Yesterday my eye was caught by a strange red, black and white creature moving on a kaffir lime leaf. It took me a few moments to recognise it as an assassin bug nymph. The ones I usually see on the citrus trees in our garden have a red or orange abdomen, long thin legs, and a thin head that seems to consist entirely of eyes, long antennae, and a huge proboscis. They look like this:
Assassin bugs are ambush predators, using their powerful proboscis first to stab a victim, then to drain it of nutrients. (That stabbing proboscis is also why they shouldn’t be handled without gloves.) However the one I saw yesterday looked more like a bug version of Santa Claus than a predator:
My guess is that the white fluff on this bug was the result of an ambush on either mealybugs or cryptolaemus ladybird larvae. Either would be a source of white fluff, as shown in the image below of a cryptolaemus larva enjoying a mealybug dinner.
When I first saw it, the assassin bug seemed to be focusing on cleaning itself up while wandering along. But when a flatid leafhopper came into view, the bug started a slow stalk, ignoring the occasional ant nearby.
Five minutes later it was nearly within striking distance, and had raised its antennae and proboscis in preparation.
Moving even more slowly, the bug took another 7 minutes to get to the point where its proboscis was poised over the flatid’s head.
And then “click!” - the leafhopper finally woke up to its danger, and hopped away. The assassin bug had missed out.
To add insult to injury, the little ant next to the hapless bug proceeded to climb up its front leg.
Further insult was added when the ant was joined by one of its mates (its antennae are just visible below the bug’s front legs), before both departed in search of more promising food.
The bug also headed off, still slowly cleaning itself.
Footnote: Assassin bugs are members of the Reduviidae family within the order Hemiptera or true bugs. I'm not certain which species are pictured here.
Some species in this family are known to camouflage themselves with bits of prey or other debris, and it’s possible that this bug had picked up the white fluff for this reason. If so, it was not a very successful camouflage.
North Sydney – my home suburb – holds Sydney’s second largest CBD. However its parks and bushland areas, and those of neighbouring councils such as Willoughby, host a surprising variety of native flora and fauna. These bush areas are maintained by dedicated council staff, often working with local resident volunteers.