Boxelders’ namesake bugs like to spend winter indoors

Photo by Madeline Hughes
Boxelder bug

By JOE RANKIN

Comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s shtick was the phrase “I don’t get no respect,” always followed by one of his great self-deprecatory one-liners. If Rodney Dangerfield were a tree, he might be Acer negundo – the Boxelder, which also gets no respect. When Boxelder isn’t being ignored, it’s being disparaged, dismissed, or damned with faint praise.

Boxelder, also known as ash-leaved maple, can be a fairly big tree: it can grow 50 to 75 feet tall and more than two feet in diameter, though it often has multiple trunks.

“It has the greatest range of any North American maple,” said Kevin Smith, senior plant physiologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in Durham, N.H. The tree is found across much of the U.S. and into Canada. It likes streams and wet, rich ground, but will thrive even in poor soil.

Considered worthless as a timber tree “because its wood is light, soft, close grained, and low in strength,” according to a Forest Service species summary, the Boxelder doesn’t get much respect for its fuel potential. The same summary notes the tree’s “soft, spongy wood generally makes poor firewood.”

Boxelder also is less than desirable as an ornamental. Michael Dirr, author of “Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs” says it’s not really a pretty tree. The “wood is subject to breakage, insects and diseases . . . temperance is the rule when considering this species” as a landscape tree.

Then there’s the bugs.

The trees are commonly infested with Boxelder bugs (Boisea trivittata). Clusters of these striking but smelly half-inch-long black insects with red edging often invade homes en masse in the fall looking for a place to overwinter. Expect them to awaken and emerge when the heat comes on.

Boxelder does have some redeeming value: It’s a fast-growing tree quick to colonize bare ground. It serves as food for wildlife, from birds to squirrels to deer. And it’s a maple – so you can tap it to make syrup.

Boxelder has fans among wood turners. The creamy wood is often tinged red, and the heavily furrowed bark of mature trees makes for a striking, natural-edge bowl. Smith explained that the eye-catching streaks in the wood are part of the tree’s response to injury.

In sugar maples and red maples, the streaks are green, but in Boxelder, they are a reddish-carmine color.

But, how to deal with those bugs?

Better to keep them out than to try to control them once they get in. So, arm yourself with a caulk gun to plug crevices or holes in your siding. Some experts recommend spraying insecticide on the outside walls of your house, but you’ll have to respray a few times.

Don’t spray insecticides between the studs to kill the beetles: you don’t want a pile of dead, rotting Boxelder beetles in your wall.

A vacuum is the best way to remove beetles when they inevitably wake up in the middle of winter. Remember to seal up the bag after vacuuming so they don’t just crawl out.

One way to reduce the Boxelder bugs’ numbers is to cut down female Boxelder trees nearby. The beetles feed on Boxelder seeds (and those of other maples and ashes), so they tend to remain near a host tree.

Perhaps that sounds drastic, especially if you have a large Boxelder that still looks good. If you choose to chop, maybe contact your local wood-turning club to trade the wood for a bowl or two.

Joe Rankin writes on forestry and nature and turns wood, antler, and other materials at his workshop in Maine. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

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