Murder ‘midst the Mint

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Filed under Outdoor Notes

July 29, 2012

It was a sultry hot summer’s day in late July. The air was redolent of the spicy cool odor of spearmint that filled the wet corner of the garden. Cicadas played their shrill instruments in the surrounding trees, and a light breeze stirred the purple spires of the mint flowers.

Love was in the air.

[Updated on 29 July 2012]

Wedge-shaped Beetles (Macrosiagon limbata), mating

Wedge-shaped Beetles (Macrosiagon limbata), mating

So was murder.

The flowers of mint draw myriad pollinators, especially, bees and wasps. There are bumblebees and tiny metallic cuckoo wasps. Most of the wasps I cannot identify. I offer three here as possible identifications, but I sure could be wrong.

Thread-waisted Wasp (Ammophila spp.)

Thread-waisted Wasp (Ammophila spp–probably procera.)

Four-toothed Mason Wasp (Monobia quadridens)

Four-toothed Mason Wasp (Monobia quadridens)

Tiphiid Wasp (Myzinum spp. probably carolinianum)

Tiphiid Wasp (Myzinum spp. probably carolinianum)

I am, however, pretty darn good with yellowjackets (if I do say so myself), and this is a Common Aerial Yellowjacket (Dolichovespula arenaria). This yellowjacket was very cooperative; it just kept hanging there while I clicked away, photo after photo.1

Downy Yellowjacket (Vespula flavopilosa)

Downy Yellowjacket (Vespula flavopilosa)


When viewed from another angle, however, this yellowjacket had a health problem.

Yellowjacket caught by Jagged Ambush Bug

Yellowjacket caught by Jagged Ambush Bug

It was dying in the grasp of an ambush bug, to be more precise, a Jagged Ambush Bug of the genus Phymata.

Jagged Ambush Bugs are ubiquitous this time of year, and just about every other cluster of flowers harbors one—sometimes two.

They are renowned for preying on bees and wasps, many much larger than themselves.2

Jagged Ambush Bugs are marvelously well camouflaged. As the name implies, they hunt by ambush, unmoving on the spikes of goldenrod and mint, lurking in the bright parasols of Queen Anne’s Lace.3

Their murderous modus operandi is to grab and stab.

They have large raptorial front legs, the better to grab things with, and their mouthparts form a straw-like piercing structure called a rostrum.

Jagged Ambush Bug

Note the Popeyesque raptorial front leg.

They stab the rostrum into their victim and inject a fast-acting paralytic. This is a dual-purpose poison. Not only does it quell the poor victim, it also dissolves the internal organs into a soup that the ambush bug sucks up as through a straw.

Jagged Ambush bug with prey

This bee has been stabbed in the joint between body segments.

It’s rough out there.

So, I know it’s a Jagged Ambush Bug, but lo, there are, according to the incomparable BugGuide, several suspects: Phymata fasciata, Phymata americana, and Phymata pennsylvanica

I had to go back for better pictures.

The shape of the abdomen seems to be diagnostic.  I believe these are, appropriately enough—Pennsylvania Ambush Bugs (Phymata pennsylvanica).

Meanwhile, the mayhem continues, but love is still in the air.

Jagged Ambush Bugs mating

The eye of the beholder indeed.

  1. I originally misidentified this as a Downy Yellowjacket (Vespula flavopilosa). Apparently I am not as good at yellowjackets as I thought. Thanks to Ben Coulter of BugGuide for pointing out my error. []
  2. Beekeepers dislike Jagged Ambush Bugs. []
  3. They also can ‘sing.’ See this marvelous blog by Piotr Naskrecki: []

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