Searching through the vegetation in the scrubby dune habitat on the east end of a barrier island in South Carolina, I was determined to photograph the chelicerae of jumping spiders. I am well aware that when I embark upon these quests to photograph inverts I will typically find (or lose) myself veering down a path of new discoveries taking me far from my initial goal. I assure you this is a feeling of excitement that I embrace full heartedly. This photographic tangent started when I was drawn to a small white speck in the center of a flower. Upon closer examination, a bizarre little bug moving methodically across the flower. After some intense internet digging (… you try to google small white bug on flower), I was able to identify it as an Ambush bug (Phymata sp.).
Perhaps due to its small size and incredibly cryptic coloration and body structure, there really isn’t too much information easily available to fully understand these bugs. However, it is their very small size and incredibly cryptic characteristics that allow them to attain the common name of Ambush bug. They will sit motionless, typically amongst the petals of a flower, and wait. Waiting for an unsuspecting pollinator to visit this flower. And then they lunge! Trapping the insect with its mantid-like raptorial forelegs and then quickly inserts its beak to inject a paralytic enzyme that renders the prey incapacitated. This is when the enzyme beings digesting the prey, breaking down tissues and liquifying its insides for purposes of being sucked up by the captor. Something even more incredible is Ambush Bugs are more than capable of grabbing and immobilizing prey well over ten times their size! Having read many accounts online, it seems these bugs are most commonly found from inspecting a bee or wasp that seems to be hanging motionless from a flower— the anchor: the strong forelegs of an Ambush Bug.
From this predatory behavior, it should not be a surprise that Ambush Bugs are members of the Assassin Bug family (Reduvioidea). A family of bugs riddled with predatory diversity capable of astounding even the most malicious imaginations. There is a lot yet to be discovered in this family, and Ambush Bugs are certainly no exception. A recent systematic analysis of Phymata of the US and Canada suggests there are 17 described species within the genus, and many more that are left un-described due to strong infraspecific morphological variation and insufficient and non-collaborative species descriptions for the large holdings of unidentified museum specimens (Frankenberg et al. 2013).
Lack of understanding has prompted a need for collaboration within the scientific and naturalist communities. These are fascinating little buggers and I hope I have encouraged some to look a bit closer at the natural world around them. Please feel free to add any further information to the comments section under this post, or comments on my Instagram post (@jakezadik). If you are interested in aiding and increasing our understanding of these bugs, there is a project initiated by iNaturalist to collect sighting data for these poorly understood bugs. Please check out the project here: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/uncovering-the-ambush-bugs.