No assassinations today! But an "assassination attempt."
There it was, a leafhopper assassin bug, Zelus renardii, waiting for prey atop a Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifola in a Vacaville pollinator garden. Yes, it's native to North America.
The assassin bugs, family Reduviidae, are ambush predators. When they ambush a predator, they stab it with their rostrum, inject venom, and suck out the juices. Or as UC Berkeley entomologists Jerry Powell and Charles Hogue write in their book, California Insects, "The victims, which include all kinds of insects, are snatched by quick movements of the forelegs, and immediately subdued by a powerful venom injected through the beak."
UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) says that "Assassin bug adults and nymphs (immatures) have an elongate head and body and long legs. The narrow head has rounded, beady eyes and long, hinged, needlelike mouthparts. Adults and nymphs can walk rapidly when disturbed or capturing prey. Adults tend not to fly."
"Assassin bugs can occur on almost any terrestrial plant including row and tree crops and gardens and landscapes. All species are predators of invertebrates or true parasites of vertebrates," UC IPM relates. "Most assassin bugs feed on insects including caterpillars, larvae of leaf beetles and sawflies, and adults and nymphs of other true bugs. Nymphs and adults ambush or stalk prey, impale them with their tubular mouthparts, inject venom, and suck the body contents. Zelus renardii produces a sticky material that helps it adhere to plant surfaces and ensnare prey."
Some 7000 species of assassin bugs reside throughout the world. When they feed on such agricultural pests as fleahoppers, lygus bugs, aphids, caterpillar eggs and larvae, they are considered biological control agents.
However, "assassin bugs are not considered to be important in the biological control of pests, unlike predatory groups such as bigeyed bugs and minute pirate bugs," UC IPM says. "Assassin bugs are general predators and also feed on bees, lacewings, lady beetles, and other beneficial species. Certain species feed on the blood of birds, mammals, or reptiles, including conenose bugs and kissing bugs (Reduviidae: Triatominae)."
The one we saw today?
A long-horned bee, Melissodes agilis, stopped for a sip of nectar, spotted the assassin bug, and buzzed off, leaving only its shadow behind.
So here's this Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae, nectaring on a Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifola.
It's National Pollinator Week. All's right with the world. The butterfly had visited a passionflower vine, Passiflora, its host plant.
Now for a little fuel. The nectar is enticing. The Gulf Frit flutters from flower to flower.
And then...it's targeted.
Get off my flower, that's mine! A very territorial male long-horned bee, Melissodes agilis, buzzes past, trying to dislodge the butterfly. Then another male appears. And another.
What's going on? Like frenzied kamikaze pilots, the males patrol the flowers, dive-bombing and dislodging any temporary tenants, in hopes of saving the nectar for the females of their species. And to mate with them.
After four attacks, the Gulf Frit decides the nectar is not worth it.
Hey, the sun's up! It's time to rise and shine! Maybe I'll shine before I rise...or maybe I'll...
Anyway, I just woke up, and I'm starting to stir. I'm ready to conquer the day. I shall
- Sip nectar
- Seek girlfriend
- Guard the flower patch by dive-bombing and chasing off all critters.
The scenario: a male longhorned bee, Melissodes agilis, has just spent the night sleeping--and quite cozily at that--on a Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifola.
He is Boy Bee With the Green Mesmerizing Eyes.
Boy Bee With the Green Mesmerizing Eyes does not know--nor would he care if he could--that today is the beginning of National Pollinator Week, an international annual event celebrating pollinator health.
According to the Pollinator Partnership, "pollination is a vital stage in the life cycle of all flowering plants. When pollen is moved within a flower or carried from one flower to another of the same species it leads to fertilization. This transfer of pollen is necessary for healthy and productive native and agricultural ecosystems." It's crucial to our ecosystem.
As the Pollinator Partnership says on its website:
- "About 75 percent of all flowering plant species need the help of animals to move their heavy pollen grains from plant to plant for fertilization."
- "About 1,000 of all pollinators are vertebrates such as birds, bats, and small mammals."
- "Most pollinators (about 200,000 species) are beneficial insects such as flies, beetles, wasps, ants, butterflies, moths, and bees."
But back to Boy Bee With the Mesmerizing Green Eyes.
Noted bee expert, the late Robbin Thorp, a UC Davis distinguished emeritus professor of entomology and co-author of California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday), used to talk about these little guys bullying all the floral tenants--from honey bees to syrphid flies to butterflies to lady beetles--and more.
Boy, do they move fast. A good time to photograph them is when they're sleeping or just waking up. Otherwise, try to capture images of them at a shutter speed of about 1/5000 of a second.
Happy Beginning of National Pollinator Week!
If you've ever tried to photograph male long-horned bees, Melissodes agilis, you know how fast they can fly and how quick they can dart.
They fly even faster when they're chasing the females of their species.
It was the last day of June. I was watching the female long-horned bees foraging on the Mexican sunflowers, Tithonia rotundifola, in our garden, and the territorial males targeting all "unwelcomed" visitors (honey bees, carpenter bees, and syrphid flies) and chasing prospective mates.
The University of California-affiliated authors of the book, California Bees and Blooms: A Buide For Gardeners and Naturalists, say it well: They "fly wildly around gardens looking for mates and stop occasionally to take a sip of nectar from flowers."
Yes, they do fly wildly--and you need a fast shutter speed to photograph them.
I set the shutter-speed of my camera, a Nikon D500 with a 200mm macro lens, at 1/8000 of a second. Other settings: f-stop 5, and ISO, 800.
Here they come! There they go.
Where DID they go?
At 1/8000 of a second, you can stop the action. You can stop time. You cannot, however, stop a determined suitor from chasing a mate. They don't slow down.
One point about insect wedding photography is that you don't need an invitation to attend. You just have to keep your distance and not disturb the bridal couple. No sudden movements. No stressful impatience. And no camera flash, please.
It helps, though, if you grow the host plant so a bride and a groom will show up. In this case, we grew passionflower vine (Passiflora), the host plant of the Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae).
One morning we saw a butterfly eclose from her chrysalis. Wedding Day! Within minutes, a male suitor arrived.
They became a couple.
Then unexpected guests arrived...a hungry caterpillar munching on the leaves and a second prospective suitor (PS) (rejected) and a third PS (rejected) and a fourth PS (rejected).
PS, leave them alone!
When the "ceremony" ended, the couple simply left. One sipped nectar from the nearby Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifola. The other flew over the fence.
Soon we'll have more eggs, more caterpillars, more chrysalids, and more adults.
Life is like that when you're growing Passiflora and hoping for a Wedding Day.