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The invasion of the giant water bug

Customers stomp and cringe as swarms cover a Pasco shopping plaza. They're huge, creepy - and crunchy in sauce.

Published June 21, 2003

NEW PORT RICHEY - Friday morning at Elfers Square shopping plaza was like a scene out of a "mini Jurassic Park."

Bugs - big and hideous, with small wings and large pincers - covered the parking lot. They swarmed into stores, jumped on passers-by.

One woman, horrified, picked up her child.

Shopkeepers used brooms to clear out their stores. Cars crunched hundreds of the pests. People walked on scores more, to unsightly effect.

By Friday afternoon, the battle of the bugs was pretty much over. Meanwhile, in Santa Monica, Calif., people dealt with the very same bug in a very different way.

The bugs, among the largest in the United States, first came to rain-soaked New Port Richey on Thursday. "But there were just a few," said Tasha Hlinkowsky, 44, a waitress at Bernie's restaurant.

By Friday morning, however, things got serious. When Hlinkowsky arrived for work shortly after 6 a.m., the creatures had covered the ground.

"It looked like the parking lot had a blanket over it," said Hlinkowsky, who likened the scene to a Steven Spielberg thriller. "They were climbing all over the walls. They looked like a cross between a cockroach and an alligator."

The cook, Gigi Sessions, added: "They came toward me. I got out of the way - fast. It was creepy."

Tiptoeing across the parking lot on their way to Winn-Dixie, the Dollar General and Eckerd, customers offered various theories on the bugs' origins: They fell from palm trees; they crept from a sewer; they were enemy invaders from Iraq.

And they had different opinions on what they were: mutant cockroaches, stink bugs, pond skippers, alligator bugs, locusts.

A pest control specialist wondered if they were the famed Madagascar hissing cockroach.

Not so, said University of Florida entomologist Lyle Buss.

He identified the bugs as Lethocerus griseus, more commonly known as the giant water bug, or to unlucky swimmers, as "toe biter."

Growing to a length of about 2 inches, the giant water bug is found throughout the United States in several slightly different forms. As their name suggests, they live in ponds and swamps and feast on minnows, tadpoles and other aquatic insects.

They are ferocious predators. "They have piercing, sucking mouth parts," Buss said. "They stick their prey with something like a straw and suck out the fluids."

On land, the bugs sometimes feign death as a way of protection. People who pick one up experience a painful bite. But the insect is acting in self-defense when it attacks people, not because it favors human blood.

"I think they're cool," Buss said.

Most likely, the bugs were attracted to the lights in the plaza's parking lot, much like a moth is drawn to the light outside a home. Research indicates the creatures often fly around in search of mates or other bodies of water.

An article at the Dermatology Online Journal's Web site suggests that giant water bugs may be disoriented by light rather than attracted to it.

"In the end, they become exhausted from aimlessly flying around the light and end up lying on the ground below street lights on roads or parking lots," the article said.

They might have tired of flying, but the bugs in New Port Richey on Friday had plenty of spunk left in them, marching across the pavement like tiny soldiers - or lemmings off a cliff.

"I've never seen anything like it, and I've been coming to Florida since 1958," John Bassant, 72, said as he left Winn-Dixie. "You could just barely walk in the store."

Said 18-year-old Nick Street: "It's like stepping on a crunchy taco and some guacamole spits out."

"It was like something out of the horror movies," said Winn-Dixie employee Pete Ortega, whose job duties Friday were broadened to include sweeping the bugs from the store entrance. By the dozens, they were dumped into cardboard boxes.

Winn-Dixie spokesman Mickey Clerc said the bugs have come around in years past, though never as bad. "It's not something we like, but it's something that's inherent to that particular area," he said.

The Jacksonville-based company called in the Orkin man to investigate.

While people were stomping and cringing in New Port Richey, the giant water bug was being celebrated at Typhoon Restaurant in Santa Monica. For $6 you can get a pair of chicken stuffed bugs, deep fried and seasoned Thai style.

Typhoon general manager Jack Griffith said he sells a dozen a week, mostly to daring children and people from Thailand, where an even larger species of water bug is considered a delicacy.

"People devour them with gusto," Griffith said, admitting that although he has dined on crickets, he has never eaten a water bug.

In the cloistered world of the entomological epicureans, few have a more prominent profile than David George Gordon, author of The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, now in its fourth printing. Chapter 9, titled Spineless Delights, includes a recipe for steamed giant water bug on watercress with a Thai dipping sauce.

The taste of the crunchy, protein-packed bugs has been likened to gorgonzola but Gordon describes the flavor as piney, "like gin."

To those who might happily run over a giant water bug, Gordon has this to say: "Send some to me, they're tasty."

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