Monday, August 3, 2009

Ambush Bugs EVERYWHERE

Today I went on a field assignment for work, that had us outside in a re-created wetland all day.

Turns out the goldenrod is starting to flower, which means my favorite insect is out and about - the ambush bug! Order Hemiptera, family Phymatidae, and around here you find the genus Phymata.

Within 6 hours I counted 75 - and that was with very sparse goldenrod! Many were mating, and several were seen sucking the juices out of their captured prey (ranging from small flies to huge hornets).

The biggest shame is I didn't bring my camera to work... here's a fun photo from a few years ago though:
Now introducing: the ambush bug soap opera*.
WARNING CONTAINS MATURE CONTENT
(insect sex and cannibalism)
*Based on real field observations

It was a warm sunny day, quite a relief after weeks of rain. Mabel the ambush bug was enjoying the afternoon, minding her own business, when Johnny came around again. Ugh, she just could not get him to leave her alone. All his crude jokes and sexual advances were so juvenile, and her indifference made him even more determined. He liked girls that play hard to get. To Johnny it was all a game. He didn't realize how serious it could get.

Johnny sauntered over to her side of the goldenrod plant, but it was the wrong day to come courting. Mabel had had enough, and knew that this would be Johnny's last visit. She composed herself and waiting for him to get within striking distance.

"Hey baby" he crooned in his suave voice. But before he could get out another word, Mabel was on top of him, her claws grasping for purchase, her beak looking for a weak point. At first he was turned on, perhaps she had finally succumbed to his charm and released her sexual tension. But when the deadly bite found its mark, he came to the startling realization - he was going to be her meal, not her mate.

He tried to escape but it was too late, as her poison flowed through him and began turning his insides to mush. And as he slipped away, Mabel could finally find peace. Revenge was not only a relief, but a tasty meal.

The struggle did not go unnoticed.

Mabel's friend Mary had been watching the drama unfold from a goldenrod cluster a few inches away. She too had been harassed by Johnny, and was happy to see him get what he deserved. Well, part of her wondered if death was too harsh, but with the economy these days (the bees weren't coming around as much) every meal was to be cherished, even if it means cannibalism. She wondered if there was enough to share, and made her way over to Mabel.

The neighborhood busy-body noticed the commotion as well. Melinda had her binoculars focused on the Smiths (who were getting busy a few stems over) but couldn't pass up spying on a love quarrel gone wrong. She too had a rumbling stomach and realized that Johnny looked pretty tasty. She also saw that Mary was on her way over - no way she would let Mary steal the prize! She put away her binoculars, shut the blinds, and shuffled out of her goldenrod patch.

Mabel at first was unaware she had been watched. She was so consumed with rage, and then sweet revenge and a big meal, that she was startled when Mary approached her from behind. Nearly caused her to drop Johnny's corpse! Mabel had Johnny dangling beneath her, so Mary climbed on her back to try to reach him. Of course Mabel did not want to share, and started violently shaking. Again her grip on Johnny loosened, but she was determined not to share. Mary had her beak outstretched, raptorial front claws grasping at his spiked abdomen, but it was not enough. She didn't want to risk her life for a meal, so she backed away.

Mary was about to leave for good when she saw Melinda approaching. Nothing will increase determination like competition! Mary watched as Melinda tried to grab at Johnny by crawling a different route, avoiding Mabel altogether. It was a precarious position, and she nearly succeeded - until Mabel noticed. A few more shakes, and repositioning of Johnny's body, made Melinda give up after just a taste. However Mary was inspired, and went over to Melinda to conspire.

The two came up with a plan - by working together they could capture Johnny's body for themselves. Imagine the feast they would have! They went separate ways to surround Mabel.

After having chased away the two scroungers Mabel thought she had been rid of them - a few choice words had been shared as well. So she was surprised to see them both come back, looking a little too friendly. "So Mabel, how's Johnny tasting? Sure there's not enough to go around?" Melinda thought they should at least give one attempt at a peaceful solution. Mabel turned her back and continued feeding, intent on ignoring them, which was the only response they needed.

At once both Mary and Melinda pounced, the force so great that Mabel was unable to keep her grip on Johnny's body. He slipped through her claws, bounced off some stems and leaves on the way down, and ended up a few feet below on the wetland floor.

Silence. The three ambush bugs looked at each other for a moment, and went their separate ways. Now none of them could enjoy that meal - and think of the prey they might have caught had they been sitting at their flowers! Mabel was particularly upset, though at least she had eaten enough to last her through the day.

Meanwhile, the Smiths were still going at it. Melinda picked up her binoculars again, broom in the other claw, ready to stomp on the stem to tell those young whippersnappers to keep it down.

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