Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Ambush Bugs: Hidden Dangers for Pollinators

During an evening stroll in the backyard garden, with a big show of fireflies soon to come, we were admiring a common milkweed's blooms--like frozen fireworks at lawn's edge--when my friend spotted a honeybee on one of the flowers.

Isn't this the way it's supposed to be? You plant native wildflowers and the pollinators show up to feed ever so gratefully. But something didn't look quite right to me. The honeybee wasn't moving. 

Maybe it was memories of blog posts ten years ago--written after standing for hours gazing at the extraordinarily diverse community of insects and spiders drawn to boneset flowers--that caused me to take a closer look at that motionless honey bee. 

There, beautifully, mischievously, mercilessly camouflaged, hiding between the milkweed flowers, were two pairs of ambush bugs, mottled brown, black and white. The smaller of each pair sat atop the larger, apparently mating. Life is short for an insect, so it seems perfectly practical that one of the females, needing nourishment for whatever eggs come of the mating, had chosen that moment to snag the honeybee whose bad luck it was to visit those particular flowers.

Later, I returned to try for a better photo of the ambush bug and its mate.

By then, they had consumed what they wanted of the bee, dropping the remains to land ever so lightly on a leaf, one story down in the tower of milkweed.

Afternote: One could probably spend a lifetime exploring the mechanisms behind the camouflage of an ambush bug, as this quote from the Missouri Department of Conservation website shows:
"The colors of ambush bugs are worth mentioning. They can vary quite a bit within a single species. Most are gold, yellow, leaf-green, tan, brown, or white, often with dark mottled patches or bands. Apparently males are often darker or more spotted than females. It’s not clear whether individual ambush bugs change color like chameleons (and some crab spiders) to match the plants they’re resting on, or if they simply move to (or survive on) plants whose colors happen to match their bodies. It could be that they change color with each molt: young individuals, early in the season, being pale green, matching the new foliage of springtime, while older specimens become gold and black in later molts to match the flowers that develop in midsummer. The temperatures during egg stage may also affect the overall darkness of the insects."

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