12/04/03 - Arthropod Hoaxes

Thomas R. Fasulo
Extension Entomologist
University of Florida/IFAS

Which of the following are true?

  1. Lovebugs resulted from a University of Florida entomology experiment that went terribly wrong.

  2. Bat Boy killed Kim Jong-il.

  3. Exotic walkingstick that blinds pets invaded Texas and is spreading east.

  4. UFOs are flown by angels from God.

  5. Brown recluse spider hidden under toilet seat at an Olive Garden restaurant bites four women.

Stumped? Actually, none of them are true. (Although U.S. intelligence analysts are still evaluating #2.)

An old adage states, "Don't believe everything you read."

However, P.T. Barnum once said, "There's a sucker born every minute." (Actually, that's not true either. For the true story click here.)

Numbers 2 and 4 above appeared in "that kind" of newspaper sold at supermarkets, but the other three are actually believed by people who should know better.

The lovebug story has been repeated so many times that many people in Florida think it is true. Mention that you are an UF/IFAS entomologist at a party or other gathering and someone is almost sure to repeat this story as fact or ask if it is really true. The truth is that lovebugs (they are actually flies) migrated naturally around the Gulf of Mexico. First described in Texas, this species then spread to Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama before arriving in Florida and other states. For complete information on lovebugs please see the Featured Creatures publication on this species.

Entomologists are receiving telephone calls and e-mail about an exotic walkingstick from Belize (or sometimes Brazil) that was found in Texas and is spreading east. This walkingstick is said to have the ability to spray a toxic substrance that blinds pets and possibly humans. I have received e-mail from county extension agents and others suggesting that I post a notice on the UF/IFAS Pest Alert site to warn people about this insect.

While there are plenty of Central and South American walkingsticks, they are not in Texas. (At least not yet.) This story is a hoax that is spreading on the Internet. When you read a story such as this, one of the best things to do before passing it on as true to others, is to visit the Urban Legends Reference Pages at http://www.snopes.com/snopes.asp. This site is an excellent resource for determining whether or not the story is true. In this case, just type "walkingstick" into the search box, press enter and then follow the link. Dr. John Jackman, an entomologist from Texas A&M University, debunks the hoax.

However, this walkingstick hoax is based upon some truth. While it is not worth losing sleep over, the twostriped walkingstick is common in the Gulf states and can spray a secretion that can cause pain and impair vision. For complete details and color images please see the Featured Creatures publication on this species.

Finally, we arrive at #5, the brown recluse spider and the Olive Garden restaurant tale also making its way around the Internet. From reports that supposedly come from medical doctors, thousand of people are bitten by brown recluse spiders every year. (Not true.) Everyone seems to know someone who knows someone who was bitten. I have received e-mail from county extension agents and others asking me if the Olive Garden/spider story is true. In fact, I was surpised when one of the Ph.D. students in my department repeated it to me as true. It never happened. For complete details and color images on the brown recluse spider, please see the Featured Creatures publication on this species.

Now, about that giant cockroach that ate Detroit...

The UF/IFAS Pest Alert WWW site is at: http://entomology.ifas.ufl.edu/pestalert/