Predators Lurking Everywhere

Every kid has a bug period… I never grew out of mine.

~E.O. Wilson

After the climbing Copperhead incident over the weekend, I have been looking around more than usual every time I am outside. What I have discovered is that it is a jungle out there! Everywhere I look I see small critters feeding on the profusion of plants that seem to want to take over the few sunny spots in the yard. And where there are plant-eaters, there are plant-eater eaters, tiny predators lurking in almost every nook and cranny.

Spider shed 1

Spider shed (click photos to enlarge)

Even when I don’t see the predator itself, I find evidence of their success in their shed skins, a sure sign that hunting has gone well.

Orange Jumper - Paraphidippus aurantius

Orange Jumper – Paraphidippus aurantius

One of my favorite groups of yard wolves are the jumping spiders. They always provide a challenge in photography because of their tendency to jump onto the camera lens as you close in for the shot.

Orange Jumper - Paraphidippus aurantius 1

Male Orange Jumper

This male Orange Jumper let me follow him around for several minutes with my macro lens. He was methodically searching the leaves and stems in a patch of wildflowers, no doubt searching for any unwary prey items. Jumping spiders are much like tigers of the spider world. They do not build webs to catch their prey but rather use their impressive eyesight and jumping ability to stalk prey and then leap on it. But occasionally those big eyes can get fooled. I watched this little guy stalk a stamen that had fallen from one of the flowers, approach it, and then leap on it from about two inches away before realizing it wasn’t really an item on the spider menu.

Spined Assasin Bug - Sinea diadema 1

Spined Assassin Bug nymph – Sinea diadema

I found a tiny creature waiting near the disk of one of the Brown-eyed Susan flowers. When I looked closely, I could see it was covered in short spines. I believe this is a nymph of the aptly-named Spined Assassin Bug. These tiny predators are in the family Reduviidae, members of the order Hemiptera, which also includes stink bugs, leaf-footed bugs, and other insects. These spiky little beasts have raptorial front legs that are used much like those of a praying mantis, to grab and hold their prey. Then they insert their three-segmented beak into it, inject a venom, and suck out the partially digested body fluids.

Spined Assasin Bug - Sinea diadema

Another Spined Assassin Bug nymph

Another assassin bug nymph had what looked like the white waxy filaments of a Flatid Planthopper nymph on its front leg spines, perhaps some leftovers of a recent meal.

Flatid Planthoppers

Flatid Planthopper adults

These planthoppers have been very abundant on numerous plants in my yard this summer. Many are now transforming to the winged adult phase and are providing food for a variety of predators.

Orchard spider with prey

Orb weaver spider with planthopper prey

I have found several trapped by web-building spiders, both large and small.

Variable Dancer Damselfly (female) eating Planthopper

Variable Dancer Damselfly (female) eating Planthopper

One of the most delicate predators is one on the wing, a dainty beauty, a damselfly. Damselflies slowly patrol vegetation looking for prey. They then dart in and grab it and begin to feed. This Variable Dancer nabbed a planthopper and flew to a nearby iris leaf to dine.

Variable Dancer eating planthopper 1

Closeup of a damselfly meal

Though dainty in appearance, the damselfly is an efficient predator. She made short work of the planthopper before flying off to hunt again. And so it goes, miniature hunters and the hunted, in a constant dance in the jungle outside the door. There is always something to see and learn. We should never outgrow our bug period.