With the return of spectacular autumn weather, it is time to visit the meadow where autumn’s wildflowers are glorious. Among the most beautiful of our native wildflowers are the goldenrods and asters. They are frequented by a dazzling array of showy pollinators such as butterflies, bees, and beetles. However, a closer look at flower heads reveals several denizens engaged in life and death games of hide and seek. On a recent trip to the meadow, I was surprised to see a wasp dangling motionless on a blossom of boneset. An exploratory poke revealed that the wasp was dead. Attached to the victim was one of the stealthiest members of the flower-blossom gang, the jagged ambush bug.
This tiny monster is cousin to the wheel bug (LINK SEPT 26, 2010) we met a few weeks ago, but unlike the slow moving wheel bug, the ambush bug sits and waits motionless for hours. When an unsuspecting bee or wasp lands within range of the predator, death soon follows. A lightning-fast flick of powerful raptorial forelegs locks the victim in a death grip. With a victim in its grasp, the ambush bug inserts its stout beak into the body of the prey, injects saliva, and sucks out blood and liquefied body tissues. The immature stages of the ambush bugs are also predators and kill a wide range of visitors to flowers in the meadow. An irregular body outline and beautiful patchwork of colors help ambush bugs match the flowers and foliage of plants on which they hide. One ambush bug on a creamy boneset sported delicate shades of whites and browns, while patches of yellow, green, and brown enabled another to disappear on a panicle of goldenrod.
The ambush bug depends on camouflage to capture its prey, but camouflage is also the game played by less defended insects to escape from hungry predators. Caterpillars are among the favorite foods of birds and many insects that hunt visually. On a browning spray of goldenrod beneath a cloak of withered flowers, a camouflaged looper, Synclora aerata, performed a herky-jerky waltz as it fed among the flowers. This little trickster gathers pieces of vegetation and arranges them on its back much the same way soldiers incorporate leaves and branches into their camouflaged uniforms to hide from the enemy.
The spasmodic movement of the looper added to the illusion of a plant part gyrating in the wind. Camouflaged loopers eat many types of flowers including ageratum, aster, black-eyed Susan, boneset, daisy, goldenrod, ragweed, raspberry, rose, sage, St. John’s wort, and yarrow. Now is a great time to visit your nearest meadow for a look at these masters of disguise before they disappear in preparation for the big chill.