Assassin Bugs, the Insect World's Most Cunning Killers

Predators That Trick Their Prey

may be the most cunning killers in the insect world. Some assassin bugs specialize in certain kinds of prey, and employ all kinds of trickery to capture a meal.

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Bee Assassins

A pair of mating bee assassins, Apiomerus spissipes.
A pair of mating bee assassins, Apiomerus spissipes. Photo: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,

Bee killers use a clever method of catching their favorite prey, bees. The bee assassins collect plant resin on their front legs, and then use the sticky substance to grab and hold bees. Bee killers belong to the subfamily Harpactorinae.

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Backpack Bugs

A West African assassin bug tricks both prey and predators by wearing a backpack made of dead bugs. The nymph piles the remains of its meals – ants, termites, and flies – on its back, attaching them with a sticky secretion. The heap of debris, which can be larger than the assassin bug itself, confuses its predators. Should a spider or millipede decide to taste the odd-looking insect, the assassin nymph will shed its backpack and escape. The backpack made of bugs also confuses the assassin's prey, probably by masking the scent of the lethal stalker as it approaches the unsuspecting insect.

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Ant-Luring Assassins

Certain assassin bugs in Asia and Australia exhibit a preference for ants. The assassin bugs possess a special structure on their abdomens, from which it secretes a sugary substance. The predator positions itself in a place where ants will pass by, and waits. When an ant appears, it rears up and displays its belly, complete with the ant-attracting sugar. What the ant doesn't know is that the tasty bug secretion also contains a tranquilizer that will quickly render it motionless. Once the ant collapses, the assassin bug enjoys a meal. These ant-luring assassins belong to the subfamily Holoptilinae.

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Masked Hunters

Masked hunter nymphs camouflage themselves with dust, hair, and other debris.
Masked hunter nymphs camouflage themselves with dust, hair, and other debris. Photo: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,

The masked hunter looks something like a walking dust bunny, because it is. Also called the masked bed bug hunter, this assassin bug nymph will disguise itself by picking up debris, from dust to dead bugs, and sticking the trash all over its body. This assassin likes to eat bed bugs, but will feast on nearly any similar insect it finds. And lest you think you've found the solution to the recent rise in bed bug infestations, no, the masked hunter isn't considered a viable form of household pest control.

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Termite-Feeding Assassins

Assassin bugs that crave termites use a bit of trickery to lure their prey. In an effort to keep the place tidy, termite workers will eat the bodies of dead co-workers, which are also a convenient source of protein. The predatory assassins use this to their advantage. They paste bits of the termite nest onto their backs for camouflage. Then, they collect termite carcasses to use as bait. The assassin bugs dangle the dead termites outside the entrance of the termite nest. When hungry workers emerge to investigate, they walk right into the trap.

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Thread-Legged Bugs

Thread-legged bugs look like tiny walking sticks, with front legs similar to praying mantids. These insects are neither, though – they belong to the assassin bug family. Most thread-legged bugs are quite small, and light enough to walk on spider webs undetected. In fact, they sometimes use this skill to their advantage, sneaking onto webs when the spider isn't looking and stealing meals of its captured prey. The opportunistic thread-legged bugs belong to the subfamily Emesinae.

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Ambush Bugs

Ambush bugs lie in wait on flowers, and use their thick front legs to grab prey when it lands.
Ambush bugs lie in wait on flowers, and use their thick front legs to grab prey when it lands. Photo: Susan Ellis,

Ambush bugs do just that – they ambush their prey. Once considered a separate family from the assassin bugs, they have thicker front legs and tend to be stockier than their Reduviid cousins. Ambush bugs site motionless on flowers, waiting for a bee or butterfly to land. When one does, the ambush bug pounces quickly, grabbing the prey in its strong front legs. Some ambush bugs even look a bit like withering flower petals.