Did any little bees buzz up to your porch last weekend, looking for a sugary snack? How did you treat them? Did you smile and coo at their costumes? Wiggle your gnarled hands at them menacingly? Or did you pounce from the shadows, grab them with your strong front legs, and use your sharp beak to inject poison and then suck up their liquefied body tissues?
Not that last one? Well, you must not be a jagged ambush bug.
If it sounds terrifying, don’t worry—I spotted my jagged ambush bug way back in early September, and this member of the assassin bug family has probably hunkered down for the winter.
The day was warm but overcast when I went snooping around the museum’s pollinator gardens. We’re working on some interpretive signage that will be installed next summer, and I wanted to see what flower species were still in bloom.
A plume of goldenrod caught my eye because it was just thick with bumble bees. Most of them were crawling and darting chaotically, but I spotted an orange-belted bumble bee that looked more cooperative. When I leaned in to snap a photo, I discovered that an oddly shaped yellow and brown bug was attached to the head of a very dead bee. That’s why it was so cooperative.
This is the modus operandi of ambush bugs. They grow up to look like a beautiful flower so that they can blend in perfectly on said flower. Then they’ll sit and wait until an unsuspecting pollinator comes looking for a sugary treat.
Wham! With front legs so strong and scary that scientists call them “raptorial,” the ambush bug ambushes the hungry visitor; jabs them with that vicious beak; injects paralyzing, digesting poison; and drinks their fill. Using this technique, they can catch and eat prey more than twice their size.
(You, my friend, are far more than twice their size. Although, if you try to squash an ambush bug, they will bite you. While painful, their poison is not dangerous to humans.)
This hardly fits my image of “cute as a bug.” Usually, the way we use the word bug is imprecise. We call lots of insects and cuties “bugs.”
But there is one group of insects that even entomologists who study insects call “true bugs.” These are pretty easy for kids — and even adults — to identify, because they have a big X on their back. The top half of the X is formed by a triangular piece of their exoskeleton that sits behind their head. Behind this triangle are their crossed wings, which are leathery at the bases and clear and veiny at the tips. The border between thick wing and thin wing makes the bottom triangle of the X.
So, X marks the true bug. The ambush bug’s piercing-sucking mouth is also a key family trait. Luckily, not all are quite so scary. Stink bugs, a familiar true bug with that distinctive X, are more likely to imbibe on piña colada than join Dracula for a cocktail — they use their proboscis to pierce plants or fruits. While ambush bugs can use their beak as defense, stink bugs rely on their namesake stench to deter predators.
Stink bugs have the tricks, flowers have the treats, and ambush bugs are those twisted people who love to jump out of the shadows and yell “Boo!”
Who were you?
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