My garden. It’s a classroom. I’ve long been a teacher, but in this particular classroom I am the student. And I give thanks for the daily lessons. In fact, this past week, I’ve given thanks for hours on end as I’ve done my usual stalking, I mean research.
It all began when I started to circle one garden, that is hardly a work of art because I welcome all who grow there, especially several species of goldenrods, their composite flowers offering rays of sunshine on any summer day.
I knew I was in luck when I spied this flower fly . . . that wasn’t flying. That could mean only one thing.
Ambush Bugs were in the area. And indeed they were. So . . . this pair of Jagged Ambush Bugs wasn’t canoodling as some of you probably think. One of the lessons I learned is that this is a prelude to the actual event, where their bodies face each other.
While the Ambush Bugs were busy getting to know each other better on the flowers above, closer to my knees a Bumble Bee buzzed in to gather some pollen and nectar from Giant Blue Lobelia flowers. Another lesson, that gets reinforced each year, is that If one stands still for a long period of time, the bees and wasps and other insects will fly in and out and leave you alone.
And when one looks up again, you’ll discover that the male Ambush Bug was still wooing the female. He’s the smaller, darker insect on top of her. Still another lesson is that when they are in this position, and, mind you, they don’t stay still, his antennae quiver with what I interpret as excitement. I’m sure it has some more scientific meaning or purpose, like maybe he was sending out a signal to her to stay with him or to other males to stay away, but still, how fast did those antennae move.
In the same garden does Turtlehead grow, and I knew it had a visitor when I heard a loud buzz as a Bumble Bee rustled about inside. This plant gets its common name from the flower’s long arching upper lip, or hood, which overlaps the lower lip like a turtle’s beak, minus the eyes of course.
Some say Bumble Bees exit Turtlehead head first but my experience is that they back out of the tight flower. Since this was very near the Ambush Bugs, I thought for sure they’d take a break from their canoodling preparation and try to capture a large meal.
They did not. And then when another flower fly bumped into them, I thought this would be the moment of separation. It was not. Though Ambush Bugs will feed while in this position, or at least the female might, what I observed over the course of five days is that they never did. I also noted that other insects frequently nudged them or came close to doing so, but quickly flew off. Perhaps they sensed danger?
As for the wooers, at about 6:00 on the morning after I first started stalking the goldenrods, I saw that they were still in their pre-nuptial position. At least I assumed it was the same two for it was the same spot and I’d last spotted them at about 7:00 the night before.
While it seemed all they could think about was their progeny, I kept thinking that they needed energy. There were so many options for food, from the black Midas Fly to the green Sweat Fly, but in the moments that I watched, and they were many, none of these became food.
Watching so many different species visit the flowers, I wondered if an Ambush Bug, which I knew could fly, though they seldom did, would attack in flight. But I learned that is not how they operate.
Instead, they wait. And sometimes walk about upon the flowers, perhaps in search of the right spot from which to attack. This is the female with her light colored face.
Notice her front legs, shaped as they are to capture prey, with a pincer that snaps back toward the second larger segment when in action. They remind me a bit of lobster claws.
And this is a male with his much darker suit and head. With those beady little eyes, it’s amazing that they can see insects twice or more their size. Or maybe that’s why they go for larger victims.
The more time I spent watching, the more it was reinforced that an on-the-fly capture was not going to occur. Even still, I kept encouraging such an attempt because it seemed to me that they don’t eat often.
The offerings continued to be plentiful each time I took a spin around and through the garden, but still, since first finding that skeleton of a body that started my quest to watch for more action, I hadn’t seen any evidence of a meal consumed.
And then. And then. And then, no not a meal. Well, maybe not a meal in that moment, but in flew something that I saw out of the corner of my eye and then couldn’t locate.
The Katydid’s camouflage was perfect, even better than that of the Ambush Bugs. Growing up in southern New England, I used to fall asleep to their Katydid songs, but here in western Maine I seldom see or hear one.
Back to the Ambush Bugs, another lesson I’ve learned before but that was reinforced is the fact that they don’t hang out just on Goldenrods, though their camo is certainly better on that flowerhead than on the False Dragonhead. Actually, the Ambush Bug looks more like a dragonhead than the flower does. But I can’t take credit for naming any species. Yet.
Watching the male Ambush Bug proved to be humorous for me, for he always seemed to have his back to any incoming insects such as this hover fly.
Maybe he saw the Bumble Bee approach?
But again, he turned his back on a potential meal.
Even as it drew closer.
Once the bee took off, the Ambush Bug turned again and I had to wonder if it questioned its positioning. Probably not as I’m not sure such a critter can question anything, but if I were an Ambush Bug, I’d like to think I would have done so.
Finally, on day three of my observations, I discovered a successful female. With those claw-like front legs, she’d captured her prey and pierced its body with her beak-like proboscis.
First she injected saliva into the victim’s body and paralyzed it. The fluid also broke down the interior organs and muscles, thus extending the abdomen of her prey. Then she sucked out those succulent digested innards. Yum!
It’s a process that takes time. And given her overall length of about a half inch, it’s impressive that she can take down bigger insect.
Interestingly, once I found one meal being consumed, on the same plant I began to find several.
The other curious thing was that all the predators seemed to be females. That doesn’t mean the males don’t eat, and I’ll certainly keep looking, but it was interesting to note.
Today, on that same plant, I found two meals being consumed that gave a sense that Ambush Bugs really do hide within the flowers before making their ambush. If you look closely you should spy the legs of a fly in the center, and a moth dangling on the right.
Class isn’t over, for I’ll certainly continue to observe and learn and eventually I’ll have conquered my ABCs. Or at least my ABs, thanks to the Ambush Bugs.