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?