Natural Connections: Trick or Treat with a Shredded Ambush Bug

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By Emily Stone

Naturalist / Director of Education, Cable Natural History Museum

Did little bees come to your porch last weekend looking for a sweet snack? How did you treat them? Did you smile and coo at their costumes? Wiggle your gnarled hands towards them threateningly? Or did you jump into the shadows, grab them with your strong front paws, and use your sharp beak to inject poison, then suck out their liquefied body tissue?

Not the latter? Well, you don’t have to be a Jagged Ambush Bug.

If that sounds terrifying, don’t worry, I spotted my Jagged Ambush Bug in early September, and this Assassin Bug family member probably crouched down for the winter.

It was a hot, but overcast day when I went snooping around in the Museum’s pollinator gardens. We are working on interpretive panels that will be installed next summer, and I wanted to see which species of flowers were still in bloom. A goldenrod plume caught my eye because it was just thick with bumblebees. Most of them were crawling and spinning chaotically, but I spotted an orange-belted bumblebee that looked more cooperative. When I leaned over to take a picture, I discovered that an oddly shaped yellow and brown insect 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 with said flower. Then they’ll sit down and wait for an unsuspecting pollinator to come and get a sweet treat. Pan! With front legs so strong and frightening that scientists call them “raptors,” the ambush bug ambushes the hungry visitor; stings them with that vicious beak; injects paralyzing and digesting poison; and drink to satiety. Using this technique, they can catch and eat prey more than twice their size.

(You, my friend, are well over twice their size. Although, if you try to run over an Ambush Bug, it will bite you. Although painful, its poison is not harmful to humans.)

It barely matches my image of “cute as a bug”. Usually the way we use the word bug is imprecise. We call a lot of bugs and cute “bugs”. But there is a group of insects that even entomologists who study insects call True Bugs. These are quite easy to identify for children, and even adults, because they have a big X on the 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, leathery at the base and clear and veined at the ends. The border between the thick wing and the thin wing makes the lower triangle of the X.

So, X marks the real bug. The ambush bug’s piercing-sucking mouth is also a key family trait. Fortunately, not all are this scary. Bedbugs, a real bug familiar with that distinctive X, are more likely to soak up piña colada than to join Dracula for a cocktail – they use their proboscis to pierce plants or fruit. While ambush bugs can use their beaks for defense, stink bugs rely on their namesake stench to deter predators.

Bedbugs have tricks, flowers have treats, and ambush bugs are those crooked people who like to step out of the shadows and scream “Boo!” “

Who were you?

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available for purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/livres and also in your local independent bookstore.

For over 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served as your connection to the Northwoods. The museum is now open with our exciting exhibition The Mysteries of the Night. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and cablemuseum.org to see what we’re doing.


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