Photo of the Week – September 16, 2011

Sometimes I’m amazed that there are any pollinators left in the world.  Not only do they have to survive habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, herbicides/pesticides, introduced diseases, and competition from introduced pollinators like European honey bees, pollinators also have to deal with all the various predators that wait in ambush on flowers!  Imagine making your way through a deadly obstacle course all day long, finally arriving home, opening the refrigerator to grab some dinner, and getting eaten by a troll hiding inside.

In December of last year, I wrote about crab spiders and their tactics for capturing visitors to flowers.  The photo below is of an ambush bug that uses eerily similar tactics.  You know, just to keep those bees on their toes.

Ambush bug (Phymata sp.) on stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus). Beatrice, Nebraska.

Ambush bugs are closely related to assassin bugs, but have thicker bodies and legs.  They are well camouflaged and sit on flowers, waiting for something to get close enough to grab.  Once they have prey in their mantis-like front pincer legs, they (like crab spiders and assassin bugs) inject the with paralyzing and liquefying saliva and then suck the insides right out of the poor visitor.  I find it fascinating that two creatures as distantly related as crab spiders and ambush bugs have such similar hunting and feeding techniques.  Assassin bugs and ambush bugs both use piercing mouthparts to inject their saliva and suck out the bug innards, while crab spiders have fangs.  Otherwise, the story works about the same way.  I doubt the prey have a preference one way or the other…

This particular ambush bug was sitting on a stiff sunflower in a prairie planting on the campus of Southeast Community College in Beatrice, Nebraska a couple weeks ago.  It sat very still for the 5 minutes or so it took to get these photos.  The challenge wasn’t to get the insect to stop moving – it was to wait for the tall flower to stop swaying in the breeze!

For more information on ambush and assassin bugs, you might be interested to read this article from the Missouri Conservationist.


About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
This entry was posted in General, Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Photo of the Week – September 16, 2011

  1. Nate Walker says:

    Thanks for the cool post Chris. I was unaware of these bugs and now have a new critter to look for when I’m down at the prairie. Also, thanks for highlighting our prairie restoration down here at SCC. As always I enjoyed your blog immensely.

  2. And it’s not just pollinators that can get nabbed by these guys. There are a number of pictures at of them eating hunting wasps. (Search Phymata at the site to find.)
    I always find these guys hard to photograph, partly because of substrate motion, but also I think because they are not very flat, and getting the depth of focus to do them justice seems difficult.
    (More light, and stop down.)

  3. Tim says:

    I laughed out loud at the troll inside the refrigerator analogy. Good Pics as always!! Your blog is always enjoyable, take care.



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