flattened area at the tip, and a small split at the tip of the genital plate in Abedus females.
These structures can vary in appearance from species to species, and especially between genera. For example, this is the genital plate of a male Lethocerus:
Even though it’s much longer and narrower than Abedus, the arrow indicates the same sort of rounded, unbroken tip of the genital plate. There is a fringe of hair along the tip of the plate in this species, but note that there are no distinct tufts of hairs anywhere. There’s a groove that runs the length of the middle of the plate, but it doesn’t leave a gap at the tip. In contrast, here’s the female:
The arrow here points to the tuft of hair to the right of the midline. In this species, the tufts are at the very tip of the genital plate rather than on the upper surface and recessed from the edge as in Abedus. There is also a small notch between the two tufts, though it’s a little difficult to see in the photo.
And that’s it! Smooth, round genital plates in males and flatter, sometimes broken genital plates with two tufts of hairs in females. In the US, the genital plates of the genus Belostoma are very similar to those shown here for Abedus and other American Lethocerus are similar to the Lethcerus pictured here, so the images here will help with sexing US water bugs. Other genera in other countries follow similar patterns, but may have some slight differences.
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18 thoughts on “Sexing Giant Water Bugs”
Excellent description! The photos were certainly necessary, trying to describe that fine detail just verbally would have been crazy.
Thanks! I actually had someone contact me just a few days ago about how to sex them and I decided it was going to be easier to just put photos up on the blog so I can direct people there in the future than continue to tell people how to do it in e mails. I’ve sent e mails about sexing water bugs to dozens of people over the last few years, but it’s really hard to do if you don’t have photos to look at or someone who knows what they’re doing right there so you know exactly what you’re looking for. The people I teach in person have a hard enough time doing it, so I can only imagine how awful it would be to try to do it from a written description alone! I don’t have quite the right camera setup to get really crisp shots of the genital plates, but I think they’ll do.
This is great! Makes me want to go out and sex some giant water bugs! (Never thought I’d ever say that :p)
Most people probably don’t think, “You know what would be fun to do today? Practice sexing water bugs!” I’ll take that as a compliment. :)
Thanks! I hope it proves useful!
Shouldn’t you include a link to an article on “First Aid for Giant Water Bug Bites”? And maybe “Giant Water Bug Sexual Harassment Lawsuits and You.”
I would link to a first aid for giant water bug bites page, but I haven’t ever been bitten so I don’t know how one might go about treating one! :) Okay, so I think you actually just wait for it to stop hurting. It’s not going to cause permanent damage, just some pain.
OK. I fell out of my computer chair laughing so hard from Mr. Suttkus’ creativity of “Giant Water Bug Sexual Harassment Lawsuits and You.” Ha! If only…
Agreed! His comments are generally quite hilarious and make me laugh out loud nearly every time.
I just wanted to say this was greatly helpful, as our lab members caught a Lethocerus americanus and wanted to know the sex. We’re keeping her as a lab pet for a while (spiky genital plate!) :)
I’m so glad to hear that! It’s a little hard to sex water bugs without having someone who knows what they’re doing there with you to show you how to do it, but I thought photos would be the next best thing. That way people can compare what they see to pictures and figure it out. How to sex them is always one of the first questions that I get when people ask me about water bugs and though it does take a little practice, the differences are pretty obvious if you know what to look for.
Does your little girl have a name? My friend’s Lethocerus medius female Beelzebug recently passed on after a year and a half as a well loved lab pet, so that name’s free. :)
so, I think I have two males, if I keep them, can I put them in the same container, or will it cause problems?
Sorry it took me so long to reply! So long as you keep your bugs well fed, you can have them in the same container no problem! Just make sure they don’t get hungry or they might try to eat each other.
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this is great! I just got a giant water bug of my own and was looking for ways to identify them properly, though I think ill put gloves on….
So glad you found it helpful!
Hey thank you so much for posting this, it was way more informative than the quick lit search i did, I am currently working on a project investigating patterns of mite infection on Belostomatidae, I do have a quick question is there a way to sex the immature nymphs, my gut tells me no but i wasnt sure if at some point in their development it would be possible to sex them. Thanks again for this post and your wonderful blog