The Fascinating (and Scary) Assassin Bugs

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Wheel Assassin Bug

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Assassin bugs are not nature’s deadliest killers. However, they’re definitely among the scariest. These creepy creatures would make your skin crawl by the very mention of their name. That is once you know what they’re capable of. They are the stuff of nightmares. Proficient in camouflage, stealth, as well as quickly murdering and consuming their victims. these majestic creatures are the scourge of their prey and predators alike.

Characteristics of the Assassin Bugs

Assassin Bug

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Assassin bugs are commonly regarded in the scientific community with their Latin name. It’s Reduviidae, which we’re pretty sure is Latin for “psychotic killer”. A family in the order of Hemiptera. This has to be one of the creepiest families nature has to offer. There are over 7,000 species of assassin bug all over the world! Including more than 300 in Australia. Not all of them are equally terrifying (some definitely more than others), and most of them are predators. Since they share the same family, there are other obvious similarities between them.

One of these similarities is called the rostrum. It’s a hard, elongated, beak-like structure on their heads. Most insects equipped with it use it to munch on plants. Not assassin bugs, though – they use it to mercilessly inject their prey with a paralysing toxin. A toxin, which also begins to liquefy the insides of the poor victim while it can’t do anything about it. It’s a slow, agonising death.

The rostrum hides the maxillae. Most assassin bugs are able to start feasting as soon as they inject the victim with their paralysing agent and digestive juice, using the rostrum as a straw. Before the victim realises it, the feast has already begun. The toxin is so potent, it’s perfectly capable of killing and liquefying unfortunate prey several times larger than the assassin.

How The Assassin Bugs Operate

Reduviidae_camouflaged_with_debris

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Assassin bugs are predators and have natural predatory instincts. As much as we can talk about instincts in an insectoid, that is. They are experts in using different kinds of camouflage in order to avoid detection by their poor, unsuspecting lunch.

Different species use different stealth techniques. Some Australian assassin bugs have no problem using common debris in order to conceal their presence. The pieces often serve to hide their smell, not just the appearance. This is a convenient evolutionary advantage, considering the fact many insects use their sense of smell to navigate the environment, communicate, and avoid slow, excruciating death at the rostrum of the insect equivalent of Freddy Krueger. It must be weird to be killed by what you considered to be just a part of the landscape only three regretful seconds ago.

And what else?

Assassin bug with ant armour

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Others, like the Malaysian Acanthaspis petax, use the corpses of their fallen victims as a natural defence against their own predators and an invisibility field against the unsuspecting future armour ornaments. One moment an ant is wondering why Bob isn’t saying “hi”, the other it’s right there, stuck next to him, used to lure another one to be marginalised.

As they’re covered in ant corpses (it’s been found they only use ant remnants for their armour), these assassin bugs are 10 times less likely to be attacked by their own natural predators. The exoskeletal carcases of the ants also give out distinctive pheromones, which fools the other little buggers into thinking the huge, hulking beast that’s about to devour their viscera is actually a friend.

It’s become pretty apparent the assassins bugs do not bear their name ironically. They are used to stalking and ambushing their victims, rather than experiencing the thrill of the hunt.

Relationship to Humans

Kissing bugAssassin bugs aren’t particularly fond of humans. We’re big, we’re bad, we kill them for a variety of reasons (not the least of which is the fact that they’re disgusting), and they can’t use our insides as a protein shake. That’s why for the most part we’re safe from them. Aside from the occasional painful bite, we don’t have much to worry about. Unless there’s some sort of assassin bug that can crawl up on our faces, painlessly bite us, then poop and disappear… Wait, there are such bugs?!

Rightfully named “kissing bugs”, these silent assassins are much sneakier than their more aggressive relatives. Their speciality is making their way to our faces and sucking blood from our lips (hence the name). The process is completely painless. You won’t even know it happened. However, very often as they eat, they also poop. As disgusting as a bug defecating on your face sounds, the end result is even direr. This way, the little buggers are spreading Chagas disease, which we assume is Portuguese for “world of hurt”. Generally, Australians are safe from this because the infection is most widely spread in South and Central America, so we have something to be grateful for. Not that we don’t have enough things here trying to kill us, but at least the assassin bug’s kiss of death isn’t one of them.

Is There a Benefit to Assassin Bugs?

Assassin bug

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There is one use of these creepy crawlies people have found, so it’s not all bad. Like in the movies, a psychopath can be put to good use with the proper… motivation (James Bond, Suicide Squad, Dexter). Because assassin bugs are natural predators to many an insectoid vermin, they are sometimes used as a natural form of pest control. Some people even adopt them as pets and take care of them. There are entire species bred for that very purpose. All those horror movies we’ve watched are telling us this is not such a hot idea.

It’s troubling how much diversity can be found among these little killers. The way they hunt their prey. The tools they use. And their abilities are specifically evolved for adaptation in that environment. Nature can be scary!

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