Those Aren’t Red-Headed Beetlebugs….

Goat Camp Trail: Home of the Red-Headed Beetlebug

I grew up in Alaska. When he went for a family hike, my father packed heat. The bad guys were large and had global reputations, like the Taliban: bears. Whatever bugs we encountered were large and annoying but generally benign.

Now I live in Arizona. Here in the desert, the big guys are benign (coyotes) and the good guys are little and have global reputations. But there are a lot that are little that you’ve never heard of.

On Sunday, we went for a family hike in the desert.

I packed everything we would need: sunscreen, water, extra pants, a picnic lunch, a gray-and-white wash rascal (right), and an Angry Bird (below).

I did not bring a Sonoran Desert Insect Identification Book, which perhaps would have served us better.

It was a lovely, cool morning, one of the last we’ll enjoy until October, possibly November. Everyone was cheerful. (Except the bird). Everyone was cooperative and enthusiastic and energetic.

Mbot took a picture:

Gbot took a picture:

As we hiked up the wide, gentle trail, Husbot, a native Arizonan, pointed high in the sky at turkey vultures gliding on updrafts. He pointed into the shadow of a fiery-blossomed creosote bush, where an Arizona skink was, according to Mbot, looking for his family. He pointed to the prickly prong of a saguaro, and I saw the tiny crested profile of a phainopepla:

Who knew? (

He showed the bots mesquite and brittle bush and jojoba and even some mistletoe entwined in the branches of palo verde tree. We admired the sunny bloom of a chain cholla.

Husbot and Gbot marched along in front of me and Mbot. Suddenly I spotted a really cool bug in the sparse growth beside the trail. I was pleased at sighting something Husbot had missed.

“Look at that!” I exclaimed, pointing for Mbot. “A red-headed beetlebug!* (*fictional name.)

Even in Alaska I’ve gone out of my way to avoid bugs. I have had people cross town on bicycles to kill spiders for me. I am trying not to pass this inconvenient aversion on to the next generation. “And look!” I cried with what was genuine enthusiasm, because these bugs really were so cool, about two inches long and yellow with bright red heads. And they were moving slowly and we could always run. “Another! And another!”

We stepped to the edge of the trail to get a really good look before I realized there were at least ten of them, crawling slowly but inexorably closer. Look at these things!” I called to Husbot.

Holding Gbot’s hand, he retraced his steps. Half way back, he said, “They’re wasps, Honey.” He turned on the Daddy Voice. “Alright, guys, let’s not get too close. They can sting and hurt people.”

We attempted to beat a hasty retreat, but one of us dropped to the dust and began to cry. “I want to see da wed-headed beetlebugs! I want to see da wed-headed beetlebugs!”

But it turned out both of us were wrong. I wasn’t even trying to be right, and Husbot realized just after he made his daddy announcement that the army of insects was a troop of harmless blister beetles–iron cross blister beetles, to be exact. Still, they can bite. And it seemed easier to continue our retreat and let the bots be wary of red and yellow bugs marching toward them in the desert. “Because,” according to Husbot, “usually they’re not good.”

Husbot scooped up the fallen party. Further along the trail, we actually picnicked peacefully in the shade of an ironwood tree.

So time to read up at Knowledge is the power to avoid crying in the dust.

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