Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The predatory red assassin bug

The red assassin bug belongs to a large family of predatory insects which have an elongated head, narrowed neck and long legs. They also have a prominent tube which they use for sucking the liquidised contents of their prey. The family consists of about 7,000 species found in most parts of the world including Europe, North and South America and Africa. Twelve species are found in the Maltese islands. The red assassin bug, known in Maltese as seffud tal-assalt is the most common and easily recognised species.
This species can often be found waiting for its prey underneath the flowers of a number of summer-flowering plants especially fennel (busbies), samphire (xorbett) and fleabane (tulliera).
I photographed this specimen last Sunday at Fiddien Valley near Rabat. It had just caught a small bee as it was visiting the flowers of a sticky fleabane (tulliera komuni). The bug inserted its segmented proboscis in the space between the head and the thorax to inject it with a lethal toxin that dissolves its tissue. It then starts to suck up the liquefied tissues through its long proboscis. This process takes several minutes and so I had enough time to take several pictures of the bug as it was feeding.
Assassin bugs are aggressive insects and sometimes capture insects that are larger than themselves. They manage to subdue and kill them by means of their poisonous saliva. Some species of assassin bug feed on cockroaches or bedbugs. Some are beneficial to agriculture as they attack insect pests. In some parts of the world people breed assassin bugs as pets or for insect control.
Some species are notorious for biting humans and one species found mostly in South America can transmit the potentially fatal Chagas disease. (This article was published in The Times on 25.08.2010)

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