Photo of the Week – November 28, 2014

Ambush bugs are scary-looking little predators.  Their stocky bodies are heavily armored up front, and they have very thick raptorial forelegs like those of praying mantises.  I usually only spot ambush bugs when I’m photographing something else such as flowers or pollinators – their camouflage is pretty good, and they sit very well while waiting for prey.

Ambush bug (Phymata americana?) on a stiff sunflower plant.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Ambush bug (Phymata americana?) on a stiff sunflower plant. Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

Ambush bugs are a subgroup of assassin bugs (Reduviidae) and have the same straw-like mouthpart (rostrum).  Like assassin bugs, they can inject both a paralyzing venom and digestive enzymes into their prey through that mouthpart, which they keep tucked underneath them when not feeding.  When an ambush bug attacks its prey, it nabs it quickly with its strong forelegs and stabs it with its rostrum.  Once the insides of its paralyzed victim are properly liquefied, it sucks them out.  I was describing this process to some high school kids the other day and one of them excitedly pointed out that it’s just like drinking a Capri Sun.  Yes. Yes it is.  Except you don’t have to capture and kill the Capri Sun first (at least not the kind they sell around here).

I think this might be the female of the species shown in the first photo.  However, I'm an ecologist, not an entomologist, so don't take my word for that.

I think this might be the female of the species shown in the first photo. However, I’m an ecologist, not an entomologist, so don’t take my word for that.  It was photographed the same day at the same prairie…

Ambush bugs are just one of the countless insects that can be found right in your backyard, as long as you’ve got some semblance of habitat available.  The three photos in this post came from a small prairie here in town.  I’m glad they’re common – they are a great insect to show kids (and to photograph) …as long as you can find them.  I’m also glad they’re only about 1/2 inch long and not dangerous to people!  (Can you imagine a 6-foot-long ambush bug hiding along the side of the trail as you walked by??  Hoo boy.)

Don't mess with ambush bugs...

Don’t mess with ambush bugs…

As an interesting side note:  While I was looking up a few bits of information for this post, I found out that Ambush Bug is also a DC Comics character.  I was disappointed, however, to find that the superpowers of the comic book character are not very similar to the actual bug (or even very “super”).  In fact, it’s a very weird character, even by comic book standards, that is a “well-meaning but incompetent adventurer who vaguely fights crime…”  Ambush Bug also has a stuffed toy for a sidekick and his arch enemy is a sock.  Who writes this stuff?

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.