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7 More Bug Myths Squashed: Giant Killer Insects, Flesh-Eating Beetles

Like it or not, bugs aren’t going anywhere—and it’s clear that they continue to both horrify and fascinate us. 

Our story last week squashed some of the more persistent bug myths, but it also generated many more urban legends and questions suggested by our readers. So we just had to do a follow-up.

Here’s what the experts had to say about giant killer bugs, pesky fleas, and beetles that supposedly devour human flesh.

In the movie The Mummy, scarab beetles attack people, crawling under their skin and eating them alive. Can scarab beetles actually do this?

Photo of Jewel Scarab Beetles at the University of Nebraska State Museum.
Scarab beetles pinned for a collection held at the University of Nebraska State Museum. Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

“The word ‘scarab‘ is used to describe any member of the beetle family Scarabaeidae,” May Berenbaum, an entomologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said in an email. But it’s also used to refer to the Egyptian scarab beetle, Scarabaeus sacer, which is a kind of dung beetle, she says.

Egyptian scarab beetles “are anatomically equipped for moving in and around excrement and digging into the ground to bury [their] dung balls,” Berenbaum says. “They’d have a hard time penetrating skin and then maneuvering through flesh.”

But there is a medical condition known as either canthariasis or scarabiasis, which describes a rare, temporary infestation of a person’s gut or face with beetle adults or larvae. A 2008 report in the journal Indian Pediatrics described such a case in a four-year-old girl from a village in India. 

The beetles could enter a human body through the anus while in search of food, Berenbaum notes.

Most people don’t have to worry about this, though: “Generally, this condition is restricted to places where basic hygiene practices are ignored or abandoned,” says Berenbaum.

Can fleas live on a human body, and if so, for how long?

“In the United States, we do not have flea species that reside on people,” says Michael Dryden, a veterinarian professor who studies fleas at Kansas State University. There is a group of fleas in the genus Pulex that can call primates—including us—home. But they are fairly rare in industrialized nations such as the U.S., he explains.

During Europe’s Middle Ages and America’s colonial days, those fleas were much more common on people. Now, when they do pop up in the U.S., they are found on animals like opossums, Dryden says.

Today, the flea species many of us are concerned about is Ctenocephalides felis, commonly found on cats and dogs, he adds. (See “How Do Fleas Jump? New Video Solves Mystery.”)

“That flea will feed on us,” Dryden explains. The females need a blood meal in order to produce eggs, much like mosquitoes do. But they don’t call people home or lay eggs on us the way they do on cats, dogs, mountain lions, or opossums, he says.

No one knows why C. felis won’t live on people, Dryden says. “There are over 2,200 species of fleas worldwide,” the researcher says, with “over 400 species of fleas in North America.” Some are quite picky and will live only on a particular host, while others “are more cosmopolitan in their tastes.”

Is it true that when you squash a cockroach, you release their eggs? Would you then spread the eggs when you walked?

Photo of a Madagascar hissing cockroach on white background.
A female Madagascar hissing cockroach will hatch its eggs inside its body. Photograph by Michel Gunther, Biosphoto/Corbis

“No,” says Roberto Pereira, an entomologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Cockroaches bundle their eggs in a hard brown casing called an ootheca, which they will then glue to surfaces including furniture.

Some species, like the German cockroach, will carry their ootheca on their abdomen until the eggs hatch. Madagascar hissing cockroaches will hatch their eggs inside their body and then release their young.

In any case, if you step on a cockroach, “you’ll very likely kill everything,” Pereira says, including any eggs or young ones. (See “Cockroaches Have Neighborhoods, Too.”)

Could a nuclear blast or radiation leak produce giant killer insects?

“No,” says Dan Babbitt, manager of the insect zoo and butterfly pavilion at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. There’s a limit to how large insects can get, thanks to how they breathe.

Since they don’t have lungs, they breathe through tiny tubes that run from the surface of their body down to their cells. It’s a passive connection that relies on a specific concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere, Babbitt explains.

With the amount of oxygen swirling in our atmosphere today, you wouldn’t be able to get a giant insect like you see in B-list horror movies.

During the Carboniferous period 359 to 299 million years ago, however, there was a lot more oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere than there is now, Babbitt says. And so that period of Earth’s history supported insects that were much larger than the ones today.

There were dragonflies with 12-inch (30-centimeter) wingspans and “spiders the size of a garbage-can lid,” Babbitt explains.

Can spiders really lay their eggs in a person’s skin?

Photo of a brown recluse spider on a white background.
A brown recluse spider. Its bite can result in nasty, necrotic wounds. Photograph by Alex Wild, Visuals Unlimited/Corbis

“It’s very unlikely,” says the University of Illinois’s Berenbaum. The structure they use to lay their eggs, called an ovipositor, isn’t really built to do any injecting, she explains.

“I suppose a spider could drop or plaster eggs on the skin’s surface,” Berenbaum says, “but it’s not clear why a spider would want to do such a thing.” (See National Geographic pictures of beautiful insect eggs.)

The Smithsonian’s Babbitt adds that spiders usually wrap their eggs in silk, forming a little sac or ball. And they generally leave those sacs on a web or in a covered area like under a stone. “But never on an animal as far as I know,” he says.

Is it true that cockroaches can’t crawl backward? If they crawl into an ear, would they be able to make it back out?

“A lot of insects are not great at moving backward,” says Babbitt. That’s partly due to the fact that many of them have spines on their legs that make it difficult to back out of a narrow passage, he explains.

The University of Florida’s Pereira decided to test whether a German cockroach could back out of a narrow, clear plastic tube. It did in fact wriggle backward, he says, trying to get itself out of the tube.

So it’s not unreasonable to think that “given a chance, [a cockroach] would back out of an ear,” Pereira says.

Are there instances of insects preserved in amber being infested with twisted-wing parasites?

This isn’t strictly a myth or urban legend, but the thought of insect parasites being entombed with their victims for millennia is intriguing.

Modern twisted-wing parasitoids, also known as strepsipterans, are parasites that live inside a group of insects including bees, wasps, and grasshoppers.

Young twisted-wing parasitoids burrow their way into a suitable insect or spider host and feed off of it until they can emerge as adults. (Also see “‘Vampire’ Parasite Found Entombed in Amber.”)

There are, in fact, several lineages of strepsipterans found in amber, says Conrad Labandeira, curator of fossil arthropods at the National Museum of Natural History. The oldest such specimens go back to the Eocene period, between 37 and 56 million years ago.

Researchers have found both male and female adults locked in amber, Labandeira says. But he can’t recall an instance where an insect host and the twisted-wing parasitoid were both found in the same piece of amber.

There are instances where host insects trapped in amber have nematodes—parasitoids that look like skinny worms—with them. (See “Photo: Mite Attacking Ant Entombed in Amber, Oldest Fossil of Its Kind.”)

The parasitoids are frozen in the act of crawling out of the host. “You can see the nematodes trying to escape into the amber,” Labandeira says.

Got a question that’s bugging you? Add more of your bug myths below!

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Kennady
    Washington
    July 21, 7:26 am

    I’ve been having a 3 month long battle with earwigs. And the occasional spider. But these things are everywhere. We own our home and when we moved here over two years ago I sprayed just as precaution. And until now the only thing I’d see was ants and a few spiders.
    I’ve sprayed again and again and again and again since I started seeing them by the hundreds. I’m not sure what to do.those chemicals worry me because we have pets and live where deer and rabbits hang out a lot
    They are usually on our porch in our entry way by front door or in our laundry room?
    I have bad anxiety because I think they are always crawling on me or in my blankets at night or may end up really in my ear? Can that happen and how do I make them go away for good I’m driving myself insane

  2. Noreen Allison
    Naples, FL
    February 13, 3:23 pm

    I found this weird bug on front lawn looks like beetle has wings and purple, brown , green legs like crab have never seen these before. What are they and are they eating my lawn?

  3. Abbey
    USA
    December 21, 2015, 11:30 pm

    Okay so my constant 11:30 pre bed thoughts came up with this, so if you wer to kill a spider but instead of smashing it and risking thousands of eggs going everywhere. What is u electrocuted it? Ik weird thoughts But I’m serious, Ik really unhumane, but if you were to electrocute the mother spider would it kill the younglings too??
    Thanks,
    ~Abbey

  4. Justin Leo
    September 19, 2015, 11:19 pm

    Have a Madagascar hissing cockroach with me right now, he can walk backwards with ease.

  5. Carolyn Row
    roseville
    August 19, 2015, 3:30 am

    I have madagascar cock roaches, why is their tank full of fleas massive amount, I keep the tank very clean, it’s driving me crazy can’t figure it out , please let me know !!!

  6. randheer.kaithwas
    khandwa
    September 26, 2014, 3:09 am

    Amazing but horror

  7. Doreen James
    Dapto NSW Australia
    September 24, 2014, 12:36 am

    Hello, I often wonder wether insects,fleas,spiders,cockroaches,ants, ect feel physical pain or emotion? Thank you

  8. Don L. Johnson
    Kingsville, Texas
    September 19, 2014, 5:43 pm

    Speaking of roaches……I don’t have any and I don’t know why. Five years ago I moved from (North of) Fairbanks Alaska to Kingsville and thoroughly expected to start a battle .

    However, I bought a “fixer-upper” that had been a meth lab-crack house for many years. The house had to be cleared by a federal haz mat team before I could get a VA loan., I keep a relatively clean home but you wouldn’t mistake it for a silicon chip factory. My question is; could whatever chemicals that are used in that kind of environment have created an inhospitable situation for insects?

    In five years I’ve seen two scorpions, both dead, and an occasional house fly. In the mean time the sprays I bought to prepare for the fight sit rusting in their cans .

    I’m in a clean middle class retirement age neighborhood but I do hear about other peoples fight. I don’t mention my situation because I sure nobody would believe me.

    I even wonder if you do.

    Don L. Johnson