Cottonwood Borer Bite: Is It Poisonous? Fact Check and Safety Tips

The cottonwood borer (Plectrodera scalator) is a type of longhorned beetle known for infesting trees like cottonwood, poplar, and willow. Adult cottonwood borers have a distinct black and white pattern and can grow up to 1.5 inches in length. Their larvae are large, white, and deeply segmented grubs that can reach nearly 2 inches when fully grown. These insects are known for causing damage to trees but are rarely a threat to humans.

The question often arises – is the cottonwood borer bite poisonous? In general, their bites are not known for being venomous or harmful to humans, as they mostly feed on tree bark and wood. Although they might look intimidating, these beetles are not typically considered dangerous to people.

However, if you come across a cottonwood borer, it’s best to avoid handling it unnecessarily. This is simply to prevent any possible minor injury from a defensive bite. Overall, there’s no need for panic, as these wood-boring insects pose no significant threat to human health.

Cottonwood Borer Overview

Identification

The Cottonwood Borer (Plectrodera scalator) is a large longhorn beetle that can grow up to 1.25 inches in length. It has a distinct black and white coloration and its antennae are as long, or sometimes even longer, than its body.

Habitat

These beetles are primarily found in the U.S., mainly in North America, where they breed in the bases and roots of living cottonwood, poplars, and willows1.

Life Cycle

The life cycle of the Cottonwood Borer consists of several stages:

  • Eggs: Female beetles lay their eggs in August at the base of host plants2.
  • Larvae: Cottonwood Borer larvae are legless roundheaded borers that can grow up to 1.5 inches long2. They bore into tree roots and cause damage.
  • Pupa: In this stage, the larval form transforms into that of a mature adult.
  • Adults: Adult beetles emerge and cause damage while feeding on young trees, but most of the damage comes from the larval stage1.

Damage to host trees:

  • Larvae cause most of the damage by hollowing, partially severing, or girdling trees1.
  • Adults feed on young trees, leading to additional damage1.

Comparison table of Cottonwood Borer and Asian Longhorn Beetle:

Feature Cottonwood Borer Asian Longhorn Beetle
Size Up to 1.25 inches3 Up to 1.5 inches4
Antennae length As long as, or longer than, the body3 Longer than the body4
Coloration Black and white3 Black and white4
Family Cerambycidae5 Cerambycidae5

Host Trees and Damage

Infested Trees and Host Plants

Cottonwood borers are wood-boring beetles that primarily infest cottonwood, poplar, and willow trees. They can also be found in other tree species like birch.

Examples of host trees include:

  • Cottonwood trees
  • Poplars
  • Willows
  • Birch

Symptoms of Infestation

Infestations can cause various symptoms, including:

  • Holes in the bark
  • Reddish frass (insect waste) in bark crevices or near the tree base
  • Girdled branches and twigs
  • Dieback in the tree canopy

Damage to Trees and Property

Cottonwood borers can cause significant damage to host trees, especially young ones. They tunnel through the inner bark and may reach the tree’s root system. In severe infestations, larvae create girdling tunnels which can damage the tree’s vascular system, causing wilting or even death.

Below is a comparison of healthy and infested trees:

Healthy Trees Infested Trees
Intact bark Holes in the bark
No frass Reddish frass
Healthy branches Girdled branches
Full tree canopy Dieback in the canopy

Some consequences of cottonwood borer infestations include:

  • Damaged or dead trees
  • Girdled tree trunks
  • Wilted or discolored leaves
  • Potential property damage from weakened trees falling

The cottonwood borer does not have venom or poison glands, and its bite is not considered dangerous or poisonous to humans. However, infested trees may suffer damage or even die, so it is essential to address infestations promptly.

Reproduction and Development

Mating and Egg-Laying

Cottonwood borers are large, robust long-horned beetles with black antennae as long or longer than the body (source). The mating process begins with male beetles searching for female beetles using their long antennae to locate them. After fertilization, female beetles lay eggs on or around the roots of host plants.

Some key features of cottonwood borer mating and egg-laying:

  • Male and female beetles participate in fertilization
  • Eggs are laid on or around plant roots

Development and Metamorphosis

Cottonwood borer larvae cause most of the damage by feeding on and hollowing out the roots and lower trunk of host trees, like cottonwood, poplars, and willows (source). As the larvae grow, they undergo metamorphosis, passing through several stages before reaching adulthood. They pupate within the tree, and adult cottonwood borers emerge through holes in the trunk or branches.

A comparison table between Asian longhorned beetle and cottonwood borer:

Feature Asian Longhorned Beetle Cottonwood Borer
Size 0.8 – 1.4 inches 1.25 inches
Antennae size 1.5 – 2.5 times body As long or longer than body
Tree damage location Trunk & branches Roots and lower trunk
Host trees Maple, poplar, birch Cottonwood, poplar, willow

Characteristics of cottonwood borer development:

  • Larvae feed on and hollow out tree roots
  • Undergo several stages of metamorphosis
  • Pupation occurs within the tree
  • Adults emerge through holes in the trunk or branches

Prevention and Control

Monitoring and Identification

To prevent and control cottonwood borer infestations, it’s important to monitor and identify them. The cottonwood borer is a type of longhorn beetle that has black and white-striped patterns, black antennae, and a cylindrical body. They belong to the roundheaded borers group attacking host plants like cottonwoods and other trees. Some key identification features include:

  • Striped pattern
  • Black antennae
  • Cylindrical body

You can monitor their presence by looking for signs such as sawdust and holes in the bark of the tree, as well as damaged leaf stems. Also, stay alert for their predators, such as birds and spiders, as an increase in their presence may indicate a cottonwood borer infestation.

Chemical Control

In some cases, chemical control might be necessary to manage cottonwood borer populations. Insecticides can be effective when applied at the appropriate time, usually when adult insects lay eggs on the tree trunks. However, chemical control has its pros and cons:

Pros:

  • Can effectively reduce borer populations
  • Protects trees from further damage

Cons:

  • Can be harmful to non-target species
  • May lead to pesticide resistance in borers

Cultural and Physical Control

Cultural and physical control methods include maintaining tree health, proper pruning, and removing infested firewood. These approaches provide a more eco-friendly alternative to chemical control. Here are some tips:

  • Maintain tree health: Keep trees well-watered and fertilized
  • Prune properly: Remove dead and damaged branches
  • Remove infested firewood: Dispose of infested wood to avoid spreading borers

In areas prone to high winds, such as the United States’ Rocky Mountains, planting windbreaks can also protect host plants from wind damage, reducing the risk of cottonwood borer infestations.

Conclusion

The cottonwood borer, scientifically known as Plectrodera scalator, is a large, long-horned beetle. Its larvae can cause significant damage to cottonwood, poplar, and willow trees.

Cottonwood borer bites are not known to be poisonous. If you are bitten, it’s essential to maintain a watchful eye for potential allergic reactions or infections. However, the chances of being bitten are relatively low.

Pros:

  • Cottonwood borers aren’t hazardous to humans.
  • Bites are generally uncommon.

Cons:

  • These beetles can cause significant tree damage.
  • If bitten, individuals might experience an allergic reaction or infection.

As a result, cottonwood borers pose primarily a risk to trees rather than to humans. It is critical to focus on preventing tree damage when dealing with these insects.

Footnotes

  1. Cottonwood Borer – Oklahoma State University 2 3 4

  2. Common Insect Pests of Cottonwood – University of Kentucky 2

  3. Cottonwood Borer – Texas A&M University 2 3

  4. Asian Longhorn Beetle – Wikipedia 2 3

  5. Cerambycidae – Wikipedia 2

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Cottonwood Borer

 

large yellow bug with black spots and black feet it can fly.
July 19, 2009
I was outside on my balcony when I saw about eight of these things flying around then one landed on the building and I have no clue what it is.
cori
greapevine,Texas

Cottonwood Borer
Cottonwood Borer

Hi cori,
The Cottonwood Borer, Plectrodera scalator is usually described as white with black markings.  It is a beetle in the family Cerambycidae.
We really love the narrative mystery mood of your photo.  It is quite cinematic.

Letter 2 – Cottonwood Borer

 

Giant bug
Hi Bugman,
My father found this big guy on a glass door, at his work, in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. According to him, it seemed to sit in the same spot for hours, giving him the opportunity to take a picture. I’ve tried all kinds of sites, looking for what this creepy bug could possibly be, when I stumbled upon your website! It was about 2 1/2 inches long, not including the monstrous antennas. We made the conclusion that it’s a beetle… but of course, we could be wrong. Can you help us?!
Jerica
Kansas City, Missouri

Hi Jerica,
Your beautiful beetle is a Cottonwood Borer, Plectrodera scalator.

Letter 3 – Cottonwood Borer

 

BIG BUG in Texas
Sun, Jun 28, 2009 at 8:26 AM
I opened my front door to my upstairs apt. to leave, and walking in very relaxed like, was this neat looking creature. Naturally, I freaked and shut the door, then remembered how slow and feeble it seemed. As if it pretty much just wanted to get in out of the heat! it’s 102’F outside right now. So i put the broom and jar down on the floor and he mozzeied right on into it….like, dum de dum de dum…. but he doesn’t seem to like the jar too much, and i would like to find out whether or not this lil guy can hurt me? what does he need to survive? Cause he obviously, doesn’t like the heat! Btw- it’s a real light brown, almost cream/khaki in color underneath all the spots top of back and belly.
Biggest Bug I’ve seen in Texas
Fort Worth, TX

Cottonwood Borer
Cottonwood Borer

Your beetle is a Cottonwood Borer, Plectrodera scalator , one of the most beautiful North American beetles. According to BugGuide: “Adults are reported to browse on shoots of host trees, especially leaf-stems (petioles), and bark.” The host tree is the cottonwood. The beetle will not harm you, though they do have strong jaws and it might pinch slightly if it tries to bite you. We would urge you to release your captive.

Update:
i put him in box with coal rocks (those red ones that are very porous) and a variety of leaves/grass and tiny dish of water next to the rocks so that he could drink… i don’t know for sure, but it appeared to of eaten one of the leaves.
He took a nap that day and when i heard him crawling around again i took him back outside and he crawled right onto the little bush like tree and posed for the most beautiful picture! Unfortunally my memory is the only picture i will ever have of that as i did not have my camera/phone on me.
Thanks!

Letter 4 – Cottonwood Borer

 

black with checkers and has wings 1.5 inches long
July 16, 2009
Found this bug hanging around the hangar. What is it?
Sorry I don’t want a letter just curious as to the bug is. Thanks
Chesterfield Missouri

Cottonwood Borer
Cottonwood Borer

Dear Sorry,
This beautiful beetle is a Cottonwood Borer.  Most of our reports come from Oklahoma and Texas.

Letter 5 – Cottonwood Borer

 

BIG BLACK AND WHITE BUG
July 31, 2009
I wrote yesterday, but have not received a copy of my email, so thought it did not go through. This bug was about 2″ long. It was thick with dark black legs and feelers that were thick. Its back legs were tipped at the foot area with black and white like its body. I don’t remember if the other legs were. I didn’t see wings, but it disappeared quick suddenly when I brushed it into the leaves with the broom. I’ve never seen one before.
Curious
Northeast Texas

Cottonwood Borer
Cottonwood Borer

Dear Curious,
Your spectacular Longicorn Beetle is the Cottonwood Borer.

Letter 6 – Cottonwood Borer

 

Cottonwood Borer
July 7, 2010
I found this bug in my back yard and looked it up on your website. Using your recourses, I think I have correctly identified this insect but I think that my photos depict this insect better than the one demonstrated on your website.
If you agree, you’re more than welcome to use them.
George Gonzales
North Texas, Euless

Cottonwood Borer

Hi George,
Your identification of the Cottonwood Borer,
Plectrodera scalator, is correct.  We are not certain which of the many photographs posted to our website you are comparing your images to, but the submissions from our readership run the gamut from totally blurry to finely focused and of high resolution.  Since the beginning of our site migration last year about this time, we have offered a new feature of being able to enlarge the images posted to our site to a maximum of 800×550 ppi, and all previous images are much smaller files.

Cottonwood Borer

Letter 7 – Cottonwood Borer

 

Yellow Beetle with Black Spots?
Location:  Amarillo, TX
August 5, 2010 8:12 pm
My 6 year old daughter found this big guy (about 2.25 inches long) in our back yard under out granny smith apple tree. We watched him for a little while and then i used a twig to help him into some of the higher branches of the tree so that my 4 year old son wouldn’t squish him. (ahh, little boys!) Can you tell us what this guy is?
Z Wilkerson

Cottonwood Borer

Hi Z,
Your insect is a Cottonwood Borer,
Plectrodera scalator.  BugGuide lists the range as:  “Eastern and Central United States. In east, found north of Washington, DC.” but virtually all the reports we have received over the years have been from Texas and Oklahoma.

Letter 8 – Cottonwood Borer

 

Camo Bug
Location:  Guthrie, Oklahoma (North of OKC)
September 26, 2010 1:04 pm
Found this on the back porch behind a broom…dead.
Looks as though it might be a flying beetle.
Interesting pattern on it.
Signature:  Bugz E

Cottonwood Borer

Dear Bugz E,
The corpse you found is that of a Cottonwood Borer,
Plectrodera scalator, according to BugGuide. It is in our opinion the most distinctive beetle found in North America north of the Mexican border.

Letter 9 – Cottonwood Borer

 

Nasty looking bug
Location: Duson, Louisiana
May 24, 2011 8:52 am
Please help me identify this bug. I believe it is a Spotted Cucumber beetle. Found in Duson, Louisiana
Signature: Casee

Cottonwood Borer

Dear Casee,
The Spotted Cucumber Beetle is a tiny creature.  This magnificent beetle is a Cottonwood Borer.

Letter 10 – Cottonwood Borer

 

what is this?
Location: texas around san antonio
May 28, 2011 2:24 am
I work at sonic in Texas and I keep finding them in the parking lot. I thought maybe it was a cottonwood borer but there are slight differences between mine and the borer and I don’t want it to possibly be dangerous. can you help?
Signature: Tyler

Cottonwood Borer

Hi Tyler,
You are quite correct that this is a Cottonwood Borer.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

5 thoughts on “Cottonwood Borer Bite: Is It Poisonous? Fact Check and Safety Tips”

  1. I found one of these beetles this morning at a gas station in Austin, right next to the gas pump. I was fascinated by its markings and, luckily had an empty jar in my car because I had just taken in some water to be tested at the pool supply store. So I scooped up the critter and came home and found this website, and there was my bug … the cottonwood borer. We don’t have cottonwoods in my neighborhood, only live oaks, so I hope he’s OK. I put him out on my woodpile.

    Reply
    • They must like gas stations because I had the same experience. At first I thought it was fake, just way too peaceful for a bug that intimidating. Lets just say I’m not much of an entomologist. I put my finger close to it and it moved and there was an intense eye to eye. I left. Now I’m here trying to figure out what kind of bug it was. Denton, TX

      Reply
  2. I saw this bug on my apartment porch today, and it scared me to pieces! I had never seen it before and it reminded me of a very large cock-roach with much a much different color pattern! Can this bug be dangerous or poisonous at all? Thank you.

    Reply

Leave a Comment