Assassin Bug

Insect

The assassin bug’s aliases – for instance, conenose bug, walapai tiger, bed bug, wheel bug, thread-legged bug, kissing bug – reflect the insect’s multiple personalities, making it a perfect villain for a James Bond film.  Depending on the species, this bloodthirsty bug may prey not only on other insects but also on reptiles, birds or mammals, including humans.


Assassin bug on a creosote bush

Typically, an assassin bug, which may look almost armor plated, like a medieval knight, measures a fraction of an inch to an inch and a half in length with a color ranging from brownish to black.  It has a generally oval, but sometimes a considerably elongated, shape, according to Borror and White.  It has antenna with four segments and a three-segmented tube-like beak that it folds into a groove beneath its throat.  Equipped with thickened forelegs, the bug can snap them together like spring-loaded clamps to catch insect prey.  Threatened by other predators such as certain reptiles or birds, some assassin bug species defend themselves by using their beaks to squirt their venom, from a foot away, at their attacker’s eyes and nose, causing extreme irritation.  If its stream strikes a human’s eyes, it can cause temporary blindness. 

Widely distributed across the Southwest, the assassin bug that preys on insects tends to hang around foliage, and the species that prey on vertebrate animals may invade burrows, nests, dens and human bedrooms.  The female lays her eggs in the fall, primarily in secreted crevices and cracks.  The nymph hatches in the spring, looking much like a miniature adult.  After several molts, it emerges as a full-grown assassin bug, ready to ply its trade. 

The species that prey on insects may stalk and attack or simply ambush their victims.  The assassin bug drives its beak like a dagger into its victim’s body, injecting “a very toxic, or poisonous, liquid that affects the nerves and liquefies the muscles and tissues…” according to the From Amazing Insects Internet site.  “...prey many times their size can be quickly overcome.  Once the insides of the prey are turned into a liquid, the assassin bug uses its [beak] to suck out the liquefied tissues in much the same way we use a straw to drink a milkshake!”  The assassin bug’s toxin can kill a much larger insect in a matter of seconds.  It discards its victim’s carcass with disdain.  The assassin bug may also deliver a painful bite, in self defense, if carelessly handled by a human.

The species that prey on the blood of vertebrate animals feed not only on wildlife (especially pack rats) but also on domesticated animals and pets, and, sometimes, they may help themselves to human blood.  The assassin bug usually comes under the cover of darkness, stealthily, invading a person’s bed, looking for exposed flesh, usually the face, especially the tender flesh around the eyelids, ears or lips (ready to deliver an ominous “kiss”).  In a Utah State University Extension Entomology fact sheet, insect diagnostician Alan H. Roe, said that as an assassin bug delivers a bite, it injects a anesthetic, rendering the wound virtually painless, and it injects an anticoagulant, assuring free blood flow.  In the Dermatology Online Journal, Rick Vetter said that the insect, typically, would feed for 8 to 15 minutes.  It may cause an especially sensitive person to suffer symptoms such as violent itching, breathlessness, nausea, heart palpitation and even unconsciousness, said Roe.  In Latin America, the bite sometimes leads to Chaga’s disease, a form of sleeping sickness, although that is rare in the United States.  The assassin bug is a villain worthy of James Bond.

by Jay W. Sharp

More...
Insects and Spiders of The Desert Regions
Discover The World Of Insects
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