Ambush bugs

jagged ambush bugs, Phymata americana

I discovered these guys on some yellow flowers in our garden yesterday afternoon. I think the flowers were a type of Rudbeckia, though I admit I’m drawing a blank now, at 9pm, and feel too lazy to go dig up a flashlight and wander out into the garden to check. ;) I can confirm, however, that I also discovered a single individual on a Black-eyed Susan out in our fields the same morning. They’re small – no more than a centimeter / half-inch – and strangely angular. The bright yellow of the lower individual blends in remarkably well with the flower.

These are ambush bugs, a type of assassin bug belonging to the subfamily Phymatinae. I think these are Jagged Ambush Bugs, genus Phymata, for which there are four species listed on BugGuide.net. Although the images for P. fasciata seemed to match these individuals more closely, the only BugGuide records for that species were from the southeastern US. So it may actually be P. americana, which appears to be a northeastern species.

Ambush bugs are predatory. They wait on plants, commonly on flowers, for another insect to stroll by. Flowers make good ambush spots because they’re frequently visited by pollinators. When the unsuspecting insect gets too close, the ambush bug leaps forward to snatch it using its mantis-like hooked forearms (which you can see quite well on the lower individual here). They’re capable of taking prey larger than themselves; like other assassin bugs, they rapidly move to stab captured prey with their sharp ‘beak’ and inject it with a mixture that paralyzes it and dissolves its insides so the predator can then use their straw-like beak to ingest the liquified tissue.

It looks like this is a mating pair, but this BugGuide photo had a comment on it suggesting that the upper individual, the male, is actually just hitching a ride on the lower individual, the female, because she’s larger and stronger and capable of taking down bigger prey than he himself is.

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15 responses to “Ambush bugs

  1. Sweet find Seabrooke! I had one ambush bug hang around our yard a few years ago for about a month, I’d go out each day after work to see if it caught anything. It stayed on the same stem of Canada Goldenrod.

    It’s really cool to see a mating pair!

    -Tom

  2. WoW~they look like some odd reptiles. Nice find.

  3. I’m determined to find some ambush eggs this season, but I haven’t seen many adults yet for whatever reason. Check the undersides of leaves of plants where you see the adults, if you feel so inclined! http://bugguide.net/node/view/301478

  4. Wow, this is an amazing photograph! Like Dawn Fine, I also thought that they strangely look reptilian. Especially their head.

  5. Excellent photo! I’ve often seen “mating pairs” but didn’t realize what I was actually seeing was just another freeloading male. Thanks for passing along the info.

  6. Nice photo, Seabrooke. I used to study and photograph Ambush Bugs at our farm in eastern Ontario. Much of their behaviour is quite fascinating. The pairs do stay together – often for days or weeks. I would visit the flowers where pairs were hanging out, a couple or more times a day, and they don’t move around all that much from day to day. The females occasionally work in small groups when capturing larger winged prey such as bumblebees. The males do not help at all – just ride along without participating in the captures and kills. These bugs are supposed to be able to communicate with sounds that can be picked up with bioacoustic gear. I was once stabbed by one of these – it fell off a plant and stabbed near my collar bone. One of the most painful sensations I have ever had when working around insects. The stinging went on for over a day and a lump formed and lasted at least 2 or 3 weeks.

    • Thanks for the info, Bev – what neat behaviour! It would be fascinating to see a few females hunting together as a pack. I’ve heard that about the assassin bugs (which includes the ambush bugs), that their “bites” are very painful. Glad not to have experienced that first-hand!

  7. I love the picture of your ambush bug. It just so happens that I took several pictures of a pair in my Asparagus patch. I don’t think my pics are as good as yours, but, I liked them just the same. Well done.

  8. I too see the reptilian aspect others have commented on…distinctly reminiscent of Old World Chameleons. Or anime characters.

  9. Thanks for the comments, everyone! They do seem somewhat reptilian, eh? Wild little bugs. I was surprised to learn they have longish antennae, which are folded tightly to their heads in this shot. After finding and posting about this pair, I discovered several more on the Rudbeckia in my garden and some of the goldenrod along the rail trail at the rear of our property.

  10. Tina Whiteman

    I’m finding a great many ambush bugs. My son was ‘bitten’ by one and said it felt like a wasp sting. I see them on oxe-eye daisies and on roses. Could there be so many because of a bumper crop of earwigs this year? I’m in seymour township, nothumberland county.

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