Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Insect of the Week! Ambush bugs

These little guys are one of my favorite insect groups. My sister caught two of them earlier this month, and I was very excited! They are true bugs (from the order Hemiptera, which means “half-wing”), meaning they have piercing, sucking mouthparts which they keep tucked underneath their bodies when not in use. As Hemipterans, they also have wings which are half-covered by leathery, opaque wing covers. The uncovered parts of their wings, which they use for flight, are visible towards the end of their abdomen. They also have another unique feature which they share with their close relatives, the assassin bugs. Their abdomen (the region right behind their legs) extends out past their wings on both sides.

Ambush bugs are predatory insects. They are very well camouflaged and often blend right into whatever flower or plant they are sitting on. These bugs are very common on goldenrod, and as such most species are greenish-yellow, brown, and/or black. Here is a page with pictures of some common USA species: http://bugguide.net/node/view/4833/bgpage

Ambush bugs have several adaptations which make them excellent predators including big eyes and enlarged, powerful front legs. They use these to catch and hold their prey. In spite of their small size (about a quarter of an inch), ambush bugs are capable of subduing insects much larger than themselves such as bees, flies, and wasps. The bugs wait without moving for an insect to come too close, and then they quickly grab it. Once the bugs have captured their prey, they inject venom into their victims which both paralyzes them and liquefies their insides. The bug then enjoys its meal by sucking up this “insect soup.”  (Yum!)

Despite their venom and predatory habits, ambush bugs pose no threat to humans. They are too small for their bite to break the skin and can be handled safely. If you find one, try observing it for a while. You may see it catch an unsuspecting insect meal!

Also, feel free to check out this youtube video to see some of the habits of these amazing creatures: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezDOrId-Tq4

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

New feature: Insect of the Week! The Polyphemus Moth

Well, I have already failed in my goal to update my blog once a week. That didn’t take long, but I’m getting back on track and starting a new feature, Insect of the Week!

Insect of the Week!  The Polyphemus Moth

Members of the Order Lepidoptera, which contains the Butterflies and Moths, are considered by entomologists and amateurs alike to be some of the world’s most beautiful insects. The Polyphemus moth is no exception. My Dad caught one of these beauties for me outside his office last Monday.

Check out a photo here: http://bugguide.net/node/view/136372

Polyphemus moths are members of the Family Saturniidae (Giant Silkworm and Royal Moths). This family contains some of the largest moths in the world and some of the most colorfully decorated. They prefer the leaves of trees and shrubs, and each species has their own particular favorites. Caterpillars can grow up to 4 inches long. When they are done munching, they spin a cocoon of silk. After several months, the adult moth emerges. The large eyespots on the wings are thought to be used as a defense against hungry predators by surprising the would-be snacker and giving the moth a chance to escape.

Although the adult moths are beautiful, they do not live long. Most species survive for only a few weeks. They have vestigial (useless) mouthparts and so cannot eat. The sole goal of their adult lives is to reproduce.

It’s very easy to tell the difference in gender of these moths, just look at their antennae! Male moths find females by following their pheromones, which are good-smelling chemicals (to the moths, anyway!). The males have very feathery antennae which allow them to smell the pheromones. Some male moths can detect a female moth from over a mile away!

Other well-known members of this family include the Luna moth (http://bugguide.net/node/view/523517/bgimage) and the Io moth (http://bugguide.net/node/view/172049/bgpage).

Needless to say, I’m thrilled to have a Polyphemus moth in my collection. Come back later this week to learn about one of my favorite insects, the ambush bug!