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Thursday, June 25, 2015
This is the time of the year when homeowners become frustrated with insect life proliferating in their swimming pools. Two common insects that appear in almost every swimming pool and seem almost impossible to control are water boatmen and backswimmers.

These insects are true bugs – that is they can be actually and scientifically called “bugs” (whereas beetles and flies can’t) as they are members of the hemiptera order, the same insect class as stink bugs, boxelder bugs, and assassin bugs. Like those other bugs, these little swimmers (especially the backswimmer) can be problematic.

The water boatman

The water boatman is a small insect that is ¼ to ½ inches long. They have elongated, oval bodies that many people say are torpedo shaped. When you see them swimming in your pool, their very long back legs are perpendicular to their body, like little oars.  You can tell them apart from backswimmers because they swim in an upright position with their back towards the sky.

They are excellent swimmers, but that skill set is not used as a means to chase prey. Unlike the backswimmer, the water boatman eats plant material. It likes algae and will be seen eating the slime off of your pool wall.

They are incredibly abundant and only dabble in pools. You can see them in every pond, lake, puddle, and birdbath in the area – anyplace where there’s standing water and algae.

The backswimmer

The backswimmer can stay submerged for up to six hours. 
(PHOTO COURTESY OF PAUL ALBERTALLA)
The backswimmer looks almost identical to the water boatman but that is where it ends.

Like the name says, they swim on their back. And, they are far more accomplished at swimming than water boatmen and, therefore, can be found in almost any body of water, including streams. They can pause at any depth of water and control their buoyancy quite well. They can stay submerged for up to six hours because they keep air bubbles trapped in their abdominal pockets and folds.

Unlike water boatmen, backswimmers are predaceous and feed on small insects and other small aquatic animals, including tadpoles. They will go after creatures that are stuck in the surface film of water. They have a piercing mouth that they impale their prey with. They then use that mouthpart to squirt digestive agents into the prey and then suck out its insides as liquefied food.

Do not handle them!

While you could pick up a water boatman with absolutely no issue, the backswimmer is a different story.

When cleaning your pool, do not pick them up with your bare hands and encourage your guests to stay away from them.

They are commonly called “water bees” for a very good reason. If they bite you, it hurts as much as a bee sting or wasp bite. That’s because of both the aforementioned mouthpart and that digestive chemical that comes out of it.

They are so nasty that occasionally they will, unprovoked, bite down on exposed skin underwater and really catch you by surprise. I can remember a couple of bites from these nasty bugs in my high school years.

How to keep them out of your pool 

It’s nearly impossible to keep water boatmen and backswimmers out of your swimming pool, but you can substantially cut back on their numbers.

These bugs are attracted to swimming pools at night by lights that are around the pools. Some folks in the pool industry suggest covering the pool every night or replacing standard light bulbs with orange or yellow bulbs.

Also, keep a small net handy on the top seat of the pool to scoop up backswimmers whenever you see them. Nothing can so quickly ruin a pool party than a little kid being bitten by one of those nasty bugs.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he’s glad backswimmers aren’t the size of alligators. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at bobconfer@juno.com.



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