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home : columns : columns June 28, 2016

7/8/2014 1:17:00 PM
The ambush bug and its kin
That cabbage white butterfly is being done in by an ambush bug.  photo by Jim Anderson
+ click to enlarge
That cabbage white butterfly is being done in by an ambush bug. photo by Jim Anderson

By Jim Anderson

There are about 200 species of insects in this part of the country that make life on Earth very difficult for other insects: Ambush bugs. They have that very descriptive name because they wait silently and unmoving for their prey to get close enough to grab them. And they blend in so perfectly with the places where they wait that they are all but impossible to see.

If you look at the photo to the right long enough, you'll make out the head and front legs of an ambush bug grasping the abdomen of the butterfly. The plant is yellow rabbit brush of summer, the ambush bug is yellow and brown. The combination of colors and shapes make the ambush bug perfectly adapted for the role it plays in nature, capturing and eating other insects - some twice its size.

Right here I have to pause and discuss this "bug" business - and give you one of my favorite axioms: "Not all insects are bugs, but all bugs are insects."

For most people, an "insect" is a "bug." But that isn't really so. A beetle is NOT a bug. A dragonfly is NOT a bug, and neither is a grasshopper, ant lion, or tick. A bug - a "True Bug" - is a horse of another color.

To be classified as a "bug" an insect most often has a definable "x" pattern on it's back, appears sort of flattened, and has mouth parts modified for sucking juices out of animals and plants.

This is the best time of year to go out and find ambush bugs. Get the kids way from the tube, cell phones and computers; grab up your old butterfly nets and head out to do some sweep-netting.

Go out in the yard (or field) where the grass is up to your knees and walk through it slowly swinging the net side to side, flipping it as you go so everything that's there falls into the maw. I defy you to look inside the net without asking, "What in the heck is that?!"

There will be things you have never seen. There will be animals and objects hopping, creeping, flying and hiding. Unless you have taken a course in entomology and arachnology you won't know most of what you're looking at, and if there's an ambush bug in the lot you won't recognize it either. Ahhh, but one of your kids will ask, "Hey, dad (or mom), what is that thing? It has legs, but it looks like a flower petal (or pebble, or piece of bark, or whatever)."

At that moment you will enter one of the most fascinating places on this beautiful old planet we all share: The world of arthropods. What a grand time you'll have - I promise!

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